Arsenal’s April has been a series of two steps forward, one step back. After a comfortable home win against Newcastle, Arsenal lost against Everton. Wins against Napoli, Watford, and Napoli were followed by Sunday’s loss at home against Crystal Palace. Rather than putting themselves in the driver’s seat for top 4, Arsenal remain firmly in the pack. The problem is that Crystal Palace was the banker; the one where Arsenal’s home form, against a bottom half side, should’ve resulted in a win. Indeed, the discourse surrounding Arsenal’s remaining fixtures have focused on trips to Wolves and Leicester, not the match against Palace. And while the individual performance of Shkodran Mustafi contributed to Arsenal conceding three, it is not the only thing to examine from Sunday. Indeed, it’s rather like beating a dead horse. We know Mustafi is hugely error prone, and not competent. This has been known for some time. Yet Arsenal only signed one centre back last summer, while sending Calum Chambers, whose confidence, unlike Mustafi, wasn’t completely shot, and didn’t sign a centre back in the winter. We know Mustafi will play; we know he will make errors, and this is the ramifications of choices made by Arsenal’s hierarchy.
There was, though, an extra problem on Sunday: Unai Emery’s conservative team selection. In recent months, Emery has utilized the back three as his preferred system. Yet the system has only really worked when Aaron Ramsey has been fit enough to play, with Ramsey making up for the inherent favouring of a more defensive set-up. With Ramsey injured, Xhaka and Torreira nursing problems, Emery turned to the midfield pairing of Mohamed Elneny and Mattéo Guendouzi, with Mesut Özil behind Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. This was the same midfield that started the match against Everton, and against Everton it did not work, just as it did not work against Palace: it is too conservative a set-up.
Emery’s decision to use both is justifiable in the sense that he did not have any other options; his other decisions are less justifiable. For example, using Carl Jenkinson as a wing-back. Emery obviously has wanted to avoid using Ainsley Maitland-Niles in recent weeks, with Mustafi playing right back and Jenkinson starting yesterday. While Jenkinson is capable enough of filling in, his lack of quality on the ball is a problem when playing as a wingback. Often, Jenkinson would receive the ball, and would turn backwards, or Mesut Özil would drift to the right, but wouldn’t have a runner he could play through. And with a midfield that wasn’t playing forward in Elneny and Guendouzi, Arsenal’s attack was stunted. The solution was to use Alex Iwobi (or Henrikh Mkhitaryan), and switch to a back four, which Emery realized. Yet it was a case of 45 minutes too late. With Arsenal chasing, Palace were always going to be a threat through the pace and direct running of Wilfried Zaha, and while Mustafi’s defending was inexcusable, Arsenal were punished for starting the attacking portion of the match 45 minutes too late.
This result has been on the cards for a while. While Arsenal have been good at home, only losing twice and drawing twice in eighteen games, they have not been as statistically dominant as last season. Last season, Arsenal had 18.1 shots per game at home; this season, it is 13.2, with Arsenal 13th in the division on that front. Arsenal are also allowing 11.6 shots per game at home this season, compared with 9.7 last season. In total, that is 2 more shots allowed per game, and 5 fewer taken, which can be seen in the xG numbers: this season, Arsenal have averaged 1.96 xG, 1.27 xGA and 1.82 xPts at home, while last season, Arsenal averaged 2.53 xG, 1.12 xGA and 2.19 xPts at home.
This speaks to a larger concern about Arsenal’s direction under Unai Emery. With away results still poor, Arsenal have to be dominant at home. While Emery deserves credit for the improvement against the rest of the top 6, taking 10 points from the five games, as opposed to 5 from last season, it has been completely offset by drawing with Wolves and losing against Palace. Arsenal have been outshot by Palace, Wolves, West Ham, Cardiff City, Watford and Everton, and this decrease in Arsenal’s dominance at home, while perhaps not felt this season, may be felt going forward in Emery’s reign, and if Arsenal are not only to return to the Champions League, but maintain a place in it, home dominance, along with away improvement, will be crucial. And if that is to happen, Unai Emery will have to go against his ingrained conservatism, a conservatism that is borne out in Arsenal’s attacking decline.