After their first three Premier League games, Arsenal found themselves bottom of the table. Since the crushing 5-0 defeat to Manchester City in the third match, Arsenal have gone eight league games without tasting defeat.
While losses to Chelsea and Manchester City are nothing to be ashamed of, the manner of the setbacks was worrisome. Especially after the Gunners lost their season opener 2-0 to Brentford without so much as a whimper.
Arsenal now sit fifth in the league after 11 games, two points from a Champions League spot, thanks to their recent upturn in form. Whilst the quality of opposition in these games must not be discounted, it is a run the club should get credit for and is perhaps the start of an unexpectedly positive season at the Emirates.
Arsenal transfer focus on defense paying off
The foundation of Arsenal’s improvement has been their defense. After conceding a remarkable nine goals in their first three league games, Mikel Arteta’s men have conceded just four in the eight games since.
It is far easier to win football matches when you know you only have to score one or two goals due to your tight defense rather than having to make up for defensive flaws. Arsenal’s summer transfer business did not get fans’ pulses racing, with former loanee Martin Odegaard the only attacking player brought in. However, the club did identify a key area that required improvement and addressed it in one efficient summer of dealings.
Eyebrows were raised when the Gunners signed goalkeeper Aaron Ramsdale for £25 million, owed mostly to the fact the 23-year-old had suffered consecutive Premier League relegations.
However, Ramsdale has silenced his doubters in an emphatic way, putting together a string of heroic performances which has led to calls for him to replace Jordan Pickford as England’s number one.
Ben White was signed for £53 million from Brighton and Hove Albion, which was widely viewed as a high price for the central defender’s services. But he is another who has begun to prove people wrong with his fine displays in recent weeks after a difficult start.
Takehiro Tomiyasu was snatched from under North London rivals Tottenham Hotspur’s noses for £16.75 million from Bologna. The Japan international is showing why he had clubs battling for his signature with his impressive performances at right back. In fact, Arsenal have not lost a game that Tomiyasu has started.
Another fullback, Nuno Tavares, also joined in the summer as back up to Kieran Tierney and has shown already that he will provide fierce competition at the left back spot for years to come.
Add to this the return of Gabriel Magalhaes from injury, and Arsenal suddenly look solid defensively. This hasn’t been the case for Arsenal since perhaps the mid 2000s, with the club seeming to have constantly been let down by defensive frailties in recent history.
With Thomas Partey sitting in front of the defense on a more regular basis, the back four benefits from protection that has not been afforded them in the past. Albert Lokonga was another summer recruit and the 22-year-old Belgian has shown his potential when paired with Partey.
The defensive solidity Arsenal have shown recently has led to five clean sheets in the league after leaking goals early on. This new found stability has allowed the attacking players to play with more freedom and the likes of Emile Smith-Rowe, Bukayo Saka, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette are beginning to flourish.
Arsenal defensive improvement to be tested by Liverpool
While Arteta will be pleased with his side’s improvement in recent weeks, he will be all too aware of the danger Arsenal’s next opponents possess. On Saturday, Arsenal face a free-flowing Liverpool side who can find gaps in the most watertight of defenses.
This presents a real test for Arsenal’s improved backline and will show whether they can shut out a frontline that is the envy of most clubs in world football.
One player Arsenal won’t have to worry about is Roberto Firmino with the Brazilian striker likely to be out injured for a number of weeks. This means Diogo Jota is expected to start in the central striker role. While this means Arteta will have a clearer picture of who his defense will be up against, it does not make the task of stopping them any easier.
Jota offers a different threat to Firmino and is less concerned with dropping deep to link the play but will threaten Arsenal in other ways, using his pace and movement to find space to threaten their goal. Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah are expected to start either side of Jota, despite the former picking up a slight injury while on international duty with Senegal. It is this pair that have likely given Arteta nightmares as he has tried to prepare for this game over the break.
If Arsenal manage to keep Liverpool’s attacking threat at a minimum, they have a real chance of leapfrogging their opponents in the table. However, the difficulty of that task cannot be overstated and it will be a strong indicator of how far Arsenal’s defensive resolve has come.
Should Arsenal suffer a heavy defeat it will lead to accusations their improvement has simply been due to the downturn in quality of recent opposition. If Arsenal keep Liverpool’s attackers at bay, this could be a sign that Arsenal’s defensive flaws are now a thing of the past.