There have been highs and lows since Mikel Arteta replaced Unai Emery on the Arsenal bench in December. There have been good periods, more difficult ones, positive results and negative ones. The consistency, though, was always missing. Consistency in the performances, in the style of play and of course in the results. Finally, it feels like the Arsenal head coach has found the right formula, and with that, his rebuilding job is finally back on track.
The 4-0 demolition of Norwich on Wednesday at the Emirates Stadium, where the Gunners were in total control like rarely before this season, proves this point. Even if they benefited from mistakes by a poor, relegation-bound side, Arsenal finally showed some significant progress. Arteta always knew where he wanted to be. Now, it is starting to look like he knows how he wants to do it and with whom.
During the pandemic, when he was in daily contact with his players via video conference, and since the restart, Arteta has had plenty of time to assess his squad. He has insisted on having the right mentality as individuals and as a club. The ones who don't work hard enough and don't have the right attitude won't play. Mesut Ozil, who was not in the squad again on Wednesday, is one of them, while Matteo Guendouzi has also been dropped since his clash with Brighton's Neal Maupay. On the other hand, Dani Ceballos has worked hard and earned the right to start, as he did against Norwich with a very good performance, particularly in the first half. Ozil and Guendouzi might yet come back into the team, but for that to happen, Arteta will have to see a positive response from them first. After the Norwich win, he was asked about Guendouzi and a possible return after dropping him for the previous three games. "Things will have to change [from him] and they haven't changed yet" he said, highlighting once more how important attitude and behaviour at training and during matches is for him.
However, as well as the personnel, it was important for Arteta to find the right system. You can have great ideas and ambitions in your style, but without the right tactics it will lead nowhere. The Spaniard has tinkered a bit but the 3-4-3 formation that he has played for the past three games is clearly now his preferred formation and what we should expect to see through the end of the season.
Not only does it put David Luiz at sweeper, his best position, but it also seems to perfectly suit other players in the squad. Granit Xhaka now has more protection behind him. Kieran Tierney and Hector Bellerin are better going forward than defending and thus are more effective in wing-back roles. Here, we saw the Scot put in another very good performance against Norwich, exerting a lot of energy up and down his left wing and showcasing undeniable quality with his left foot. With Tierney beside him, it also means that Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang can come inside a bit more, especially when Alexandre Lacazette drops deeper to get the ball.
The Arsenal captain reached a milestone on Wednesday, scoring his 50th and 51st Premier League goals in only his 79th game, reaching these numbers even quicker than the great Thierry Henry (83 matches). "He can be so decisive at any time for us. He is willing to stay with us. He is happy, he can see what we want to do. He can still improve as well. I am positive and will remain positive that he can stay here for many years," added Arteta when asked about the Gabonese striker's contractual situation.
Regarding Lacazette, the Frenchman is going through a goal drought and lacks confidence at the moment, as we saw with the two chances he missed against Norwich, but his link-up play remains precious for the team. With this system, the team is more balanced that way too. Arsenal controlled the tempo of the game well on Wednesday, and Arteta was very happy with the performance of the team, the patterns of play, the diagonals and switches of play and the movement off the ball. His reaction to his team's second goal, scored by Xhaka, proved that. With great buildup from right to left, Aubameyang in the half-space and the run from deep by the Swiss midfielder, it was the perfect goal and the kind of goal the manager dreams of.
"Tonight was part of the process of what we want to do here. We have to respect what we are doing. We have had a difficult season but the players are so willing and so on board to what we are doing. I am very happy with the attitude and the understanding from the players on what we are trying to do and tonight showed it," Arteta said after the game.
The Spaniard was also noticeably vocal all game, in English, in Spanish and sometimes even in a bit of French. He was always behind his players, repositioning, encouraging and even shouting, too. It was nice to see him show his leadership chops and challenge his team and even better to see his players respond.
Arsenal have now won three straight on the trot across all competitions, but there is still a lot of work to do. The club's next two games, against Wolves on Saturday and Leicester on Tuesday, will define their season. Both teams sit above the Londoners in the race for the Champions League places, six and nine points ahead, respectively. Arteta and his players still believe that they can get into Europe and two wins would keep them very much in the hunt for fifth place. Two wins would also confirm and enhance all the progress the team has shown over the past three matches and provide a springboard to finish the season strong.