Whispers last week have become full blown concerns this week. Defeat against Manchester City was one thing. But yesterday’s loss, against Leicester City, is a real blow against Arsenal’s hopes for this season. What can no longer be denied is Arsenal have a problem, one summed up by the paltry total of one shot in the second half.
First, the numbers. Mikel Arteta has taken control of 26 Premier League games; essentially two-thirds of a full season. The trends, then, can be seen as having a large enough sample size. In these 26 games, Arsenal have an xG of 32.2, and xG against of 37—an expected goal difference per game of -.18. For comparison, last season, that would’ve been 11th—where Arsenal were—and this season it is the 12th best mark. Far from challenging for the Champions League places, the underlying numbers say Arsenal are a mid-table team.
The real concern is the attacking numbers—because they reflect exactly what we are seeing on the pitch. The trend is not that Arsenal are a mediocre attacking team, but a bad attacking team, incapable of winning games.
While analytics, and underlying numbers do not always tell the full story, and can be over utilized, they are useful to discern what you are seeing on the pitch. One thing that analytics has crystalized is that shooting often is good. If you are in a decent attacking position—note to Granit Xhaka, not 35 yards away from goal—you should shoot. Arsenal’s problem is they cannot get into decent attacking positions enough to shoot enough. While some of Arsenal’s attack, notably Alexandre Lacazette, are notoriously shot shy, this is not the case for most of Arsenal’s attack. The reason why Arsenal have taken more than 15 shots twice in Arteta’s reign is because they do not attack well enough to get into dangerous positions.
Arsenal’s system on Sunday was broadly similar to the system that Mikel Arteta first instilled when he arrived: the usual five channels of attack, with Granit Xhaka dropping into a centre back and left central midfield role. The biggest difference is that both full backs, Kieran Tierney and Héctor Bellerín, were pushed on to become part of the attacking five, with Dani Ceballos reprising the role Ainsley Maitland-Niles had last December. There was another difference: Bukayo Saka took an inside left position, with Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang on the inside right.
Arsenal were good and efficient at moving the ball from the defensive third right up to the final third. The passing of David Luiz was sorely missed when he went off with injury, and Granit Xhaka also played a sparkling between the lines pass. While that was all well and good, though, Arsenal had very little happening in the final third. Once Leicester dropped deep, cutting off the initial pass, Arsenal struggled to create, with crosses becoming the best outlet—both Tierney and Aubameyang delivered good ones.
This inability to create in the final third, though, is a huge problem. Once Leicester blocked off the early ball, and once Luiz went off injured, Arsenal effectively ran out of ideas—hence the one shot in the second half. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, who signed a bumper new contract last month, has had 8 shots in 6 games. Essentially, Arsenal are failing to create for their best striker. The move that was working, where Arsenal build from the back and create an opening down the left, has been thwarted, because of its predictability. Without it, Arsenal’s movement is static, as no one in the front line consistently runs beyond, and Lacazette physically can’t. The lack of movement contributes to the lack of creative passing in the final third: even if someone gets the ball there, to whom are they exactly passing to?
The attack, then, is too predictable, and too one-dimensional. It is perhaps not Arteta’s idea to increase variance in his attack. But whatever his idea is, it is not working. Entering play on Sunday, Arsenal’s attack was 16th in the Premier League in terms of expected goals. They are 15th in shots per game. Whether it’s play Aubameyang through the middle, or add the off the ball movement of Joe Willock or start Nicolas Pépé, Arteta desperately needs to improve Arsenal’s attack.
Twelve months ago, Arsenal’s defence was a mess. They were conceding nearly 20 shots a game under Unai Emery, everyone knew it was a huge issue, and Emery could not fix it. Arteta has done well to add structure to Arsenal’s play. They no longer concede 20 shots a game. Yet, as recent results show, conceding fewer shots doesn’t matter if you cannot create. Twelve months on, the manager is different, a few of the players are different, and the issue is different. But, much like last season, it is blindingly obvious what Arsenal’s problem is. Unless Arteta solves it, it is hard to see Arsenal making any tangible league progress from the difficult days of November 2019.