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Arsenal’s defensive steel behind Declan Rice, William Saliba and Gabriel a welcome change from past fragility

There was something distinctly curious about Manuel Akanji taking issue with tactical fouling by Arsenal that he felt had gone unpunished at the Etihad Stadium on Sunday. It was not necessarily odd that any player of Manchester City, masters of killing an opposition break by foul means, should have a problem with seeing the trick done back to them. It was that Akanji was right. Arsenal, elegant but unsuspecting, had been properly cynical defenders.

City breakaways were ended just as they begun with swift clips and shirt grabs, Gabriel was more than prepared to raise Erling Haaland’s shackles at any opportunity, while David Raya took his sweet time before each and every goal kick. This must have been a familiar sight for the away end at the Etihad Stadium. How often had they bemoaned the exact same tricks done to them, insisting that it was not having the time added back on at the end that mattered anyway, but the momentum that had been frittered away.

For a generation it has been Arsenal who had to settle for a single point earned the right way, moral victories as their rivals claimed actual ones. Like any of England’s historic powers, they have worn many faces across different eras of glory, but Arsene Wenger had embedded a particular sense of glorious frailty in the club post-Invincibles. The thing about Arsenal was no longer the one-nils, the arms of the back four aloft in unison after another flawlessly executed offside trap. The thing about Arsenal was that they’d always try to walk it in and get done at the other end by Didier Drogba, Jon Walters, Stelios Giannakopoulos. They’d lose but they’d look great doing it.

Been a while since you’ve seen this meme, huh?

Unai Emery couldn’t change that. If anything the banter era hit a crescendo in Arsenal’s frittering away of a top four berth and then losing the Europa League. As Mikel Arteta tasked himself with changing the culture in north London, he needed time to move the club away from the mentality of that iconic meme. Even while competing for titles, Arsenal could smack themselves right across the back of their head with an inanimate carbon rod of ice cold Arsenal. Robbed of their star center back, with most of their midfield hobbling across the field,, they took it upon themselves to press the life out of Manchester City. Noble, foolish. Call it what you want but the title went with it.

Not this time around. Arsenal were cynical, a bit “clever,” as their manager put it, and above all exceptional defensively. “You have to have that resilience and leave your ego and ideology aside and the way you have to win the game,” said Arteta on Tuesday. “The team was mentally really strong, and it was really clever the way they did it.”

Would anyone associated with Arsenal, the Premier League’s top scorers, care in the slightest that the cost of this performance was that the so-called neutral viewer was a little put out by the absence of goal mouth activity? And by the way, who are all these followers of football who have invested in a subscription to watch the sport but haven’t got round to picking a team yet? That seems exceedingly suspicious. The jubilation of the away end told its own story. Of all the things many of them have seen on their travels, an Arsenal team playing the occasion in a street-smart, organized fashion is a rare privilege.

Shots faced by Arsenal in Premier League matches in 2024, sized by expected goal value

It might be getting more frequent. The Arsenal of Declan Rice, Gabriel and William Saliba are a defensive force whose gravitational strength is only growing. In the nine Premier League games they have played in 2024 only four goals have been conceded, never more than one in a game. Across those matches the opposition have got away 72 shots worth a combined 4.11 expected goals, the latter figure only a slither more than Manchester United let Manchester City have at Old Trafford back in October.

A year and a half in, Gabriel and Saliba have developed their own telemetry, the sort to put you in mind of George Graham’s backline, marshalled by Tony Adams and Steve Bould. The former could force the battle with Erling Haaland up the pitch and really commit himself in the knowledge that just behind him would be one of the Premier League’s best sweeping defenders. Such pairings ought to only improve with time. They have plenty of it. Gabriel is 26, Saliba 23.

“You just feel it when you see the partnership and sometimes there is chemistry between two players that they complement each other,” said Arteta. “They are so happy to work with each other, to work off each other and it just flows when that happens. I think they will enjoy playing together and again, they’ve been really good.”

That, of course, is the last thing neutral viewers want. The great joy of any televised Arsenal match for most of the 2010s (save the brief period where Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny steadied the ship) was the near guarantee of compelling excellence at one end, high farce at the other. Could Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang or Alexis Sanchez score enough to overcome not only their opponents but the combined endeavours of Shkodran Mustafi and David Luiz? 

Those teams could be many things. The one thing you could rest assured they never were was boring, boring Arsenal. If any fanbase knows from their history that a touch of tedium can go a long way further than being the team that beguiles, delights and amuses. So don’t worry if you’re not having fun when Arteta’s side turn the biggest games into grit and grind contests where they get what they need. The Arsenal fan in your life is probably having more than enough fun for both of you.

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