After four wins and four losses to start Arsenal’s Premier League campaign, Mikel Arteta is aware that things have to change. One area where Arsenal need drastic improvement is their home form. After eking out two wins to begin the season, Arsenal have lost their last two home games, and overall have scored four goals in four games at home. When Unai Emery began his slide into getting sacked, it was because Arsenal lost the ability to win at home, and Arteta will be mindful that something similar doesn’t happen to him.
Arteta’s problem, though, is that there aren’t that many levers he has to change things. Arsenal don’t have a great team—the consequence of muddled squad construction, hastened by the decisions of the previous coaching regime and Raul Sanllehi—and the process of making Arsenal into a better team will take some time, and money. But Arteta does have some options which can probably make the team function more in attack. One option has been debated endlessly: playing Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang through the centre, and dropping Alexandre Lacazette.
That would enable Arsenal to start what is perhaps their most balanced front three, with Bukayo Saka on the left, Aubameyang through the middle, and Nicolas Pépé on the right. And there is some evidence it could work: the halcyon day of Sheffield United at home, where bringing Pépé on for Lacazette changed the game.
Indeed, bringing Pépé into the team would help Arsenal improve its shot output. Arsenal are thoroughly midtable in terms of expected goals, and fifteenth in shots per 90. If analytics has taught us one thing about football, it’s that gambling, and taking more shots, statistically increases your chances of scoring. This does not mean, though, taking a bunch of low rated shots from 30 yards, but rather, when in decent positions around the eighteen yard box, it is better to gamble and shoot rather than not.
Arsenal, though, don’t really have a player who takes gambles. Not, at least, in their regular Premier League lineup. Playing against the albeit lesser competition in the Europa League, however, has highlighted the role that Joe Willock could have in this Arsenal team. Indeed, Willock is second among all Arsenal players in xG/90 across all competitions, and fourth in shots per 90. While the talent that Arsenal face in the Europa League is certainly less than that of the Premier League, Willock’s numbers are reflective of his off the ball movement, and his decision to take risks, and gamble.
Against Dundalk, Willock consistently attacked the box, taking advantage of channels where he could pop up, either running beyond Eddie Nketiah, or in support of him. In running beyond Nketiah, he not only put himself in a position to be in a good position, but in needing to be marked, created space for Arsenal’s other attacking players. He made supporting runs too, gambling on the possibility of getting the ball. This paid off for Willock with his goal. The run Willock makes puts him in a perfect position to be played in by Pépé. Pépé decides to shoot, but because Willock made the initial run, he can pounce upon the rebound—a goal that just doesn’t happen if Arsenal don’t have a midfield player making the forward run.
Against Molde, it was more of the same. Willock forced the first own goal, and played the cross for the second—after making a forward midfield run. He was in the penalty box for the cutback for Nicolas Pépé’s third, and made a superb run off the shoulder of the defence to be found by David Luiz, before finally getting his goal after another forward dart into the penalty box.
Signing Thomas Partey means that Mikel Arteta has some flexibility in his midfield. He can use Partey behind two number 8s, or use Partey and another #8 ahead of someone like Granit Xhaka, or Mohamed Elneny. In any event, in games that Arsenal should dominate, and have to take initiative, there is a spot for Joe Willock as one of the number 8s, because of the quality of his movement off the ball, and the way he gets into effective attacking areas. It isn’t always pretty—the own goals against Molde weren’t the end product of easy on the eye football—but Arteta’s Arsenal need to be more effective in attack. One way to do that is to get more movement, more attacking intent, and more shots into the team, a role that can be provided by Joe Willock.