A lot of people would never have thought Mikel Arteta would reach 150 games as Arsenal manager.
Go back one season and many did not expect to see Arteta at the club when they were bottom of the table with zero wins from their opening three games. Two seasons ago, they were just above the relegation zone at Christmas and failed to qualify for European football that term.
But Arsenal stuck with their young Spanish manager and perhaps it is apt that Arteta picked up one of his biggest wins as Gunners boss at a club which has a long history of hiring and firing managers at will.
Chelsea manager Graham Potter recognised that after his side were beaten by Arteta’s Arsenal. “If you look at the Arsenal story of where they are now compared to one year, two years ago it’s slightly different,” he said. “I’m sure at times Mikel is getting pelters and that’s how it is. That’s the job and that’s life.”
Arsenal have supported Arteta through some challenging moments, off the pitch as well as on it. The club hierarchy standing by their manager during the Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang saga has paid off – the now-Chelsea striker looked way off the pace against Arsenal’s defenders, while the fans chanted Arteta’s name every time he touched the ball.
Arsenal now sit top of the Premier League table with Arteta being a standalone young manager who has yet to face the chop. The likes of Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer – all deemed project, long-term managers – have lost their job in recent seasons, while Arteta perches alone at the top.
His Arsenal side looked solid at the back but creative going forwards – as they have done all season. Perhaps Premier League owners – including a certain Mr Todd Boehly of Chelsea – should be taking notes as to what is happening in north London.
Aubameyang’s first reunion with Arsenal and Arteta – the coach who was determined to remove him from the Gunners’ first-team squad – dominated the build-up to Chelsea’s clash with their London rivals, but it ended up being much ado about nothing.
The forward started on the left of Chelsea’s narrow front three but was given license to venture in field and try to link with Kai Havertz and Raheem Sterling. However, he was not on the same wavelength as the German in the first half, with Aubameyang left waiting for a cross that never came on two promising occasions.
The frustration continued in the second half for the Gabon international and he was hauled off in the wake of Arsenal’s winner in the 63rd minute, ending the game with a measly total of two touches in the Gunners’ area, one shot and an expected-goals total 0.03.
The blame for Chelsea’s toothless display in front of goal cannot all be pinned on Aubameyang, though. The Blues’ expected-goals total of 0.26 was dwarfed by Arsenal’s figure of 2.11 and perfectly illustrated how little threat they posed their rivals on a chastening afternoon at Stamford Bridge.
Potter began his Chelsea reign with five wins and a draw from his first six matches but that record papered over the cracks. The Blues recorded a non-penalty expected goals tally of just 1.06 per 90 minutes from the head coach’s first six Premier League games – suggesting their struggles in the Arsenal area were no surprise – and have now taken just two points from their last four top-flight matches.
Potter’s penchant for tinkering with personnel and formations is well established but it means that, 12 matches into his time in west London, it is still hard to determine how he wants his side to play, while a number of players look to be struggling to show their quality after being asked to fulfil differing roles on a game-by-game basis.
The head coach has spoken about his desire for Chelsea to be “flexible” on the pitch and the loss of Reece James and Ben Chilwell to injury – again – seriously blunts their attacking threat.
But Arsenal’s highly-professional performance at the home of their rivals came as a result of every player understanding their role within a settled side. They showed the value of playing under the same head coach for nearly three years, while Chelsea looked every inch the team that are still getting to grips with the demands of a manager who has been in situ for just two months.
Erik ten Hag’s unbeaten run of five Premier League matches came to an abrupt halt against Unai Emery’s Aston Villa – whose overdue upset cast doubt on Manchester United’s ability to play without key figures.
United were blown away, torn to shreds by a menacing Villa press and a lesson in clinical finishing. Luke Shaw managed to squeeze a deflected shot home in reply, but all three Villa goals were devastatingly ruthless.
It begs the question – are United competitive when Ten Hag is forced to tinker with his starting selection?
Donny van de Beek was altogether non-existent. Victor Lindelof was dragged all over the shop by the energy of Ollie Watkins – caught out of position for Leon Bailey’s opener and Jacob Ramsey’s second-half strike. While Cristiano Ronaldo’s only chance of note was squandered when the scoreline was 2-0.
