In some corners of Arsenal’s support, there was some disquiet over the manner of Arsenal’s first two goals against Crystal Palace. Both goals were set pieces, with Gabriel the scorer, rather than, say, Gabriel Jesus. In any other game, perhaps it wouldn’t have mattered, but because Saturday’s game felt like such a referendum on Arsenal’s attacking play, it was important not only that Arsenal score, but in the way Arsenal scored.
In the end, Leandro Trossard and Gabriel Martinelli scored from open play. But it does lead to an interesting conversation about how Arsenal score goals. The ideal of last season leads everyone to think of fast, fluid attacking football. This season, the football hasn’t been as fluid, and the attacking issues are well documented. Thus, Arsenal scoring from set pieces isn’t necessarily seen as reassuring, but rather indicative of Attacking Issues. That, though, is hiding two things. Firstly, Arsenal were quite good at scoring from set pieces last season. Secondly, while scoring off of set pieces is thought to be the domain of Sean Dyche, David Moyes, and relegation battling sides, Manchester City are quite proficient at scoring from set pieces, and Liverpool are 5th in set piece xG (Arsenal are third).
As Mikel Arteta said after yesterday’s game, “If we want to be the best team in the world, you have to be the best team at everything that you do.” The disquiet about Arsenal being good at set pieces seems largely down to two things. Firstly, it’s not as if Arsenal were peppering the Palace goal with a lot of shots in the first half. If that were the case and Arsenal had scored from a corner, it would’ve probably been viewed as a “justified” lead (which gets back to the feeling about the innate value of a goal).
Indeed, had Arsenal scored from a corner against West Ham, supporters would’ve probably not mentioned it. That, to me, is about set pieces matching up to what you’re watching: if you see a lot of shots go out for corners, you have the feeling of dominance. But teams that control possession usually get a lot of set pieces, be it corners or free kicks, or even throw-ins. When you’re facing a lot of deep blocks, and when scoring the first goal is so crucial to opening the game, it’s important to be proficient at set pieces. After all, there is no differing value in a goal if it’s from a beautifully worked piece of play or a corner. Secondly, perhaps there is some anxiety that being good at set pieces isn’t sustainable — after all, Arsenal were excellent at defending set pieces for over a year, and are now perhaps average at it. But, Arsenal’s xG from set pieces is third in the league. It is something the team is good at it, and works at. And at the end of the day, a goal is a goal.