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During the latter years of the Arsene Wenger era it became a frustratingly common occurrence to hear Arsenal described as having a ‘soft underbelly’.
The problem was, so the narrative went, Wenger’s team didn’t like playing physical teams. They lost with remarkable regularity against teams like Blackburn, Bolton and Stoke. Particularly on a wet and windy night, of course.
Physical Premier League teams managed by Sam Allardyce and Tony Pulis are a thing of the past for now so Unai Emery’s new-look Arsenal doesn’t have to deal with that type of challenge (lucky him!), but there is a feeling that the current team have a nastier side. The most successful Arsenal teams were incredibly tough and there are certainly a few fans that believe a lack of bite was the most fundamental flaw in the team in latter years of Wenger’s reign.
Now, with the feisty Matteo Guendouzi, the walking yellow card that is Granit Xhaka and the terrier-like Lucas Torreira in a central midfield protecting hardman Sokratis Papastathopoulos and the rash David Luiz in defence, there is seemingly a stronger spine to the team.
It might even come as a pleasant surprise to the fans to see Arsenal now top (or bottom, depending on how you look at it) of the Premier League in disciplinary terms. Seven matches into the current campaign and Arsenal have received 19 yellow cards and on red. That is three more cards than any other team and four times as many as high-flying Leicester. There it is: proof that this Arsenal side is nasty again.
Or is it? They certainly have more bite in midfield than they did when Santi Cazorla or Aaron Ramsey played alongside Francis Coquelin, but they are hardly intimidating opponents into submission. Arsenal might have picked up more cards than any other side this season, but they rank way down in 15th for fouls committed. They are collecting a card every 3.4 fouls , meaning more of their fouls are resulting in cards than any other team.
Along with the odd rash tackle (Ainsley Maitland-Niles’ second yellow against Aston Villa springs to mind), there are a great deal of ‘clever fouls’ that stop counter-attacks and basically guarantee a yellow – the type for which Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City are often praised.
So perhaps Arsenal are becoming more savvy. Perhaps Emery has made them smarter than they were under Wenger.
Or maybe there are just too many occasions when players are being caught the wrong side of opponents. Calum Chambers required a pull to stop Daniel James nine minutes into last Monday’s game at Old Trafford. Xhaka tugged back Jack Grealish after being beaten in midfield early on against Aston Villa, and Maitland-Niles triped Anwar El Ghazi as he stormed down the wing in the same game. Xhaka and Alexandre Lacazette were booked late on in the north London derby with Tottenham breaking.
On each occasion taking the yellow was probably the right decision: stop the chance of a goal and walk a disciplinary tightrope for the rest of the game. Only Maitland-Niles has fallen to a second yellow card this season. Arsenal being smart without the ball is not something we are used to seeing, but at the same time their defence should not be being exposed as often as is currently the case. Evasive action should not be this common.
Arsenal might be a more street-smart side under Emery, but it is also worth noting that the last time they finished in the top four and qualified for the Champions League – when they finished second to Leicester in 2015/16 – they had the best disciplinary record in the league. Maybe that soft underbelly wasn’t so bad after all.