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Roberto De Zerbi offered no excuses for Brighton’s defeat at the Emirates Stadium on Sunday but he was eager to emphasise the quality of their opponent. “I think Arsenal are one of the best, maybe this season the best team in the Premier League,” he said. 

It was a bold claim and it was interesting to hear his logic. What is it that makes this Arsenal side so difficult to play against? The first words De Zerbi reached for in response were “energy” and “powerful”. “We lost every second ball. We lost every duel.”

Brighton could not compete physically, in other words, and they are not the first side to be overwhelmed by Arsenal lately. “Yes, they have good players,” noted former Sheffield United boss Paul Heckingbottom. “But there is a real edge to them as well.”

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Watch highlights from Arsenal’s 2-0 win over Brighton

Rice, Havertz aid pressing game

The additions of Declan Rice and Kai Havertz have made a difference. Their stature instantly made Arsenal a more imposing team and the duo have helped improve their pressing game too.

The win over Brighton showed how. Mikel Arteta loves Havertz’s ability to win duels. In conversation with Sky Sports recently, the Arsenal boss also talked up the 24-year-old’s “football intelligence”. Combined, they are invaluable qualities out of possession.

With Havertz pressing centrally along with Gabriel Jesus and Martin Odegaard, Arsenal were able to disrupt Brighton’s build-up and pin De Zerbi’s side in their own half for long periods. “We are not used to suffering in this way,” said the Brighton boss afterwards.

According to Opta, Arsenal won possession in the final third 11 times – their second-highest total in a Premier League game this season and as high as they managed in any game in the whole of last term.

There is further evidence of increased off-the-ball aggression in the fact Arsenal are allowing significantly fewer opposition passes per defensive action, from 10.8 last season, putting them sixth, to 9.7 this season, moving them up to second.

graphic

Advanced metrics explained

Shot-ending high turnovers: Sequences that start in open play, begin within 40m of the opponent’s goal, and end in a shot.

Pressed sequences: The number of times the team breaks opposition passing sequences at three or fewer passes via a defensive action within 40m of the opponent’s goal.

Passes per defensive action (PPDA): The amount of passes an opposing side is allowed in between attempts to win the ball through tackles, closing down, or other defensive actions.

Progress against:The average amount of distance (in metres) that a team allows its opponents to move upfield per passing sequence.

Havertz’s physical prowess has helped make Arsenal even more difficult to play through and his contribution to their pressing game is evident in the data. He is making 23 pressures per 90 minutes this season. By contrast, Granit Xhaka, the player he has replaced in Arsenal’s midfield, made only 13 per 90 minutes last term.

Rice, though, has arguably been more important, ensuring that, even if an opponent is able to pick their way past Arsenal’s press, they face another significant obstacle.

Rice has the athleticism to defend open spaces and his knack for mopping up danger behind Arsenal’s forward line has already become a feature of the side’s play this season.

In addition to his speed and power, Rice boasts superb anticipation, typically positioning himself exactly where he needs to be to smother attacks and keep Arsenal’s opponents on the back foot.

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Mikel Arteta explains Declan Rice’s ‘unique’ presence to Sky Sports

According to Opta’s advanced metrics, Arsenal are now the most effective side in the Premier League when it comes to limiting their opponents’ progress upfield and that is precisely Arteta’s intention.

“More than control, I want dominance,” he added to Sky Sports. “Dominance in the right area and not allowing the opponent to breathe. We want the opponent to feel under pressure at all times.”

Rice and Havertz have helped Arsenal achieve that dominance more consistently and it is not just an offensive weapon. Helped by pinning their opponents back and limiting their scoring chances, Arsenal have the best defensive record in the division this season.

Along with Rice, the Brighton game showed the value of having a powerful and aggressive centre-back pairing in William Saliba and Gabriel Magalhaes, with the latter, in particular, ensuring striker Evan Ferguson was given no time or space to hold the ball up.

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Sky Sports’ Gary Neville explains why he sees Arsenal as Man City’s only title challengers

Set-piece threat enhanced

Arsenal’s increased physicality also shines through on set-pieces. Their opener against Brighton, scored by Gabriel Jesus following a Bukayo Saka corner, was their 10th set-piece goal this season.

