If you were told that Arsenal would have lost more games than they won nearly two-thirds of the way through a Premier League campaign, your first guess in all likelihood is that Arsenal would have been awful defensively. This season, though, that is not the case. While there are still lapses of concentration and defensive errors (see Holding, Rob, against Aston Villa and Manchester City, and Luiz, David, against Wolves), Arsenal have the joint third best defensive record in the Premier League. In reality, Arsenal’s issues are still in creating and scoring goals. While Arsenal are having a far better time of it now than they were in November and early December, the setbacks to the green shoots of good form that have popped up signify that this is still an issue.
To be sure, the outlook is increasingly positive—far more than at any point this season before the run of Christmas fixtures. Five of Arsenal’s six highest shot totals this season have come since the pre-Boxing Day 2-1 loss against Everton, in wins against Chelsea, Newcastle, and West Bromwich Albion, the draw with Manchester United, and the narrow loss against Aston Villa. All five of Arsenal’s best performances per expected goals have come since Boxing Day, showing that Arsenal aren’t just taking more shots: they’re creating better chances.
Indeed, if there is a microcosm of Arsenal’s improving creativity, it is the form of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. With three non-penalty goals in the first three months of the season, Aubameyang suffered from Arsenal’s overall lack of creativity. Aubameyang only took 27 shots in those three months, highlighting a simple truth about his game: his reliance on his teammates to create chances for him, by putting the ball in dangerous positions in the penalty box. While Aubameyang’s form has been stop-start since returning from injury, with his mother’s illness requiring him to leave the team for a period of time, Arsenal’s captain has been far more effective, scoring five non-penalty goals, from the same number of shots: 27.
Yet, there are still creative issues for Mikel Arteta to solve. Against Benfica, for all of Arsenal’s dominant possession, the Gunners took 7 shots. While Arsenal were able to create several excellent chances, it didn’t necessarily reflect the overall feeling of the game, and in the last twenty minutes, probing for a second away goal that would give Arsenal control of the tie, Arsenal did not take a single shot. In a sense, that also reflects how dependent Arsenal’s new-found creativity is on a small group of players, especially Bukayo Saka and Emile Smith Rowe. Martin Ødegaard’s continued involvement should allow him to develop that influence, but much of the improved creativity is from the ability to quickly instill new partnerships across the team—Saka and Smith Rowe, Saka and Héctor Bellerín, and Saka, and the newly returned Kieran Tierney with Aubameyang and Gabriel Martinelli. Those partnerships cover some of the deficiencies of Arsenal’s play.
That Arsenal didn’t attempt any shots after the seventy-second minute mark against Benfica is perhaps telling. While the three of Ødegaard, Smith Rowe and Saka are giving Arsenal some free-form creativity behind the striker, Arsenal’s build-up play is still largely prescripted. Arteta’s attacking plan is no longer to build the ball through the middle to get into wide positions to cross, as it was in late November and early December, but there is still a large focus on possession in the defensive third. The best lesson Arteta has learned so far in his tenure as Arsenal’s manager has been to loosen the hand brake. It is one he may need reminding of as Arsenal face their biggest game of the season on Thursday.