*Note - the bulk of this article was written before Arsenal’s 5-0 home win against Sheffield United.
We are already a quarter of the way into the Premier League season, and thus, there are some patterns that are becoming more conclusive. One pattern for Arsenal is that Arsenal are creating less. Mikel Arteta has seemingly, after last season’s run of bad form in the second half of the season, has taken away some of Arsenal’s attacking thrust for more possession. Furthermore, the air of adventure and newness around Arsenal from last season is gone: teams are now more willing to bunk in against Arsenal, and force the Gunners to break down a deep block.
The numbers are revealing. From equivalent fixtures, Arsenal have taken 29 fewer shots, a difference of 3.2 per game. Indeed, the expected goal difference per game is slightly lower—.07—, with the minor defensive improvement offset by a less fluent attacking unit.
It is still to be determined if Arsenal’s move for control over creativity will pay dividend over the course of the season. But by now it is clear it is happening, whether intentional or not. There are some indications that it has been intentional: for example, Arteta choosing Thomas Partey at right back to start the season, or using Jorginho alongside Declan Rice in midfield. The latter choice certainly paid off in Arsenal’s win against Manchester City, but perhaps worked less effectively against Chelsea in the following match. And that, in a sense, exemplifies the danger that Arsenal face in sacrificing some fluency going forward: sometimes the marginal decisions go against you, and thus, although Chelsea did very little to go 2-0 up within 50 minutes, Arsenal could only rescue a point, and thus a game that was won last season was only drawn this season—a theme that will not allow Arsenal to reach the 90 or 95 points that could be necessary to win the league.
Yet, it is clear that this is part of Arsenal’s play. Arsenal’s possession is at 60% this season; from equivalent fixtures last season, it was 61.1%. But Arsenal are having 20 more touches per game in their defensive third and two fewer touches in the penalty box. There’s also who is passing the ball. Martin Ødegaard, who has struggled in recent weeks, is making six fewer passes per game and Oleksandr Zinchenko is making 3 fewer. William Saliba and Ben White, however, are making nearly 20 and 6 more passes per game respectively. Saliba, in many ways, is Arsenal’s controller and progresser, especially with Thomas Partey no longer starting as Arsenal’s #6. Indeed, after Zinchenko, Partey was Arsenal’s top progressive passer last season, and Declan Rice is making 25% fewer progressive passes than Partey did from the same position.
That might go a long way to explaining some of Ødegaard’s struggles, with Rice’s preference for drifting left meaning he is not fully aligned with Arsenal’s right hand side. Ben White, too, is making fewer progressive passes, indicating that although he has more of the ball, he is doing more square, controlling passing, rather than playing into Bukayo Saka or Ødegaard. And, of course, there is a huge difference in goal: David Raya is playing 13 more passes per game than Aaron Ramsdale, with a huge increase short and medium passing, meaning that Arsenal are retaining the ball better, but also retaining it more in their third and half of the pitch, rather than keeping the ball further forward.
The question will be if Arsenal can release the hand brake when necessary. The win against Sheffield United, especially the second half, shows that Arsenal can suffocate teams both with the ball in their own third, but also in the final third. But can Arsenal find extra creativity? The underlying numbers imply that the trade off of control for creativity is tactical. But at a certain point, Arsenal will have to reintroduce more verticality into their game, meaning that there will have to be further tactical adjustments this season.