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Saturday, April 13, 2024

How Arsenal are ‘raising the bar’ in Premier League title race

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Even as Erling Haaland ran riot at Luton and Liverpool’s kids continued to perform miracles for Jurgen Klopp at Anfield, Mikel Arteta was still able to bask in his satisfaction of Arsenal’s recent work. In what increasingly looks likely to be a three-way fight for the Premier League title, Arsenal were the odd ones out as Manchester City and Liverpool advanced to the quarter-finals of the FA Cup this midweek. But Arsenal are also outliers in another respect: they are the in-form side in the title race.

Domestic cup pursuits could have boosted City and Liverpool’s momentum in other ways; Klopp may appear to have the golden touch, Liverpool powered by fate, when the German turns to academy to win silverware. Pep Guardiola’s side can look unstoppable when Haaland scores five goals and Kevin De Bruyne sets up four of them. And yet, a late defeat in Porto besides, it is Arsenal who are gathering pace. Rested, and focused on the league after their FA Cup third-round defeat to Liverpool last month, Arsenal will go for a seventh win in a row when they travel to Sheffield United on Monday night.

Arsenal’s thrashing of Newcastle last weekend moved the Gunners ahead of Klopp’s team – perhaps not at the top of the Premier League table, but in goal difference at least. There has been a huge swing since the turn of the year, with Arsenal scoring 25 goals across their six wins while only conceding three. Arsenal have been the Premier League’s dominant side and Arteta hasn’t had a run quite like it – his side are “flowing”. The goals are now coming from everywhere, in a manner that is giving everyone confidence.

Arsenal are also killing games off. They have become the first team since Premier League records began to score two or more goals in seven consecutive halves. It suggests they have learned from their mistakes last season, when Arteta’s side let leads slip at Liverpool and West Ham as they lost their way in the title race. There has been a relentlessness to Arsenal’s play. They have attacked leads, not sat back on them: “We score one and we want to go for the second and third and the fourth one,” Arteta said. “I love that mentality.”

Against Newcastle, Arsenal were able to cut loose after a frustrating night against Porto and were helped off the mark by taking a familiar route. In their last six Premier League wins, Arsenal have taken the lead from a set-piece on three occasions. The inswinging deliveries from Declan Rice on the left and Bukayo Saka on the right, combined with the aerial strength of William Saliba, Gabriel Magalhaes and Jakub Kiwior in the box, has given Arsenal a new dimension, a different threat.

Even a team who earned a reputation for defensive organisation last year, in Eddie Howe’s Newcastle, were powerless to stop it. “We knew their corners, we knew they were coming,” Howe conceded, just as his team let in goals twice from corners against Arsenal in a 4-1 defeat. With 19 set-piece goals in the Premier League this season, including 13 from corners, Arsenal are catching Sheffield United. Bottom of the table and with 22 goals in total, Arsenal could narrow the gap to Chris Wilder’s side further at Bramall Lane.

Scoring goals from set-pieces makes everything easier and allowed Arteta to laugh as it was put to him that Arsenal’s set-piece coach, Nicolas Jover, better be on a good bonus given their recent run. “The fact that we are scoring goals in various ways, from various players as well, is really satisfying,” Arteta said. Among them, Saka’s seven goals since the turn of the year is the most in the Premier League. Rice’s four assists, fueled by those deliveries to the front post, is also the most in the Premier League in 2024.

Arsenal have ‘clicked’ and the goals are ‘flowing’, Arteta has said

(Getty Images)

But Arteta believes Arsenal are “clicking” in open play as well. With Jorginho brought back into midfield, Arsenal’s set-up against Newcastle produced a ferocious pressing performance – winning the ball back in the final third 11 times in the first half. “We raised the bar again.” Arteta said. Much of that intensity came from Kai Havertz’s influence, as well as Rice being released further forward while Jorginho dictated play from midfield.

Arsenal have offered adaptability but their defensive record in recent weeks has been stringent throughout. In their last six games, Arteta’s side have allowed just 1.9 xG against, compared to City’s 5.4 and Liverpool’s 9.3. Arsenal have barely been conceding shots, let alone goals.

But a look at the Premier League table is all Arsenal need to remind themselves that their form has only seen them keep pace with City and Liverpool, such are the standards that are demanded by Guardiola and Klopp in a title race. City have won 12 Premier League games in a row in each of the past two seasons. They won 17 in a row the year before. Arteta will know that his side can’t afford to drop points ahead of visiting the Etihad at the end of the month.

Gabriel Jesus returning to contention is set to give Arteta another option to work with. It adds to the sense that everything is falling Arsenal’s way at the moment in the title race. But against such opposition, Arsenal need that belief as they look to extend their winning run.

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