Arsenal made great progress last season, but it was always clear they needed to find another attacking outfit to improve on their fifth-place finish and return to the Champions League.
We’ve seen Arsenal create chances on the pitch in 2021-22, rather than relying heavily on Kieran Tierney on the left as they did a year earlier. Attacking midfielders and wide players also started contributing goals, but with Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang struggling for form and a lack of movement in the final third from compatriot Alexandre Lacazette, Arsenal were hampered when he reaches the penalty area.
New signing Gabriel Jesus’ impact in pre-season was instantaneous, scoring two minutes into his first friendly against Nuremberg. He built on that momentum in warm-up games and again had an instant impact on his home Premier League debut on Saturday, scoring two goals and providing two assists in a 4-2 win over Leicester.
The summer purchase of champions Manchester City gave Arsenal that extra gear, but more importantly, Jesus doesn’t just do it on his own, he incorporates those around him.
The 25-year-old Brazil international’s willingness to run runs behind and stretch the pitch, without being restricted to the center of the pitch, is something Arsenal lacked last season.
The first goal of his hat-trick against Sevilla in the final pre-season game started with him drifting to the left to start a move in the final third, moving the ball and then popping into the box to finish.
It was the same in his first game against Leicester two weeks later, shooting from the left to chase Thomas Partey’s ball down the channel before dancing past Jonny Evans to spark the move.
This move is pretty normal, but it’s what follows that shows the quality of the player who came through the door in early July.
Leicester have seven outfield players in the box when Gabriel Martinelli moves to Granit Xhaka…
…and by the time he reaches Jesus again, there are eight blue shirts in the box, but he has the speed of thought and the technical ability to get the ball off his feet and roll it into the far corner.
The shot had an xG of 0.05 according to Opta and 0.07 according to Wyscout. Either way, Jesus sensed an opportunity and took it.
Jesus taking him in the first place is indicative of the type of player Mikel Arteta now has in mind.
In Athleticism analysis of the forwards Arsenal were interested in this summer, written almost a month before his signing, the point was made that many teams are packing their penalty areas against City which has forced Jesus to create chances. We’ve shown examples of games against Liverpool (who had six players in the box as Jesus fired) and Wolves (who had seven) respectively, but it wasn’t a rare occurrence in his six years at the stadium. Etihad.
What is vital is that it was not just Jesus who was playing instinct in these areas.
Arsenal struggled last season when opposing teams filled their penalty areas, unable to penetrate.
Particularly in the first half on Saturday, a quick combination play down their left handed Arsenal through the Leicester back line with ease.
Oleksandr Zinchenko (also signed from City in this window) pushing forward was key to that and collecting the ball from him high up the field and then touching it towards Martin Odegaard, starts arguably the best run in Arsenal’s game that did not end with a goal.
Odegaard rolls the ball into Jesus’ path with his cleats as the Brazilian rolls off the touchline again, and he plays it to Martinelli with his first touch, before continuing his run into the box.
Another first-time pass comes from Martinelli, who kicks the ball into the legs of Wesley Fofana. Jesus pushes further into the box but sees his shot stopped.
This kind of complex one-touch football is something Arsenal have needed to return to for years.
Following Arsene Wenger’s departure at the end of 2017-18, the football became slow and predictable, with gradual improvement last season, but the display against Leicester showed connections are underway that can bring back a football fluid at the Emirates Stadium.
Ahead of the match, manager Arteta pointed to a scene from the new documentary series All Or Nothing about club life where he tells his coaching staff to give players fewer instructions ahead of the league’s fourth league game. last season against Norwich. (they had lost the other three). The idea was that they should play with more freedom.
On this he said: “It’s the idea – that they can decide for themselves, make decisions for themselves and those decisions are good. In terms of execution, timing and goal. That’s the direction that we want to take.”
After the match, he added: “You can see the interactions and the speed of (the) execution is on a different level now. Their spin can be the same and how they can execute it at that speed and with that precision is completely different. Then , it is much more difficult to defend.
Arsenal dominating from set pieces should be nothing new to anyone.
Last season, they only conceded from a corner in April, and that was in the second phase of play at Southampton. In an attacking sense, full-time on Saturday, no one had scored from more Premier League corners (15) than them since the start of last season (when Nicolas Jover was appointed set-pieces coach).
Their strength in that department was evident for Jesus’ second goal, with him taking off towards the back post to head out. Again, it was a decision that had worked in pre-season – for his first goal against Everton in the United States.
Being alert in the box was also crucial when Arsenal were pushed back by William Saliba’s own goal early in the second half, with Jesus quickly touching the ball to help it into the path of Xhaka, who quickly carried the score at 3-1.
The decision to miss Partey and go straight to Martinelli for his second assist (Arsenal’s fourth goal) was also encouraging in terms of decision-making in the final third.
As well as being involved in all four goals, Jesus’ overall play was also promising.
Within minutes he showed he wouldn’t shy away from a battle with Evans, arguing with him over a loose ball in the Leicester half. As the first half progressed, he continued to be a nuisance, with the biggest buzz coming just before halftime.
Goalkeeper Aaron Ramsdale’s distribution caught the eye last season at Leicester, when one of his most effective kicks was a raked ball over Evans’ head.
Aubameyang circled the Northern Ireland international that day and was knocked down but surprisingly, despite being the last man, Evans was not sent off.
Ramsdale executed an almost identical kick yesterday, aiming for space behind the 34-year-old Evans.
Rather than engage Jesus on this occasion, Evans backs down. Jesus cushions a header to control the long pass and instantly controls the situation.
He initiates contact with Evans to protect the ball, rather than being knocked down by the centre-back…
…then spins her man around. Evans finds himself on deck and is only saved by the recovery of Wilfred Ndidi who returns from midfield.
Jesus is just 5ft 9in (175cm) tall but has been commanding in every aspect of his performance, and that’s exactly what Arsenal will need from their strikers this season.
Alongside Martinelli and Zinchenko, he illustrated the importance of playing on the front foot and with freedom.
He had 55 touches before going off in the 84th minute, including 15 inside the Leicester penalty box, but was also a threat from both flanks – he was unlucky not to get another assist after entering the penalty area from the right and crossing into the six-yard box, where no one in a red shirt was playing.
Strange as it may seem, Odegaard and Bukayo Saka are not running the game like they did last season, shows that there is still room for this team to grow over the next few months.
These two ranked fifth and third respectively in shot-creating action in the 2021-22 Premier League. As with Tierney, they may be less relied upon to create this time, with more movement down the front line, but Arsenal carrying a threat across the width of the pitch will be key.
Thankfully, that seems to be understood by Arteta, who said: “In structure, form and unity, you have the freedom to decide and occupy any space. We work on it every day.”