It is the joint-highest total in the division, together with Everton’s, and means Arsenal are already two-thirds of the way to matching their total for the whole of the last campaign.

Arsenal are a tall team. Rice and Havertz are threats from dead-ball situations but so too are Saliba, Gabriel, Ben White, and Takehiro Tomiyasu, among others. “Of course, the height is really important on set-plays,” said Arteta after the Brighton game.

But height is no guarantee of success. Rather, Arsenal are indebted to the efforts of set-piece coach Nicolas Jover, who has worked with their takers as well as those tasked with getting on the end of deliveries, carefully choreographing every aspect of their routines.

“The takers are getting better and better,” added Arteta. “They are understanding where to attack in relation to what the opponent does well. Big credit to the coaches for the work they have done – and big credit to the players as well for buying into that and understanding how crucial this is in the game.”

Arsenal’s attack has not been at its most fluid at times this season. Their top scorers in the Premier League are Bukayo Saka and Eddie Nketiah with only five goals apiece.

Nicolas Jover joined Mikel Arteta's coaching staff in 2021
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Nicolas Jover joined Mikel Arteta’s coaching staff in 2021

But the side’s increased threat from set-pieces has helped offset that inconsistency and, while penalties are categorised separately from set-piece goals, it is worth noting, too, that Arsenal have scored all six of their spot-kicks this term – and that with four different takers in Odegaard, Saka, Havertz and Fabio Vieira.

It is another factor which reflects well on the work overseen by Jover and there is more evidence of dead-ball improvement in how Arsenal are defending those situations as well as attacking them.

Luton caused them problems in the game at Kenilworth Road recently, scoring twice from corners, but Arsenal have only conceded one other goal from a set-piece all season in the Premier League.

They have limited their opponents to only 23 set-piece shots – 12 fewer than any other side – and their total for expected goals against from set-pieces is also the lowest in the division at only 2.18.

This robustness from dead-ball situations is not a trait typically associated with Arsenal but it is another area in which their increased size and stature is making a difference.

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Paul Merson gives his verdict on whether Arsenal can win the title

Increased emphasis on crossing

Arsenal have sought to tap into their increased physicality by diversifying the way they attack. With better targets to aim at in the box, they are putting far greater emphasis on crossing.

The numbers illustrate the extent of the change. Last season, Arsenal ranked 10th in the Premier League for attempted crosses and even lower, down in 14th, for successful crosses.

This term, however, they are third for crosses, behind Everton and Luton, and second for successful crosses, behind only Liverpool. They are making roughly 40 per cent more than last season.

Graphic

It is not just a result of their improvement from set-pieces, either. Arsenal are crossing considerably more from open play too, ranking third, behind Aston Villa and Brentford, for successful open-play crosses, up from 15th last season.

The result is that Arsenal have scored more cross-assisted goals (nine) than any other Premier League side this season. They also lead the way for headed goals, with eight.

It is another area in which their new signings have helped.

With his last-gasp header from Odegaard’s delivery against Luton and his back-post finish following a corner against Manchester United, Rice accounts for two of their cross-assisted goals.

Kai Havertz celebrates after scoring Arsenal's second goal
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Kai Havertz has now scored four Premier League goals for Arsenal

Havertz, meanwhile, accounts for one of them thanks to his close-range header from Saka’s diagonal delivery to clinch the win over Brentford at the Gtech Community Stadium. He had a similar effort ruled out in the recent defeat to Aston Villa.

It is worth noting that all of those examples came in the latter stages of games. Against stubborn opponents, when Arsenal need to conjure a goal against massed ranks of defenders sitting behind the ball, they now have a different weapon to employ.

It is just one of many ways in which the physical prowess noted by De Zerbi on Sunday is helping. The hope for Arsenal is that they see the difference again when they head to Anfield this weekend.

Watch Liverpool vs Arsenal live on Sky Sports Premier League and Main Event from 5pm on Saturday; kick-off 5.30pm

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