Despite a summer spending spree, there is a considerable lack of strength in depth. Both Raphael Varane and Bruno Fernandes were significant misses. Antony’s absence was equally harmful. They were weakened and unbalanced, and it proved costly.
United have lost nine away games in 2022 – the most defeats the have suffered in a calendar year since 1989. Their most recent outing, though, was particularly exposing. The Reds travel to Craven Cottage in their final league fixture before the World Cup break – Fulham may well be licking their lips at the prospect should Ten Hag be forced to field another depleted XI.
The 4-0 win over Brentford had been cathartic following the departure of Steven Gerrard but this was something else entirely. A first Premier League win over Manchester United at Villa Park since the days of Savo Milosevic and the rest. Aston Villa have waited for this.
On this evidence, they have been waiting for a coach of the calibre of Unai Emery too. The Spaniard had spoken of the energy in the side but this was more than a matter of endeavour. His Villa team were intelligent in possession and organised out of it.
Emiliano Martinez cleverly encouraged the United press and when Cristiano Ronaldo sauntered his way forward or Marcus Rashford was drawn in because of his team-mate’s reluctance, the goalkeeper would pop the ball off to the full-back. Villa were away.
The ease with which they played through the opposition hinted at the sort of coherent tactics that have been absent for too long. Already up to 13th in the Premier League table, it offers hope that Villa can begin looking above them rather than behind them again.
There will be many more tests to come – starting at Old Trafford on Wednesday – and consistency is the target now, but this was an important step. Villa fans had stopped believing they could beat United here. Emery has them believing in more than that now.
Ahead of Crystal Palace’s trip to West Ham, Wilfried Zaha said to Sky Sports: “I’m very devoted to Palace and that’s all I’m thinking about.”
His performance at the London Stadium backed up those words. Zaha is out of contract at the end of the season, hence the questioning about where perhaps his future rests. Barcelona have been reported as a potential suitor – as have Juventus.
Palace’s top scorer turns 30 on Thursday and the opportunity to take his talents into the Champions League would surely be hard to turn down, especially as he is yet to win a major trophy. His talent – as shown against West Ham – deserves to be showcased on such a stage. In the absence of Odsonne Edouard, Zaha played the role as the central striker, playing ‘on the shoulder’ against central defenders Craig Dawson and Kurt Zouma.
It was the threat of him running in behind – something he did within two minutes which won his side a free-kick – that made West Ham defend so deep and look so scared of their own shadows despite playing at home.
His hold-up play was good, his movement clever and what makes Zaha a potential option for the European elite on a free transfer is his killer instinct in front of goal. His strike against West Ham was his 15th goal of this calendar year – only Harry Kane (23), Heung-Min Son (18), Erling Haaland (18) and Ivan Toney (16) have scored more.
To get a player of such ilk on a free transfer is going to make Zaha a wanted man this summer. It will be a true test of his devotion.
It’s worth remembering, the Newcastle takeover and Eddie Howe’s appointment completed merely one year ago – but the speed of success has defied all expectations with the club now sat third in the Premier League with 14 games played.
Howe cut a frustrated figure on the sidelines at St. Mary’s, as his team mustered merely 0.83 expected goals, with the manager claiming his side were uncharacteristic “with and without the ball” in his post-match comments.
Indeed, the Saints recorded the lion’s share of possession, more than twice as many shots, achieved more passes and touches in the opposition box, and should have netted twice, according to xG.
Yet, it was Howe’s side who achieved a three-goal winning margin at the final whistle – achieved solely from clinical finishing and four superb goals.
In-form Miguel Almiron has now netted seven goals in as many league games. The 28-year-old epitomises the club’s rapid transformation. No player has outscored the Paraguayan since the turn of October, and his tally in that time draws level with goal-machine Erling Haaland.
Howe inherited six players in his starting XI at Southampton, and yet those very same players who battled relegation are now fighting for Champions League qualification.
The advanced style of play was evident again, pinning Southampton back with the new, braver style. Howe has the Midas touch in Tyneside, and his players are stepping up to the plate as he, the hierarchy and fans continue to raise standards and expectations.
Newcastle’s long-term plan to become a powerhouse club on the European stage is growing shorter by the week.