Arsenal’s attack under Mikel Arteta is highly structured, perhaps to a point of fault. Attacking sequences have a proscribed element of them, producing fantastically worked goals when it is successful, but often coming apart without a good effort on goal. Last season, Arsenal were midtable in terms of expected goals; this season, Arsenal are 5th bottom in the Premier League. While that is explainable in terms of Arsenal’s difficult, covid-affected start to the league, Arteta’s Arsenal are not a high output attacking team, especially as there is a sense that not all of Arsenal’s attack fit the demands of Arteta’s structured attack. Indeed, Arsenal often look significantly more dangerous when counter attacking at speed, when the game becomes unstructured, as they did after going 1-0 up at home against Tottenham, and in victories against Burnley and Norwich, having taken the lead.
It is unlikely, though, that Arteta will make Arsenal a counter-attacking team. The other option is to become a high pressing team. What is interesting in that regard is Arsenal, while bottom half in overall pressures, are 6th in pressures in the attacking third; the difference is once the ball goes into the middle third, Arsenal’s defensive strategy is to retreat into their own half.
Within the structure of Arsenal’s attack, though, there is potential for disruptors. That is one of the many qualities Emile Smith Rowe brings to the team, especially when he’s played from a wide position. To begin the season, before Martin Ødegaard returned, Smith Rowe played as Arsenal’s number 10, and in that role, was constricted to the right hand side, combining with Pépé.
Since Ødegaard has returned to Arsenal’s lineup, Smith Rowe’s role has, more often, been from the left of Arsenal’s front three. This essentially enables Tierney to play higher up on the left, creating room for Smith Rowe to go inside. From this inside role, Smith Rowe can be the player who acts in an unprescribed way; who disrupts the structure.
In previous Arsenal teams, this role would belong to someone like Aaron Ramsey: a box to box midfielder who would arrive from deep to make third man runs, and get into goal-scoring positions. That wouldn’t work for Arteta’s structure, so the role falls to Smith Rowe, who has the third highest xG per 90 among Arsenal’s attackers.
Smith Rowe’s entire game is designed to break structure: he gets the ball and goes forward, and plays one-twos, and gets into the penalty box. Smith Rowe is an amalgamated composite of a previous generation of Arsenal playmakers, players who all existed to be outside of defined structures.
In its current construction, Arsenal’s attacking problems are two-fold: first is the creation of chances, but the second is having goal-scorers on the pitch, something that will necessitate playing more than one forward, even if it comes at the cost of chance creation in Arteta’s structure. An aspect that can significantly improve Arsenal’s attack is the continued development of Smith Rowe; if Smith Rowe continues to add goals to his game, then Arsenal’s attacking play will become far more productive. But it is only by allowing Smith Rowe to continue to play unstructured, one and two touch football that will allow him to take opposing defences by surprise, and give Arsenal’s attack an element of jeopardy.