Arsenal return to Brentford after last season's nightmare - but this is a different team

Arsenal return to Brentford after last season's nightmare - but this is a different team
Arsenal return to Brentford after last season's nightmare - but this is a different team
Arsenal return to Brentford after last season's nightmare - but this is a different team
Let's rewind just over a year. Arsenal were going into their first Premier League game of the season away to Brentford, but totally unprepared for the campaign. They were suffering from a COVID crisis, with strikers Pierre Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette both ruled out. Ben White had signed for £50 million, but what followed was a torrid 90 minutes for the centre back against Ivan Toney.

The Gunners began their 2021/22 campaign in the worst possible fashion, suffering a 2-0 defeat in which they were played off the park by their enthusiastic and relentless newly-promoted opponents. Played at the Brentford Community Stadium, it became a cauldron full of fans creating a party-like atmosphere. It was too much for Mikel Arteta's men, as it started a run of three consecutive losses with no goals scored. The mood around the Emirates was bordering on toxic. Opinions on the manager were split.

On 17th September 2021, Arsenal sat in 16th with one win from four - a tepid and far from convincing 1-0 win against whipping boys Norwich City. They had a goal difference of -8, only one team were worse.

Back to the present day: 17th September 2022. Arsenal are preparing for their next fixture, away to Brentford on Sunday. But the vibes couldn't be any more different than they were around that forgettable performance last season. Sitting atop the Premier League with five wins from six, and playing some elegant, free-flowing football, the atmosphere around the club is totally different. 

The Emirates is a vibrant and boisterous place to be again. The fans are fully behind a team that they can admire. The manager has the support of everyone. There is a collective unity from the very top to the bottom.

Thank you All or Nothing.

But on a serious note, not much can disrupt the current frame of mind of the Arsenal fans. Despite losing 3-1 to Manchester United at Old Trafford two weeks ago for their first defeat of the season, the responses to the performance were generally positive.

Despite some naivety at times during the game, the Gunners dominated the contest for large portions and showed a lot of class in attacking areas. With 61% and 16 shots in the game, the football was slick. With more cutting edge and better end product (as well as Gabriel Martinelli's goal not being ruled out), they could have come away with the victory. But United were simply ruthless on the counter and defended well. After exposing some defensive inexperience shown by William Saliba and Gabriel Magalhaes, alongside strange substitutions by Arteta, they did merit their victory.

But it was a good display from the Gunners, and they know more performances like that this season could certainly be enough to get them into the top four.

So just how much better have Arsenal been in comparison to where they were last season?

This campaign, Arsenal are averaging 2.14xG across their six games, putting them third behind Manchester City and Liverpool. They also average 0.89xGA - only Manchester City are better.

Exactly one year ago, the North London outfit averaged 1.12xG and 2.65xGA in their opening games. The latter was the worst xGA in the league. A stark contrast to where they are now, and quite significantly shows the improvement.

But one could argue that Arsenal's games to start last season were far more difficult. And that would be true. Of their games played up until September 17th, 50% of them were against a team who had finished in the top four the year prior - Manchester City and Chelsea.

This season, they are yet to play anyone who finished in the top four, and their toughest test against United led defeat. But as explained, their performance was very good.

We can explore this further.

Let's look at the xG stats for Arsenal in their individual games against Brentford and Norwich City, and ignore the matches against the two 'big teams'. Their xG in these two games respectively were 1.02 and 2.69, while xGA were 1.89 and 0.58. That's an average of 1.86xG and 1.24xGA.

To make it fair, we should look at Arsenal's numbers this season minus the game against United, as that is seen as one of the traditional 'big teams' too. These were are against Crystal Palace, Leicester City, Bournemouth, Fulham and Aston Villa.

They are averaging 2.29xG and 0.67xGA. Evidently different.

The Gunners are clearly a totally different team from last season, and Arteta is building a unit that is well on the up. Whether you are someone who is a firm believer in the statistical aspect of the game, it is surely clear to the naked eye that they are progressing in the right direction.

A key reason for this improvement is that he finally has a strong group of players that adhere to what he wants. Arteta is a good coach and we saw flashes of good football last season, but he needed some more quality in his starting XI.

The signings of Oleksandr Zinchenko and particularly Gabriel Jesus - who has been utterly sensational since signing from Manchester City - have given them that added boost of quality, and technical class that they showcased at the Etihad.

The Brazilian has been the centre forward that they have craved for years, with his all-round prowess being showcased to the fullest. His display against Manchester United was nothing short of phenomenal, and he deserved to be on the winning side.

His ability to drop deep and hold the ball up, while also linking play with other forward players is second to none. It's exactly the type of striker that Arteta has desired - the complete opposite of a pure goalscorer like Aubameyang.

No player has also completed as many dribbles as Jesus this season (16).

He has been able to implement a really attractive and eye-catchingly cohesive brand of football, similar to his mentor Pep Guardiola, by also utilising Zinchenko in midfield from the left back position. The City boss has been famous for doing that, with the Ukrainian himself, and Joao Cancelo and Kyle Walker. Having more options in midfield and dominating through the centre of the park is critical to how they both want to play.

Saliba's return from his several loans to form a strong partnership with Gabriel has also been a major plus, while Granit Xhaka is producing the best performances of his Arsenal career in a slightly more advanced role. He has spent a lot more time in the opposite penalty area to good effect. He already has the same amount of goals in the league as he did last season.

The constant improvement and maturity of young players has also been pivotal Martinelli and Bukayo Saka's pace and directness on the wings can frighten a lot of Premier League full-backs, and Martin Odegaard has shown his undoubted technical class in spells, scoring three goals. They will be looking for more consistency from their captain though.

It's just six games into the season and tougher tests will come for Arsenal. Questions will still loom over the players' - and Arteta's - inexperience, and whether they will just be good enough to cross the line. But as they return to the scene of last season's nightmare start, Arteta has them heading in a good direction, and their eyes will indeed be on the prize of Champions League football.