April 12, 2024

Arsenal’s depth helps Gunners top the Premier League table after victory over Luton Town

LONDON — If there has been one facet of Mikel Arteta’s management that has plagued Arsenal and their observers in recent seasons, it has been his inability to make the most of his squad. Perhaps the explanation for that has always been simple, namely that his bench didn’t have the pieces to change the course of a season.

Perhaps that would be just as true against the bulk of the 2023/24 Premier League. In the next six weeks, Arsenal have to travel to Wolverhampton, Tottenham and Munich. If their match goes as planned, a Champions League semi-final will also be negotiated. They will need to be able to dig into the depth chart a bit for the more favorable matchups. This 2-0 home win over Luton Town, another match in which Arteta had little to offer to delight the mythical ‘neutral viewer’, was the perfect opportunity to do just that. Arteta accomplished this with aplomb, guiding his side back to the top of the league and maintaining the squad’s fitness.

“When they have their moment, they have to take it,” Arteta said of his fringe players. “They certainly did that today. They give me every reason every day, regardless of the result. It’s not the right decision or the wrong decision because of the result.”

“If we had lost the game it would have been because of the changes. It’s not that simple. In the end you have to do what is right and what they deserve. I was confident they would respond.” .”

For Arteta, a man who prefers rhythm to rotation, five changes represented a significant reshuffling of the pack. Bukayo Saka was held back despite being fully involved in training on Monday. He was left out of the team entirely for the second time in Arsenal’s last 106 Premier League games. There was still room in the XI for iron men Martin Odegaard and Ben White, but Declan Rice, Gabriel Jesus and Jorginho were all held back. Hale End’s best players went into battle alongside the returning Thomas Partey and Oleksandr Zinchenko, the platform on which Arsenal’s latest title push was built.

Rob Edwards had faced further dilemmas in selecting his squad as the injury list swelled even further to 11 following the 2-1 defeat to Tottenham last weekend. No Reece Burke meant a three-man central defense with two natural right-backs. In midfield Pelly Ruddock Mpanzu, who played for Luton from non-league to Premier League, lived what must have been the boyhood dream of playing at the Emirates Stadium, although he would undoubtedly prefer to be alongside Odegaard and Emile Smith Rowe rather than chasing them across the field.

Considering the threadbare nature of a side that couldn’t really be blamed for being overwhelmed at full strength, it was impressive that Luton kept Arsenal at bay for as long as they did. The Gunners prodded and prodded, but took the time to develop the synchronicity that comes when Bukayo Saka, Gabriel Martinelli and Declan Rice are firing on all cylinders. Instead, these were early encounters where individual quality had to force the hosts past an industrious opponent.

Much of that came from Smith Rowe, the number 10 determined to prove a point in what could be the final months of his Arsenal career. Twice he could have won free-kicks in dangerous areas had his initial passes not been so well placed that Craig Pawson felt the home side would be better rewarded with an advantage. The fact that he has never shied away from challenges partly explains why recent years have been so disrupted by injuries.

“I love him as a player, he is a joy to watch,” said Arteta. “How he moves, changes direction and how physical he was without the ball today.

“He entered duels and won a lot of them and thought with that killer instinct to play forward and make things happen. When Emile is at that moment it is very difficult to stop him. Today he helped us a lot to get the win the match.”

This reminded us why some at Hale End and London Colney saw him and Odegaard as a potential midfield duo for years to come. Smith Rowe’s tackle on Mpanzu in the 24th minute gave Arsenal a rare opportunity to drive into a troubled defence; Odegaard didn’t need a second invitation. He gave it to Kai Havertz and drove into the space to his left, passing Thomas Kaminski on a low drive.

Further back, the presence of Oleksandr Zinchenko at left-back meant that Arsenal were slightly less of a lockdown defence, conceding more penalties in the first half of this match than on Sunday at the Etihad Stadium. Likewise, the fluidity of his positioning on the ball brings out similar qualities in those around him, with the left flank a hive of movement where neither Smith Rowe nor Leandro Trossard had a permanent home.

As the break approached, the Belgian kept his position high and wide on the left, dragging Fred Onyedima wide. With Havertz signing two Luton centre-backs, a crease opened up for Smith Rowe to burst into, pick up the ball on the byline and hold on just long enough for Reiss Nelson to join him. Daiki Hashioka ended a grueling half of chasing shadows and drew a superb strike from William Saliba, beating Nelson to guide the ball home.

Arsenal concluded that would be enough. Luton came out swinging in the second half, but whenever things got a little too tight for comfort, Arteta was able to turn to his bench. First came Rice, the man whose arrival heralded that this party would become the best defense in Europe. He was followed by arguably the club’s best one-on-one defender in Takehiro Tomiyasu. When Edwards needed to add ballast to his midfield, he turned to two-time League Two team of the year member Luke Berry. When Arteta needed to do the same, along came the 2021 UEFA Men’s Player of the Year, a man who shared the Ballon d’Or podium with Lionel Messi and Robert Lewandowski. If you’ve got Jorginho, you might as well show him off.

Twelve months ago, a cracking title challenge seemed to depend on Rob Holding being a player he wasn’t, while Thomas Partey stringed together a string of consistent performances that was beyond a player with his injury record. The fringes of the first team looked precarious, hardly the sort of players who could turn a title race back in Arsenal’s favour. Like all other contenders, it’s still difficult to see a route to the title if William Saliba, Rice or Saka go down for extended periods, but what this suggested is that Arteta can finally reduce the risk of being one of those losing important players.

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