Mikel Arteta praises diverse Arsenal attack and ‘ability to score in many different ways’ after 5-0 goal-fest

LONDON — As everyone has been so keen to remind Mikel Arteta this month, and as he himself acknowledged this afternoon, Arsenal do not have an apex predator in the mold of Erling Haaland and Mohamed Salah. That might be a contributory factor to the winless month they ended today, a run of results that may also prove to be the difference between them winning the Premier League title and not.

The best of the best forwards, the sort who are rarely if ever available in a midseason transfer window, may be the missing piece for Arsenal on some days, but  after this rattling 5-0 win over Crystal Palace,  a result like this is a reminder that the norm is rather different. If you create as many good chances as the Gunners did against Liverpool and West Ham in disappointing results, then the goals will come. Sometimes they might even arrive in a torrent, as they did in the closing stages on Saturday, particularly when you have so many ways in which you can undo your opponent.

All that tumultuous transfer talk has eased, if not been silenced,. Arsenal are hardly the perfect attack, and there is still a convincing argument to be made that Mikel Arteta has overcompensated for last season’s defensive deficiencies, that the incorporation of Kai Havertz has stymied the left flank to such an extent that Bukayo Saka and Martin Odegaard are overburdened on the right.

There is still a case to be made that Arsenal look more like a high grade cup team than one who can claim top spot in the Premier League. In the Pep Guardiola era, the formula for an English champions is obliterating variance by running in three or four goals, of late scored by the sort of “30-40 goals” forward that Arteta acknowledged Arsenal don’t have, but Manchester City and Liverpool certainly do. Defenses like William Saliba, Declan Rice and Gabriel (the latter two limped out of today’s victory in worrying news with the visit of Liverpool on the horizon) are perhaps better suited to the Champions League.

This game offered a counterpoint to any Premier League skepticism, an argument that Arsenal are still capable of killing those teams that give them space. That much they proved in the second half, Gabriel Martinelli scoring the same goal twice in the space of 102 seconds, following on from a rifling move that saw David Raya, Gabriel Jesus and Leandro Trossard turn a Palace corner into an Arsenal goal in the blink of an eye. At the start of last season these goals were ten a penny at the Emirates Stadium; opponents didn’t quite appreciate the damage that this burgeoning young side could do. That is no longer the case and not until Palace opened up in pursuit of parity did Arsenal carve them apart.

“We have the ability to score in many different ways,” said Arteta, “especially when you are attacking low blocks, to score in this certain way, everything has to be nailed absolutely perfectly. Sometimes when you generate things that are a bit more chaotic it opens teams up and it’s more difficult to do that. Today we exploited that really good and Palace had to change their behaviour and allow spaces for us to exploit.”

That space emerged because Arsenal exploited what is perhaps their most powerful weapon this season: an overbearing presence at set pieces. Their 12 goals from non-penalty dead balls is the best in the Premier League this season, their dead ball xG bettered only by Everton and Brentford. Not for nothing was Bukayo Saka heaping qualified praise on coach Nicolas Jover after the game, “We do a lot of work on set-pieces. It’s the worst! Our set-piece coach tries to make it fun.”

Arteta might have been keen to note, almost as soon as his press conference began, that his players had done less work on dead balls during their training camp in Dubai than they might otherwise, but what time they did have was used to incorporate new wrinkles. For the first time in the league since September, dead ball duties were handed to Declan Rice, who delivered the sort of lofted ball to the back post that was effective in small sample size with West Ham last season.

Far out of shot but not out of Palace’s sight is Havertz, who can both get a run at any delivery from his spot on the far corner of the penalty area and can also occupy another defender who can’t protect space in the danger area. William Saliba and Leandro Trossard pull away from where the ball is heading, ensuring that there is somewhere for Arsenal’s biggest targets to charge into. Twice in this match, US international Chris Richards could do nothing to slow Gabriel.

Arsenal manufacture space for Gabriel to attack, heading in their opening goal
Wyscout/Premier League

Arsenal’s second goal offers a greater insight into the role of Havertz, who might seem peripheral but is robbing Palace of one defender (a robust one at that in Jefferson Lerma) who might just be able to put their head on the ball. There is more to this artfully conducted play than just that however. Once more two red shirts attack the near post for Saka’s delivery but this time it is Gabriel Jesus who causes Palace difficulties.

Gabriel Jesus’ run sends Nathaniel Clyne towards his team-mate Richards
Wyscout/Premier League

He sets a pick for Gabriel in much the same way that a small forward might gift their center a lane to dart towards the rim for an alley-oop. Nathaniel Clyne and Chris Richards do well to even get out of each other’s way but there is nothing that the latter can do to gain ground on his opponent. In other circumstances Lerma might function as the help defender but Havertz has him committed. 

Criticism should probably fall at the two defenders who allow themselves to be blocked off by the diminutive Leandro Trossard while on both goals Dean Henderson might have not allowed himself to be boxed out by Ben White.

Arsenal’s screens and blocks allow Gabriel a direct lane to Saka’s cross
Wyscout/Premier League

As Roy Hodgson noted, even as he questioned the “infringements” that had left his players feeling a “little bit aggrieved,” these were good set pieces that were extremely hard to defend. There might have been a few grumbles when Arsenal led 2-0 at the break that their goals weren’t from open play — and it is fair to note that the Gunners rank only eighth in the league for live ball xG — the counterbalance to that is they have a repertoire of ferociously dangerous set pieces.

Those had earned them a two goal lead at the interval, one that was burgeoned in the second half as Arsenal picked off a beleaguered Palace as they searched for a foothold or even mere consolation. Emile Smith Rowe and Martinelli provided spark and thrust off the bench, the latter finding driving lanes towards the penalty area that rarely emerged in the more considered build up of the last few months. That style of football is perhaps better suited to the hyper-forward Arsenal don’t necessarily have, someone who can lurk on the edge of a 20 pass move before a flash of inspiration or physical excellence takes him into a prime scoring position.

Arsenal may not be the finished product in terms of the best attacks in Europe, but they are much nearer to that than a team who could continue the dispiriting dry spell of recent weeks. When they are finding opportunities from dead and live balls as they did today, they might even have enough goals in them to stay the course.

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