BREAKING: William Saliba contract boost, Granit Xhaka’s words for Saka, Ethan Nwaneri’s next Arsenal steps
football.london takes a look back at the talking points from the Gunners’ 3-0 win over Brentford at the Brentford Community Stadium in the Premier League
Brentford 0-3 Arsenal Match in Pictures
What a difference a year makes
On one of the first truly cold days of the season there was a chill in the atmosphere leading up to Arsenal’s Premier League clash with Brentford. The similarities between last season where in the hours leading up to kick off it became obvious that the Gunners would be without key players were eerie.
Whereas for the opening day of last season it became apparent that Mikel Arteta would be without Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette on that day in August last year (yes it was only last season!), 13 months later, Arsenal were to be without their captain Martin Odegaard and one of their most influential players in Oleksandr Zinchenko. Several others within the squad were battling on through knocks and it was impossible to shake the feeling that this was a game that the Gunners typically struggle in.
Within minutes though those pre-match jitters were banished. William Saliba’s early header and Gabriel Jesus strike put Arsenal in control before Fabio Vieira’s wonderstrike banished any semblance of a comeback for the hosts. As he reflected on the difference between his side’s two trips to the Brentford Community Stadium, Arteta was keen to shine the spotlight of praise upon those actually on the pitch.
“It is true that we replaced them with different players,” the Spaniard told football.london when asked about the development his side had been through.
He’s not wrong. Of the team who took to the field against Brentford in this fixture last season only Granit Xhaka, Ben White, Gabriel Martinelli and Kieran Tierney remained in the starting XI this season. But what has also come with the change in personnel is a shift in mentality.
Arsenal Women’s manager Jonas Eidevall spoke interestingly in his pre-match press conference ahead of the WSL curtain raiser against Brighton on Friday night about how the success of players like Leah Williamson and Beth Mead in the summer had given his squad an ability to believe in positive outcomes when they are faced with adversity. Watching the Arsenal men’s team, it’s clear to see that they are starting to feel the same.
While the defeat at Brentford last season was scarring and the failure to make top four last season devastating, the Gunners have had enough positive experiences to believe when things are not going their way that they will still get through. Their confidence in the automatisms they have developed courtesy of painstaking hours on the training ground are blissfully evident in each and every game now. No matter who is or isn’t available, Arsenal are a side who turn up to each game knowing exactly how they will play and that makes them a very difficult outfit to stop.
For Arteta this has been part of a long-term in which the negative experiences such as last season’s defeat at Brentford have been crucially important. “We have to be honest with that and (whereas) a lot of people described last season here as a bad day, an embarrassing day, I looked at it as a good building character day,” the Spaniard said. “You want to become a different team, you have to learn from those moments and you have to go through those moments and then days like today happen which everyone is really happy in the dressing room with the way we played. We are enjoying our football and it is another step.”
This is real tangible progress for the Gunners and sitting top of the table going into the first international break of the season is their more than deserved reward.
Xhaka’s redemption arc continues
If there is one player who symbolises the upward trajectory the Gunners have been on then it is probably Granit Xhaka. The Swiss international was superb yet again on Sunday grabbing a delightful assist for Gabriel Jesus’ goal.
Interestingly the fact that he was wearing the captain’s armband from the start of Premier League game for the first time since the now infamous incident against Crystal Palace went almost entirely under the radar. Even as recently as six months ago that would have been unfathomable, but Xhaka is making a habit of defying expectations at the moment. Although Mikel Arteta deserves ample credit for creating a system that gets the best out of the 29-year-old, the Spaniard was keen to point the finger of praised onto his skipper.
“His consistency,” Arteta said when asked about what had brought about Xhaka’s upturn in form in his post-match press conference. “How he goes about every day, how he’s learned through different moments in his career whether they are here or with the national team and his willingness over time to stay humble, look forward and try to get better and when you do that normally good things happen.”
That approach was evident on the pitch as he could be seen demanding his teammates maintained their high standards. He could be seen yelling at Bukayo Saka to get into position and after William Saliba’s opening goal, he grabbed the team into a huddle to ensure that they regained their focus.
Several sources within the club have indicated that the dressing are absolutely delighted that Xhaka is now getting the love from supporters that is clearly there for him inside the club. This was crystallised in a heart warming moment at the end of the match where Arsenal fans serenaded him for a good minute or so while he stood in front of them and absorbed the adulation. In his post match press conference Mikel Arteta highlighted this is a sight he was happy to see.
“I think he feels now that that love and respect goes both ways,” the Spaniard said. “I think you see our supporters the way they were singing to him as well. It makes him emotional, it makes him try to give even more and I’m really pleased for him because in my opinion he fully deserves it.”
