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Tuesday, April 23, 2024

Arsenal’s summer signings come to the fore to see Gunners peak at perfect time

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There is a problem with billing potentially the final meeting of Jurgen Klopp and Pep Guardiola as the title decider. It could be evident from the league table. Come kick-off at Anfield on Sunday, Arsenal will probably top the standings, a team with a 100 per cent record in 2024 on an inspired charge.

To a first Premier League title in 20 years? Arsenal have long felt the outsiders in the three-horse race, and not merely because Manchester City have remained virtually everyone’s favourites and then Klopp’s farewell tour gave Liverpool a heady concoction of momentum and narrative.

Mikel Arteta appeared the third wheel amid the duel of the managerial superpowers, the man whose lone FA Cup is swamped by his rivals’ medal collections. If his team could not become champions in a season when they led the way for 248 days, what chance when they reached the halfway point in the following campaign on a losing run and short of goals?

More than most expected, actually. Arsenal’s 2024 surge has come with a flood of goals: a 6-0 demolition of Sheffield United made it 31 in seven games, with only one scored by a specialist centre-forward, Gabriel Jesus. But Arsenal have five players in double figures for Premier League goal involvements now, led by the remarkable Bukayo Saka on 21.

The model of sharing the goals around has rarely proved as productive. Ben White’s thunderbolt at Bramall Lane was the sixth in those seven matches to come from the back four. Arsenal have become more attacking with what could have looked a more negative selection: instead, deploying a specialist holding midfielder, in Jorginho, has freed Declan Rice up to attack.

The £105m man has two goals and three assists in his last four league games. He is starting to look a throwback to the days of the great midfield all-rounders, those who can run and score and tackle. The modern element is the absence of an out-and-out striker: perhaps the mystery of Kai Havertz now refers to opponents’ struggles to pick him up. For now, the enigma is a scorer. Rice may not be Arsenal’s only expensive success in the summer transfer market. “Obviously, picking the right players that could bring something that we didn’t have to the squad,” Arteta said. “They’re certainly doing that.”

And he has a formula. Some of it has revolved around their set-piece expertise but low cutbacks for runners from deep, a ploy of Guardiola’s, proved profitable at Bramall Lane. If there are times when Arteta’s Arsenal have looked too structured and predictable, too reliant on their training-ground routines, now strategy has been allied with fluency and chemistry. If Arsenal laboured through the first half of the season, they are accelerating through the second.

The Gunners celebrate Gabriel Martinelli’s goal in the demolition of Sheffield United

(Arsenal FC/Getty)

“The fact we are scoring so many goals and not conceding is a great sign,” Arteta said. “But it’s about winning every game now and that is the demands that those two clubs have put over [everyone else] in the last six or seven years. That is the task ahead of us.”

At least they approach it in optimum form. It provides a contrast with last year; even if they were on a run of seven straight league wins last March, it became a question of how long they could hang on. Then, Arsenal were looking over their shoulders. Now, they are looking to power past others.

They may be benefitting from a status as underdogs. Even their sequence of victories has come damned in faint praise, as though the margins are an indication of the weakness of the opposition. And if that was true when Sheffield United were so feeble and when Martin Odegaard’s statement that Bramall Lane is “a tough place to come” invited ridicule, Arsenal have made games look easy.

Monday’s trip to South Yorkshire made it 31 goals in seven successive wins for Arsenal

(AP)

Two of their seven victims are the hapless duo at the foot of the table, two more in the bottom seven. Yet they have 10 goals between them against a West Ham side who have beaten Arsenal twice this season and a Newcastle team who defeated them once. They are the only English team to defeat Liverpool when they had more than nine men this season.

Statistically, their run-in is easier than City’s, even if they have to visit the Etihad Stadium. Perhaps their title tilt will unravel there, just as it did last year. For now, however, Arteta’s plans – from his summer recruitment to a tactical blueprint that was never based on a selfish No 9 – are coming together wonderfully well.

Arsenal are on the longest winning run in the division this season, scoring the most goals and conceding the fewest. At least one of their rivals will drop points on Sunday, whereas Arsenal have not mislaid any since 2023. And this time, they may be peaking when it matters most.

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