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Arsenal have a creativity problem

For all their dominance thus far, it is not translating to goals or dominant wins.

Arsenal FC v Manchester United - Premier League Photo by Visionhaus/Getty Images

Arsenal’s win over Manchester United was the Gunners first win by multiple goals this season—and that second goal was, of course, scored deep into added time on a break away from a United set piece. Otherwise, Arsenal’s results have been draws or marginal wins, games that require Arsenal to expend a lot of physical energy and emotional energy. That can be positive—the team will take a huge amount away from the win on Sunday even if the performance was average—but over time, more calm wins will go a longer way to allowing Arsenal to have more control and to give players needed minutes off. After all, you’re not taking Bukayo Saka or William Saliba off if a game is in the balance.

Yet, Arsenal have been incredibly dominant. Field tilt measures the amount of final third passes a team has in comparison to an opponent. A team with a higher percentage will be more dominant. Last season, Manchester City’s field tilt was 71.26%, with Arsenal second at 66.3% and Brighton third at 63%, which makes sense given the stylistic attributes of those three teams. Arsenal’s field tilt this season has been, in all four games: 82.8% against Forest, 50.4% at Palace (where Arsenal, of course, had ten men), 90.4% against Fulham, and 81.2% against United, and Arsenal lead the league in field tilt thus far this campaign. Essentially, this backs what we’ve all been able to see on the pitch: that Arsenal have been a dominant team.

For all that dominance, though, Arsenal’s attacking metrics are not on par. Last season, Arsenal were 5th in shots per 90 minutes; this season, Arsenal are 8th, and while the sample size is of course small, there are large stretches of play where for all their dominance, Arsenal don’t create the pressure of consistent big chances. Another metric, npXg/shot is slightly down, but it is a marginal loss and with such a small sample size, it’s not worth delving into.

Yet it is worth delving into why Arsenal are struggling to turn dominance into goals. It’s what saw Arsenal drop two points against Fulham and nearly drop points yesterday against a thoroughly average Manchester United team. Some of it may be the growing pains of Arsenal’s team: Mikel Arteta has named a different left back in all four Premier Leagues, and is looking to integrate Declan Rice and Kai Havertz into midfield while Gabriel Jesus was out injured. Indeed, in the first half, with Zinchenko back, Arsenal looked far more like themselves, and as his influence waned (not least because of the physicality required), so did Arsenal’s performance. There are also some changes; Rice is far more of a left sided player than Partey, and thus the right and left hand side of Arsenal’s build-up play has seen some change when compared to last season.

It could turn out to be growing pains. As Mikel Arteta said, doing the exact same thing as last season is no longer possible, both from the perspective of teams having adjusted to Arsenal and because Arsenal have moved on from two of last year’s starters. But for Arsenal to truly challenge Manchester City for the title again, Arsenal will have to begin converting dominance into goals sooner rather than later. They cannot spend two long sputtering if they want to remain in sight, which is much easier to do if they continue to manage to do enough to win games while rejigging some aspects of the team on the spot.