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Wednesday, November 29, 2023

Arsenal ran out of steam last season – but this is a very different Mikel Arteta team

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As long as 30 minutes after the game, and at least 30m from the Arsenal dressing room, you could still hear the raucous celebrations inside. The cheers were especially audible as the door to the media room swung open and Mikel Arteta came in for his press conference, when he eventually allowed himself to smile – and quite widely.

“A great feeling,” the Arsenal manager said after his side’s 1-0 win over Manchester City, which represented his first points against his former employers, not to mention his club’s first points at all against the champions since April 2017. “You could sense, it’s been so many years without beating them.

“They were all dancing and super happy. They go into the international break and the mood is much better. They’re gonna have a few days off, the ones who are not involved, and it just sends everybody away until the next game against Chelsea with the right feeling. It’s great so I’m really happy.”

If these sound like the sort of scenes usually reserved for when a trophy is won, that is kind of the point. It’s all about taking this team closer to that first Premier League since 2004. Arteta has taken them step by step over the last four years, and we’re now at the point where it’s truly decisive moves rather than the earlier strides. It was why this was so important.

If you are going to actually beat a team as powerful as this Manchester City in the title race, you obviously need to beat them on the pitch, and in the league.

Arteta naturally tried to play down its exact psychological significance, but he couldn’t but admit this was important. His interpretations of previous games were maybe a bit generous but that was understandable.

Arsenal players celebrate with the fans after Gabriel Martinelli’s winner

(PA Wire)

“I don’t know if it was a barrier. Obviously it was something we needed to go through. To beat them we have to lose against them, we have to lose probably the way we lost at the Etihad. The team showed a real maturity today, that comes from experiences. Sometimes you need that to become a better team.”

That is probably what Arsenal are, even if their points return is worse than this point last season. They are clearly a more substantial team, with more conviction, as a season like last year will ensure. It was an arrival, even if it ended in frustrating fashion. It ultimately proved Arsenal are at that level again. The summer signings have since been about giving them more dimensions. It is one of the more interesting elements of Arsenal’s start to the campaign, as well as what might have been lift-off for Kai Havertz.

Arsenal clearly hit on a superb first XI last season, which propelled their campaign for months. The issue was it eventually left Arteta in a bind. He could either persevere with the XI, at the cost of energy given how little they were rested, or he could change up but also remove some of the verve. He tried to do a bit of both in the end, and they somewhat inevitably ran out of steam.

Since then, Arteta has obviously been trying to give them more depth, but also variety. Havertz was about exactly this. Arteta will especially enjoy his contribution, the pass to Gabriel Martinelli for the goal coming as it did just minutes after the German came on. It looked simple but was about his spatial awareness and presence of mind.

The effect of just doing that can’t be discounted either – as with the win.

Arsenal will believe, even more than before.

Nobody should believe this is going to be the City for the rest of the season of course. They have some huge absences, especially with Rodri and Kevin De Bruyne. They will return and both the team and Erling Haaland will inevitably go on the sort of run they did last season at least once.

Arsenal should be more equipped to go that bit further, to get more points. That was what the celebrations felt like they were about, at least in part.

The team is that bit closer to completion.

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