Arsenal have seen a major tactical shift over the last 2 years in their final third possession.
This shift started under Unai Emery (I didn’t like it that much then either) and so far has continued under Mikel Arteta. Arsenal don’t get touches in “Zone 14” anymore. Zone 14 is the area in the central part of the pitch, directly behind the 18 yard box. You shouldn’t need fancy statistical analysis to tell you want possession and touches there to be successful (but the number definitely back that up, too).
Under Arsene Wenger, Arsenal lived in Zone 14. And while the shift away from mostly attacking through the middle was somewhat refreshing at first, the Arsenal attack has become dull and less effective.
The changes have been drastic for Arsenal. This graph shows the 10-match running average number of touches in Zone 14 in red and the season average for touches in yellow going back to the 2013-14 season. Arsenal have gone from about 45-55 touches per match in Zone 14 to about 25.
Just as the number of touches per match in that crucial area has decreased, so has Arsenal’s rank among Premier League teams in Zone 14 touches. Arsenal ranked 1st between 2013-14 and 2017-18, dropped to 8th in 2018-19 and currently rank 9th in the league.
Part of the problem could be that Arsenal don’t don’t have players that excel in this zone like they used to. Interestingly, looking at where Zone 14 is on the pitch, you’d think it was prime Mesut Özil real estate, but it isn’t. Since he’s been with the club, the highest he’s ranked on the team in touches there is 2nd (2015-16).
The players that have excelled in this zone for Arsenal is basically a list of attackers no longer at the club.
2013-14: Santi Cazorla, 274 touches, Oliver Giroud 262 touches, Jack Wilshere 195 touches
2014-15: Santi Cazorla, 386 touches, Alexis Sánchez 331 touches, Aaron Ramsey 254 touches
2015-16: Alexis Sánchez 264 touches, Mesut Özil 259 touches, Aaron Ramsey 232 touches
2016-17: Alexis Sánchez 407 touches, Granit Xhaka 272 touches, Mesut Özil 249 touches
2017-18: Granit Xhaka 363 touches, Alexis Sánchez 344 toucehs, Mesut Özil 246 touches
2018-19: Alexandre Lacazette 149 touches, Lucas Torreira 118 touches, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang 106 touches
2019-20: Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang 87 touches, Granit Xhaka 84 touches, Nicolas Pepe 76 touches
I am willing to give Arteta time to develop an attacking strategy that gets more touches in that prime location. For what it’s worth, he has seemed to have focused his early energy on building a better defensive structure. But the decline in Zone 14 touches is an extremely worrying trend that I hope can be halted. If Arsenal want to become serious title challengers again, they need to play through Zone 14 — whether that means buying players who take up those spaces or adjusting tactics to get more touches there. And for what it’s worth, playing through there would also make Arsenal much more fun to watch.