In the jubilation of overtaking Tottenham Hotspur in the league, and a month’s absence from an Arsenal away performance, it was perhaps forgotten by some that Arsenal remain an excruciatingly bad side away from home. While results have picked up somewhat from last season’s abysmally bad away from, Arsenal have gone from being 11th in the away league table last season to 10th this. Following defeat at Everton, it’s a reminder that not enough has improved for Arsenal to be confident of finishing in the top 4, not with four away games left, with three against top-half sides. And with notable embarrassments in the Europa League, against BATE Borisov, and Rennes, it is hard to be confident of Arsenal being successful in the Europa League.
In both seasons, Arsenal have had exemplary home form. That should leave one to conclude that it’s not a case of the players not being talented enough, but rather are a number of different issues, that are tactical and mental. It’s tough to examine the mental aspect of Arsenal on away trips because a) I am not a sports psychologist and b) I have no access to the internal conversations at the club between players and staff. Any comment on the mental part of Arsenal’s struggles away from home are purely conjecture.
Finally, it seems worthwhile to mention that while Arsenal have struggled away from home for two years, this is not the case of every single player at the club and that there’s been a significant amount of turnover in the last 24 months, when Arsenal’s desperately poor away form first became prominent. Rather, it seems like a vicious cycle: Arsenal struggle away from home, leading to a loss of confidence, and tactically, the team responds by becoming reactive and playing cautiously, leading to unimpressive performances, further depleting confidence.
Arsenal’s away form has been an issue since the middle of the 2016/17 season. During one stretch of the season, Arsenal lost four straight away games, losing 3-1 to Chelsea, Liverpool, West Bromwich Albion and 3-0 against Crystal Palace. While away form did rebound somewhat at the end of the year, with wins against Stoke City and Southampton, Arsenal missed out on the Champions League by one point. That stretch of away games perhaps caused Arsène Wenger to react in the way he did at the beginning of the 2017-18 season, where a series of questionable decisions saw Arsenal lose 1-0 at Stoke, and the away form never really recovered, as Arsenal kept four clean sheets away from home, against Chelsea, Burnley, West Ham and Huddersfield.
#Arsenal’s home and away balance since 2005/06— Alexej Behnisch (@behnisch) April 8, 2019
Some variation is normal, but past 2 seasons the home/away gap is just too big. Not sure why. I guess psychological factors play a major role. pic.twitter.com/ltCJcoaNo5
While Arsenal’s away form was understandbly horrendous last year, there is also some indication that Arsenal should’ve been a little better off. Per Understat, Arsenal’s expected point total away from home last year was around 24 points, rather than the 16 points they managed this season. That is not the case this season; the results are exactly where they are expected. Arsenal’s away form this season initially started off well, but things plateaued in December and January, as Arsenal took 1 point from five consecutive away matches against Southampton, Brighton, Liverpool, West Ham, and Manchester City. While losses against City and Liverpool are perhaps to be expected, the concerning point is that the listlessness had returned.
Tactically, Arsenal are still susceptible to teams pressing them, and cutting off Arsenal’s ability to play out from the back. This is more likely to happen away from home than it does at the Emirates, and it is notable that Bernd Leno plays fewer short passes than Petr Cech did as Arsenal’s first-choice goalkeeper, as Leno has been present for more away games. Furthermore, Arsenal’s top passing combinations yesterday were between the centre backs; hardly a recipe for success. Even as Arsenal tried to open the game up yesterday, bringing Aaron Ramsey and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang on at halftime, they created very little: .5 xG, and a mere 7 shots, in a game that they were behind for 80 minutes.
In response to his team’s questionable ability under pressure, Emery has seemingly set his team up to try and contain away from home, and play on the break. That worked against Tottenham and Huddersfield, the two previous away games (though Huddersfield was an utterly dreadful performance) but in both Arsenal scored first. When trying to change Arsenal to be more proactive, Emery can sometimes struggle. This means that rather than playing to their attacking strengths, Arsenal have struggled to create away from home: with 10.5 shot per game away from home, only Crystal Palace, Fulham, West Ham, Cardiff, Newcastle, Brighton and Burnley have taken fewer, which is not great company, with Arsenal also conceding 14.6 shots per game away from home, a shot differential of four.
Far from being protagonists, Arsenal are thoroughly reactive. With away games deciding whether Arsenal finish in the top 4 or not, it is something Emery will have to address quickly. It is not an easy challenge; he indicated a lack of confidence earlier in the season. But while there seems to be a mental block away from home, it extends itself to the coaching staff, and the tactical decisions made.
Thus, Arsenal play a limited midfield two of Mattéo Guendouzi and Mohamed Elneny, with no player in the setup who is able to carry the ball forward, such as Alex Iwobi. Arsenal’s away form, then, seems to be a lack of confidence compounded by decisions made because of low confidence. With Arsenal’s only away wins coming against the teams 13th or lower this season, and three of the four away games coming against teams 10th or higher, it does not paint a pretty picture. But just as Emery has recently found success in using his best attacking players, seeking to impose his side on the game might be the solution to Arsenal’s most recent malaise.