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What lineup & formation should Arsenal use after the break?

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The defense has improved (until Villa), but the attack needs new life.

FBL-EUR-C3-ARSENAL-MOLDE Photo by GLYN KIRK/AFP via Getty Images

Who needed a break after the final whistle blew against Aston Villa? It was a tough way to enter the international break and following their win at Old Trafford. It’s been an odd season for Arsenal so far, and perhaps not in the ways we thought it would.

The defense was the best in the league until Aston Villa came to the Emirates. In fact, even giving up those three goals Arsenal are still just one goal allowed behind the top defenses in the Premier League. A perfect start to the Europa League, an opening Community Shield victory over Liverpool, advancing into the quarterfinals of the League Cup, and the additions of Thomas Partey and Gabriel.

But the attack has struggled mightily. Only Wolves have scored less goals than Arsenal in the top 16 teams in the table. Hopefully Mikel Arteta and his staff are taking this international break to shift their focus to restarting the Gunners’ attack.

In the meantime, here is a look at a few attacking and offensive minded passing statistics and how the leaders in these categories might fit into a starting XI when Arsenal return. I’ve gone with stats per 90 since playing time has varied quite a bit. Obviously this can’t fully compensate for the opponents each match, but players who have scored, assisted, looked to create chances and move the ball forward are what we are looking for here. And finally, yes it would be lovely if Arteta had found a way to reintegrate Mesut Ozil to at least allow that option, but that ship has said (at least until January).

Goals+Assists (per 90)

1 - Joe Willock - 0.69
2 - Nicolas Pepe - 0.69
3 - Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang - 0.52
4 - Alexandre Lacazette - 0.47
5 - Eddie Nketiah - 0.43

Bellerin & Saka came in 6th & 7th here. Aubameyang leads in goals and only Pepe matches him in total goals + assists (both have 5 total). Willock’s growth has been a welcome surprise this season so far, while most would have expected more from Willian and Saka.

Passes into the final 3rd (per 90)

1 - Shkodran Mustafi - 8.18
2 - Dani Ceballos - 7.43
3 - Thomas Partey - 7.22
4 - Granit Xhaka - 6.63
5 - Mohamed Elneny - 4.54

Gabriel & Luiz just missed this list as 6th and 7th. You’d hope to see your midfielders and wingbacks or fullbacks here, so the midfield quartet makes sense, but Bellerin and Tierney are missing whether you track it per 90 or in total. Which is frustrating when you have two players of their caliber that they haven’t been able to push the attack forward more often.

Progressive Passes (per 90)

1 - Thomas Partey - 7.50
2 - Granit Xhaka - 5.00
3 - Shkodran Mustafi - 5.00
4 - Dani Ceballos - 4.86
5 - Cedric Soares - 4.59

Tierney & Bellerin were 6th and 7th here, only shifted down based on a few strong offensive matches in the Europa League. Partey, as hoped, has provided more movement forward despite Arsenal’s overall conservative setup for much of this season.

Passes into the Penalty Area (per 90)

1 - Nicolas Pepe - 1.81
2 - Willian - 1.59
3 - Reiss Nelson - 1.36
4 - Cedric Soares - 1.35
5 - Granit Xhaka - 1.16

You expect wingers and attacking midfielders to rank here, but what is odd here is that neither Aubameyang and Saka were higher despite playing as left-sided attackers often.

Shot Creating Actions (per 90)

1 - Reiss Nelson - 4.95
2 - Cedric Soares - 4.55
3 - Joe Willock - 4.33
4 - Dani Ceballos - 3.78
5 - Willian - 2.98

Having Cedric as 2nd place in an offensive stat, might be counterproductive to any argument here, but Nelson and Willock clearly have tried to attack more often in their opportunities. Pepe and Aubameyang came in 6th & 7th place respectively.

Goal Creating Actions (per 90)

1 - Reiss Nelson - 0.99
2 - Joe Willock - 0.96
3 - Nicolas Pepe - 0.95
4 - Willian - 0.75
5 - Hector Bellerin - 0.48

Saka was a close 6th place, but Aubameyang drifted down to 9th, below Elneny and Lacazette was completely absent.

Based on that how could (should?) Arteta set up when Arsenal make their return from international break?

The defense has been fine outside of two matches this season, so it’s time to drop the three centerback formation. The attack needs help and since Ozil has been left out, Willock gets the chance to see if he can step up to the Premier League level. Aubameyang, Pepe and Saka make a more dynamic and threatening front three, especially with Willock, Ceballos and Partey all playing balls into them. Auba will challenge the backline more than Lacazette has and in theory open up more space for Saka and Pepe. As they press forward it allows Tierney and Bellerin to get involved in more attacking moves.

Here is how the bench could look keeping the attack as a primary motivator.

1 - Alexandre Lacazette
2 - Eddie Nketiah
3 - Shkodran Mustafi
4 - Granit Xhaka
5 - Reiss Nelson
6 - Ainsley Maitland-Niles
7 - Alex Runarsson

From an attacking standpoint Lacazette and Nketiah should be on the bench. Eddie has proven to be a viable option and no one on the team holds the ball up better than Lacazette if that is needed based on the situation. Willian appears on several of the lists above and has the experience, but you get the sense now that those minutes are better spent on Reiss Nelson and letting him develop further.

Mustafi gets the nod over Holding in that he will try the longer and/or more attacking pass. In the midfield Elneny has been solid in his return and has helped on the defensive end, but moving the ball forward is not one of his specialties. Xhaka on the bench makes more sense, both for the midfield and as a backline emergency option. And finally, despite Cedric managing to make it on a few top five lists, does anyone out there want Kolasinac or Cedric as the fullback option on the bench over Maitland-Niles?

We all know that Arsenal’s attack has struggled. So looking at the options, how would you set up the Gunners? Who makes your starting XI and who are you putting on the bench?