Entering the transfer window, it was clear that Arsenal needed to address their midfield. Indeed, while an overhaul had appeared necessary at the beginning of 2020, the realities of Project Restart made it an urgent concern. Mesut Özil didn’t play a single minute of Project Restart. Mattéo Guendouzi wasn’t involved after the second game. From a pure numbers standpoint, Arsenal’s midfield options dropped by a third.
Project Restart also highlighted Arsenal’s desperate lack of creativity, which is now a trend under Mikel Arteta. Under Arteta, Arsenal do not create a lot of shots. They’ve averaged 8 per game this season, and averaged 9.55 last season in games coached by Arteta. The team was in the bottom half in terms of expected assists last season, because they do not create a consistent stream of chances.
Indeed, Arteta’s attack seems to have a defined move, playing out from back to front. This means that when it is pulled off, Arsenal have created an excellent goal-scoring chance for their elite goal-scoring player, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. The problem is when Arsenal can’t pull that specific move off, and it is telling that in that move, which has seen Aubameyang score against Liverpool in the Community Shield and Fulham in the Premier League, Arsenal avoid the center of the pitch like the midfield grass is lava.
We do not yet know the exact way that Arteta wants his team to attack, but given the composition of the midfield, it is becoming clear how he wants the team as it is constructed right now to attack. When that move cannot come off, Arsenal struggle. It took a late intervention from Bukayo Saka and Dani Ceballos to create the winner against West Ham, and against Liverpool in the Premier League, Liverpool’s pressure plus the predictability of Arsenal’s play rendered Arsenal ineffective as an attacking force.
Arsenal, and Arteta’s problem is that coaching can only take a team so far. Broadly, a coach can squeak a little bit extra out of a team, as Arteta did, especially in the FA Cup run, squeak less out of a team, as Unai Emery did, or have the team at it’s level. But a coach is not going to make up an extra 10 points outside of a team’s talent level—that’s why, for example, Mauricio Pochettino never took Spurs to the top of the Premier League.
Arsenal’s midfield doesn’t have the requisite talent level to bring Arsenal’s level up to where it’s needed. Again, Arsenal’s chance creation was at a mid-table to bottom half level last season. It is chance creation that will bring Arsenal to a higher level in the Premier League: Arsenal conceded fewer goals than Chelsea last season, but Chelsea scored 13 more. Between Mohamed Elneny, Granit Xhaka, and Dani Ceballos, Arsenal cannot match the creativity, talent and power of the midfields of other teams looking to finish in the top 4. All three are good passers; none are final third passers. Ceballos has improved his combativeness, and is a useful number 8, but he needs a number 10, a player that Arsenal do not have—even if Mesut Özil were to be included, he is not really at the level that is required. Furthermore, Arsenal have lost midfielders from last season: Lucas Torreira is gone, Mattéo Guendouzi and Özil are not involved, hence the increased use of Elneny.
Yet what Arsenal did this summer was sign a 32-year old winger and a centre back. Willian looked good against Fulham and poor elsewhere, and is keeping Pépé out of the side. Gabriel has been broadly very good, but it is a legitimate question to ask if it is the best use of resources when Arsenal already had six centre backs, including a left footed centre back, Pablo Marí, who was signed last January.
There is still time to rectify the situation, but the need to improve Arsenal’s creativity was apparent for months. It is a need that Arsenal have failed to meet, and on that basic level, the transfer window is on the verge of being a failure.