On one hand, there was a significant overreaction to Arsenal’s 2-0 loss against Chelsea. For one thing, Arsenal should’ve had a penalty. For another thing, Chelsea are far ahead of where Arsenal are. They are European champions, and have just bought a £100m striker, Romelu Lukaku, to go with the £72m Kai Havertz, the £60m Christian Pulisic, the £47.7m Timo Werner, and the homegrown Mason Mount. Arsenal, on the other hand, were missing both their £50m strikers, their £45m central midfielder, and their £50m centre back signed in the summer.
All of those things can be true—and it can also be true that we can expect Arsenal to play Chelsea with a better idea about how to get a result from the game. After all, Arsenal have been here before: a mere 12 and a half months ago, Chelsea were heavily favoured against Arsenal in the FA Cup final, a match the Gunners came from behind to win 2-1. That match came against Frank Lampard, an inferior coach to Thomas Tuchel, but it was off the back of Arsenal’s 2-0 win against Manchester City in the FA Cup semi-final.
In both of those games, Arteta’s Arsenal set up to play on the counter-attack and concede possession. In that sense, it was the second iteration of Arteta’s tactics at Arsenal, moving to a back three, but still filling the five channels. Ainsley Maitland-Niles, at left wing-back, was exceptional with his attacking movement, creating space for Kieran Tierney and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, and Arsenal, while playing on the counter attack, were also able to play out under pressure from the back, enabling them to break into space.
Notably, Arsenal had a pattern of play that ended with the ball being worked out to Aubameyang, cutting in from the left, to strike on goal. Such a goal was scored against Liverpool in the Community Shield, and against Fulham on the first day of the 2020-21 season. It was, though, one of Arsenal’s few attacking tools, and they began to struggle against teams deploying a low block. This saw an erosion of defensive stability, as Arsenal began to chase games, unable to score, resulting in historically bad form.
Nine months on from Arsenal’s recovery from genuine bottom half form, there is a great deal of focus on Arsenal’s attack. To be sure, Arsenal’s attack is crucial. Having scored 55 goals last season, Arsenal need to score at least around 15 more goals this season, and Mikel Arteta is running back the same attack—though he will have Emile Smith Rowe and Martin Ødegaard from the beginning of the season.
However, early results and performances are hinting that Arsenal’s base may not be as secure as thought. Arsenal had the third best defence in the Premier League last season, bettered only by Manchester City, the champions, and Chelsea, the European champions. But as Arteta looks to implement a higher line, Arsenal look vulnerable—because the protection ahead of the defence is beginning to get pulled apart.
This is because of Arsenal’s lack of structure in pressing. Rather than pressing as a unit, maintaining organization, Arsenal press in ones...and ones. This leads to a disrupted structure, and makes it easy for the opposition to play around Arsenal’s midfield, as Chelsea did last weekend, where the Blues always had easy access into midfield.
This is not a problem of players, but rather a tactical issue, and a coaching issue. Indeed, despite the lack of Aubameyang, Lacazette, Partey, and White, Arteta should be able to have the players that come in for them press; if not, then Arteta has to abandon the press, and have Arsenal set up differently.
It is crucial that Arsenal score more goals, and one way Arsenal can score more goals is to play higher up the pitch—and thus press the opposition. But, if Arsenal cannot press, but play a high defensive line, matches will descend into the disorganized chaos that marked the end of Unai Emery’s spell in charge of the football club, when Arsenal, for example, gave up over 30 shots against Watford. Arsenal have to score more goals, but they need to develop the goal-scoring trait on top of an organized base. Indeed, there’s reason to believe that the re-addition of Ødegaard, the eventual return of Partey, and Aubameyang’s recovery from COVID can lead to Arsenal creating more chances and scoring more goals. But, if Arsenal are a disorganized mess behind them, scoring more goals won’t have the impact that everyone connected with Arsenal is hoping for.