Of all the clubs in the Premier League making use of this rare break from action for rest and refocus on the remainder of the season, few could possibly have welcomed it as much as Arsenal. New Head Coach Mikel Arteta assumed control of the Gunners during the most congested part of their schedule just before Christmas, and he has done much to change the morale around the club in his limited training sessions thus far.
With a style of play built on intensity and organisation, Arteta has managed to extract a considerable improvement from his team defensively, but the attack has yet to make the same strides under his watch. With a chance now to have an uninterrupted week of warm weather training in Dubai, Arteta can settle down to the task of introducing more tactical concepts to the team while improving player fitness that had slipped drastically in Unai Emery’s second season at the club.
For the players, who were encouraged to invite their families along to Dubai, the break will allow them to lick the wounds of a tumultuous season thus far. Though they have been operating with more confidence under Arteta’s refreshing leadership style, they are yet to find that ultimate self-belief this season and go on a winning run of matches.
For some within the squad, this break will offer the opportunity to snap out of a bad run of form, finally breakthrough in front of goal, or simply get back to a regular role within the team. Here are the three Arsenal players most likely to benefit from the break.
Since Mikel Arteta took over in December, almost every single Arsenal players has markedly improved their form compared to when Unai Emery was in charge. However, Alexandre Lacazette is one of the few players whose struggles have arguably only continued since the appointment. Now sitting on 10 matches since his last goal, which came in the Europa League Group Stages in December, the Frenchman has been so poor in front of goal of late that tension is now starting to creep into other parts of his game.
As Arsenal’s most well-rounded number nine, Lacazette is often picked to start at centre-forward by Arteta, shuffling Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang out wide in the process. As a solid passer and tireless worker when defending from the front, Lacazette frequently contributes to the team even when he isn’t scoring. However, while the work rate is still there, the striker often cuts a frustrated figure on the pitch these days, and his frustrations have often boiled over, leading the striker to be booked six times, with three coming in just his last seven matches alone.
Simply put, Lacazette is too talented a finisher for the malaise to continue in this way for too long. With luck, the time away from the daily grind of the season should help him sort himself out in front of goal. Like his young compatriot Mattéo Guendouzi, Lacazette is at his best when he is using the opponents’ aggression to amplify his own intensity, but at times both can be put off their game when caught up in a physical battle with a defender or feuding with the referee.
Should the striker fail to find his form on the other side of the break, he could soon see his starting berth jeopardised by the emergence of Gabriel Martinelli and the return of Eddie Nketiah from loan this January. Arteta has thus far shown patience and a willingness to stick with the Frenchman through his struggles, but with each passing week the results get more important, and he cannot continue to wait forever.
It took a long time for Hector Bellerin to look like himself on a football pitch following his gruesome knee injury just over a year ago, but in January, fans finally started to see flashes of the crucial player he was becoming before his extended absence. Ainsley Maitland-Niles’ maturation from a talented but raw young midfielder into a genuinely competent right-back did much to help minimise the loss of the Arsenal vice-captain, but Bellerin has long been considered part of the very core of this team.
Cedric Soares arrived at Arsenal this January from Southampton in part to help the Gunners cope with a run of injuries to the full-backs, but his presence as an experienced depth piece could allow Maitland-Niles to move back to his preferred midfield role as well without leaving Bellerin as the only right-back currently in the squad. However, it could also be taken to mean that the club aren’t necessarily confident that Bellerin will be available on a regular basis for selection.
Having started the last three matches in a row for the first time since his injury, the Spaniard has built some positive momentum. Ever since returning from the hamstring injury he suffered in December, he has looked stronger and more confident in his body than he had in the early days of his return, and two weeks in the desert with his teammates could be just what he needs to ensure Arsenal end the season with no doubt over who should start at right-back.
Three months ago, the footballing world thought Mesut Ozil was finished. After 18 months of an almost purgatorial existence on the fringes of Unai Emery’s squad, the German has become one of the first names on the teamsheet again since Mikel Arteta took over at Arsenal. For the first time in a long time, Ozil seems happy with his role in the team. Despite bagging just two assists in 19 appearances this season, including none since Arteta’s arrival, he arguably looks physically as good as he has been since 2017.
In spite of his apparent re-engagement within the team, many fans remain concerned by his lack of production – his lucrative contract, as ever, proving to be hard to ignore for most. Cries of “he’s a luxury we still can not afford” remain a common refrain on social media platforms, but in truth, he is not the only one responsible for his lack of production.
Summer additions Gabriel Martinelli and Nicolas Pépé have brought pace and trickery to the Arsenal flanks this season, but Lacazette and Ozil, in particular, have found difficulty in trying to fit into the attack alongside two players who love to dribble at opponents. The Gunners find themselves with no shortage of attacking talent, but constructing a balanced and effective attack out of the available components has proven difficult for all three Arsenal managers this season.
Given a whole week to immerse themselves into the intricacies of Arteta’s system, the Gunners should return from Dubai with more confidence, and hopefully, tangible progress in the attacking end. The Spaniard has largely succeeded in installing his preferred shape, but the players must now commit to memory the many patterns of play he requires in each area of the pitch. As he has been for years, even when many felt his time in London was finished, Mesut Ozil still may be the key to it all.