On a day of a collective team performance, one individual player who stood out was William Saliba. While the Frenchman’s towering stature gives you a certain image of how he defends, his ability to cope with more physical strikers is probably one of the few question marks that still hangs around him. Sure he’s excellent with this feet but can he cope with a brute of a No.9?
As far as those types of centre forwards go there aren’t too many trickier customers in the Premier League than Ivan Toney. It’s perhaps disrespectful to boil the soon to be England squad member’s game down to being a handful, but it’s certainly a threat that he has managed to upset many defenders with already this season. Just ask Lisandro Martinez.
Saliba though rose to the challenge – as he has done to pretty much every other challenge he’s faced this season – with effortless ease. It was telling that as the game went on Toney began dropping deeper and deeper to get involved in the game as he became isolated amid the physical dominance that Saliba and Gabriel were able to exert over him.
With the increase in his abilities as a traditional centre half though, Saliba does not appear to be losing any of his more modern traits. Yes, Fabio Vieira’s goal is a wonderful curling piece of brilliance, but the Portuguese midfielder does not get that opportunity if Saliba doesn’t show composure to dribble away from his marker at the start of the move.
As if the performance couldn’t have impressed any more, Mikel Arteta revealed after the game that the 21-year-old had been suffering with discomfort that kept him out of training for 10 days in the aftermath of the defeat at Manchester United. Even when not fully fit, Saliba appears to be a superb addition to the Arsenal back line.
Now the question is whether the Gunners can keep him. The club have expressed confidence about their chances of doing so, but with the 18 month mark coming up on his deal, it’s impossible for the to be totally certain that they’ll be able to tie him down.
Any nerves on this front will surely have been calmed though by a pre-match interview that the Frenchman conducted in which he stated how at home he feels in north London. The stratospheric potential of the young centre half is what means Arsenal must move heaven and earth to ensure he stays, and the early signs are positive that they could be able to do so,
Nwaneri makes history
With the passing of Queen Elizabeth II it has certainly been a historical few weeks in the UK, but just as the period of national mourning comes to an end there was room for one more noteworthy addition to the record books.
It’s been a rollercoaster week for Ethan Nwaneri who only found out he would be travelling with the first team to Brentford on Saturday afternoon. Upon arrival he was forced to change in a separate dressing room to the rest of the first team due to the fact that he is a minor, and at that point he surely wouldn’t have been expecting to come on and make history. Fate though had other plans.
“It was a pure gut feeling,” said Mikel Arteta when explaining the decision to bring Nwaneri on. “I met the boy (and) really liked what I saw. Per Mertesacker and the academy staff are giving me really good information, Edu as well. I met him, he’s trained a couple of times with us. Yesterday he had to come because we have injuries, especially the injury of Martin (Odegaard), and then I had that feeling from yesterday that if the opportunity could come that I was going to do it and I just done it.”
Within just two minutes and one touch Nwaneri made history by becoming the Premier League’s youngest every player at just 15 years and 181 days old. For many he may have come from nowhere, but sources in the club have been speaking about him for some time now.
He grabbed attention initially by scoring on his Under-18s debut earlier this year at the age of just 14, and made his Under-21s debut just earlier this month. That day he was played as a right eight in Mehmet Ali’s 4-3-3 system aimed at replicating what Arteta is doing in the first team to ensure a smoother transition for the younger players.
His place on the pitch is far from set though and Arsenal have used him as an eight, a 10, a left winger, a right winger and even a No.9 as he develops his prodigious talent and they are keen not to pigeon hole him this early on. Understandably they also want to control the hype around the youngster, and after the game Arteta urged caution on this front.
“It’s another step, another experience,” the Spaniard said. “In your career all the steps are not going to be forward. After that maybe he needs three backwards to go another forward, but I think he deserved it. It sends a really strong message about who we are as a club as well.”
It’s a testament to the fine work being done by Per Mertesacker and the academy set up that the club continues to produce these exciting talents. Aside from Nwaneri, the immensely talented Reuell Walters and Lino Sousa were also there with a Gunners squad that contained academy products Matt Smith, Bukayo Saka and Eddie Nketiah. For a team to be this well fed by its talent at youth level is incredibly rare, and Arteta was keen to emphasise that it’s a pillar of where he sees the club heading.
“We want to give opportunities when there is talent,” he said. “When there is personality and when there are players who love what they do so much and when they have no fear. The doors are open to explore where they can go.”
For now though Nwaneri, who was not even born when Arsenal moved to the Emirates Stadium and was in primary school when Unai Emery was in charge, will turn his attention back to secondary school before he can think about getting any further in the Arsenal first team. He will have a bank holiday tomorrow, but is expected back at St John’s Prep and Senior School in Enfield on Tuesday where he attends with fellow Gunners academy player Harrison Dudziak. For the rest of the season though Arsenal will look to expose him to more experiences with the Under-21s and if he impresses there then more first team opportunities could well be on the horizon.