There is plenty of work still to do but the fightback has started under Mikel Arteta at Arsenal. Back-to-back 1-0 wins over Norwich and Burnley might not set pulses racing, but two clean sheets in as many matches represents a solid foundation from which to build on following their disastrous start to the season.
The same side that conceded so feebly from a long throw on the opening day against Brentford has belatedly offered evidence that it is made of stronger stuff – and from the ashes of the pitiful 5-0 defeat to Manchester City, a new-look defence has risen to suggest that a turnaround could be in sight.
A combination of players returning from injury and reinforcements arriving in the transfer window has allowed Arteta to deploy a back line which looks capable of standing up to the challenge, one which Gabriel was at the heart of as he cleared and blocked every Burnley ball on a nervy Saturday afternoon at Turf Moor. The Brazilian was colossal and it’s hard to imagine the centre-back allowing himself to be bullied in the manner of Pablo Mari in those panicked early displays, which threatened to end Arteta’s season before it had even begun.
Right back Takehiro Tomiyasu and goalkeeper Aaron Ramsdale have also played their part after being brought straight into the team, following their arrivals from Bologna and Sheffield United, respectively. The Japanese international stood up to the bombardment of aerial balls that were aimed at his back post while Ramsdale claimed a number of high crosses in an assured performance to put his new side at ease.
Burnley may have lost their edge at Turf Moor and the old line of the stadium being a “tough place to go” no longer stands up to the light given their recent results at home under Sean Dyche – but it remains a test to be passed, especially for a side who have faced accusations of vulnerability in recent weeks. It was a barometer of the work that has been done by Arteta following his side’s dismal start, which was underpinned by those early defensive failings.
An attacking starting line-up did not translate into goals and ultimately put pressure on Arsenal’s back line as they defended their box in the closing stages. It was the visitors who won the battle for aerial supremacy, however, much to the efforts of the outstanding Gabriel, who led the team in clearances, blocks and tackles.
“He is a player with an incredible future,” Arteta said. “He has adapted really well to the league, that’s why we signed him. It does not get much harder than playing here in the Premier League. I thought he was terrific.”
Tomiyasu and Ramsdale came in from similar praise from the Arsenal manager, with the 23-year-old goalkeeper looking to have gained early ground in the battle with Bernd Leno to be his No 1. “His character, his leadership, that’s what I like. He has a presence and he dominates,” Arteta said.
Ramsdale’s late claims may have got Arsenal over the line but that is not to say that there was an absence of nervy moments before then. Ben White, making just his third start since being signed for £50m from Brighton, was given a torrid afternoon by Ashley Barnes at times, with the Burnley striker targeting the 23-year-old at long balls and routinely winning his challenges with him.
White was fortunate his underhit back pass, intercepted by Matej Vydra, did not result in an equaliser or a penalty midway through the second half, but the young centre-back recovered to finish strongly alongside Gabriel – a response he was unable to produce when he struggled alongside Mari earlier in the season. Kieran Tierney, meanwhile, the only ever-present member of the Arsenal back line this campaign, continued to deliver as he provided the Gunners with a genuine attacking threat on the left wing.
A north London derby is next up for Arsenal and while it remains early, Arteta’s defence should enter that match with a degree of confidence that seemed unfathomable in the aftermath of their 5-0 defeat at the Etihad.
“One-nil to the Arsenal” remains the cry for now, and there will be few complaints next Sunday evening if it is ringing out at the Emirates once again.