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Bernd Leno says what we’ve all been thinking

Arsenal’s defense is getting better. The attack, not so much.

Burnley v Arsenal - Premier League - Turf Moor
Thanks for keeping it real, Bernd.
Photo by Mike Egerton/EMPICS/PA Images via Getty Images

After Arsenal’s frustrating 13th draw of the season against Burnley, Bernd Leno stated the obvious, “we need to score more goals because defensively we are doing very well.” He complimented not only the defenders but the entire squad for having the “mentality that everyone defends” and was particularly effusive in his praise of the set-piece defending at Turf Moor. It was a bit of “player-speak” but the underlying message is accurate: the defense is getting better, the attack needs work.

Leno is 100% right. Arsenal’s defense has improved under Mikel Arteta. Updating Aidan’s numbers from last week with the stats from the Burnley match, the Gunners are still better defensively now than under Unai Emery.

Arsenal Metrics

Manager Games xG xGA xG/g xGA/g xGD/g
Manager Games xG xGA xG/g xGA/g xGD/g
Emery 13 17.78 21.04 1.37 1.62 -0.25
Ljungberg 6 7.31 6.6 1.22 1.1 0.12
Arteta 6 8.2 7.25 1.37 1.21 0.16

It’s a small sample size to be sure, but it confirms Leno’s analysis, and I agree with the German keeper. Arsenal look more structured and better organized defensively. There seems to be a particular focus on not conceding high-quality scoring chances. The team sets up to clog passing lanes between the defenders and to deny entry into/shots from inside the penalty area at the cost of allowing shots from outside the box. That’s a sensible trade-off; shots from inside the area are much more dangerous than shots from outside it, even if you allow them in higher volume. But the biggest, most data-science-y indicator of the change is that I no longer half-cover my eyes when Arsenal are defending.

You don’t need advanced metrics to conclude that the Arsenal attack has stagnated. The good ole’ “eye test” tells you that. A floundering attack is not a new problem for the Gunners. Mikel Arteta’s Arsenal is managing the same xG per game that Unai Emery’s side did this season. Emery was roundly criticized for stymieing the club’s most creative players to the detriment of the attack, but maybe, just maybe, that criticism was a bit unfair.

Alexandre Lacazette is in the midst of a 10-match goalless drought. He hasn’t scored an away goal in a year. Mesut Özil hasn’t managed an away assist in two years. The manager can only do the best with what he has (whether Emery did that or Arteta is doing that is an open question). The managers aren’t heading wide from 10-yards out. They aren’t over-hitting and misplacing more passes than normal (anecdotally, to be fair).

It’s plain to see that Lacazette is in a slump; his frustration when he misses chances is palpable through the TV. Özil’s “struggles” are a bit trickier, and I’m not convinced he’s actually struggling all that much. I’m working on an Özil theory for a possible post later this week, so stay tuned.

And it’s not a coincidence that when Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang spends three matches suspended and doesn’t score in a fourth, all of a sudden, we’re talking about how the Gunners’ attack is struggling. Aubameyang has scored 44% of Arsenal’s Premier League goals this season. Only Norwich City (Pukki - 46%) and Southampton (Ings - 45%) are more reliant on one player for goalscoring. That’s not good.

But how to “score more goals” like Leno says is a trickier question to answer. Yes, Arsenal could convert the chances they get at a higher rate, but the problem could also be that they aren’t creating enough chances. They’ve scored 32 league goals this season and have an xG of 33.29. They aren’t getting particularly lucky or unlucky; they are just about where they should be in terms of goals scored.

So when does Mikel Arteta sit one or both of Lacazette and Özil? He probably should give it a shot soon, but Lacazette is integral to Arsenal’s pressing setup and has been doing a good deal of work dropping deep to link up the play. Mesut Özil, even if he’s not the player he once was, is one of the only guys in the team who can make something out of nothing and “work magic” to create a goal.

What about Nicolas Pépé? Like Özil, he has the “create a chance out of nothing” ability, but apparently there is something wrong with the way he trains (and Arteta is not the first manager to have that issue). He’s also a bit of a defensive liability; his inclusion runs contrary to the “shore up the back-line” thrust at the club.

Even though the decisions might seem simple ones, they aren’t. They have cascading effects down the lineup and on the overall tactics. Regardless of where you ultimately pin the blame - the manager, the players, or some combination of the two, the bottom line remains the same: the Arsenal attack is struggling.

It seems like Mikel Arteta has focused on straightening out the defense first. I think that’s a good plan. After all, defense wins championships, right? But in all seriousness, Arsenal have consistently had the worst defense of the big clubs in the Premier League. They give up too many goals to be title contenders, and they have done so going back to the Wenger-era. They’ve tried the “score more goals than you” approach for a while. Whether that was a strategic decision or more of a situational necessity, it hasn’t worked.

Now, the defense is getting better. Even though Arsenal aren’t winning, they also aren’t losing. One point is better than no points. With the defense possibly, finally moving in the right direction, Arteta might turn his attention to the attack. The winter break feels like a good time to start.