Sunday, February 5, 2023

Gunners Need To Shoot On Sight

In home games against Everton, Liverpool, Manchester City, Wolves, Watford and Cardiff City this season, Arsenal have taken fewer shots on goal than their opponents. This trend is, as you would expect, more pronounced away from home; Chelsea, Crystal Palace, Fulham, Huddersfield Town, Liverpool, Manchester City and Manchester United (just), produced more attempts on goal than Emery’s side on the road.

West Ham produced the same amount of shots in our 1-0 defeat at the London Stadium in January, which is pretty damning when one considers that the Irons took a 48th minute lead. Pierre Emerick Aubamayeng is, it won’t surprise you to hear, the Gunners’ most prolific shooter at an average of 2.5 shots per game (SPG), making him 9th overall in the Premier League.

That still puts him behind Sergio Aguero (3.7 SPG), Harry Kane (3.5), Paul Pogba (3.4), Mo Salah (3.3), Son (2.7) and Hazard (2.7), but at least he is keeping that sort of company. That said, most of Aubameyang’s shots are from close range, his ability to find nooks and crannies in the penalty area explains his goalscoring record.

Arsenal’s next most prolific shooter is Henrikh Mkhitaryan (2.1 SPG) who ranks at 24th in the division, behind the likes of Rashford, Mane and Firmino. Lacazette is 29th at 2 SPG. Lacazette is a decent source of goals for Arsenal, but what we are seeing in the Frenchman and Aubameyang is a pair of ‘goldilocks’ shooters in different ways.

Auba gets more shots off because his movement is so good, but Lacazette really needs to see the whites of a goalkeeper’s eyes before he’ll chance his arm. Aaron Ramsey and Alex Iwobi rank 113th and 114th respectively in the Premier League in SPG with 1 per game- that puts them below Calum Chambers (!), Theo Walcott, Olivier Giroud and Alexis Sanchez.

All of this is a long winded way of saying that Unai Emery’s Arsenal just don’t shoot enough. This article from last January explains the science behind the shoot on sight policy many big teams are adopting. Spurs, Liverpool and Manchester City are far more prolific shooters.

Arsenal are 12th in the Premier League’s shots on goal table, their other top 6 rivals all occupy the top 5 spots in this specific metric. In the words of Wayne Gretzky, you miss 100% of the shots that you don’t take. Arsenal have too many attackers riddled with “Hlebitis”, a condition that renders them shot shy.

In fairness, this shot shyness is not entirely down to an attack in thrall to stage fright. One of the reasons Arsenal shoot so infrequently is because they don’t find opportune angles to test the goalkeeper. In my view, this is due largely to a preference for overly precise build-up play. The Kolasinac cutback is something of a signature move, Arsenal’s answer to the People’s Elbow.

It is, despite the derision, a pretty successful route into enemy territory for the Gunners. It is one of the few moves the team produces that bears the imprint of time spent at London Colney. However, its choreography is incredibly intricate. The through ball to Kolasinac has to be inch perfect to service his run. We have to suffer a few goal kicks and opposition throw ins before it comes off.

Once the Bosnian is behind enemy lines, his cut back has to be juuuuust right- not least because, even if the ball reaches Alex Lacazette, he won’t shoot on spec. He wants the i’s dotted, the t’s crossed and the health and safety assessment signed off by a senior responsible officer before he’ll take that plunge. Aubameyang is more likely to feel lucky, punk, when a cutback reaches him because of his movement, but often the space just isn’t there to exploit.

Neither striker is helped, of course, by a lack of a third man runner. Alex Iwobi rarely shoots and when he does, sometimes you understand and approve of his reticence. Mesut Özil (remember him?) tends to have to be forced into shooting at the barrel of a gun. Aaron Ramsey’s runs from midfield are far more helpful here, he tends to cause a bit of chaos for opposing defenders and creates space for his teammates with his late arrivals in the area.

In the 4-2 win over Spurs, one of Arsenal’s crowning performances of the season, the Gunners took twice the amount of shots that Tottenham managed. This owed much to the second half introduction of Ramsey and Lacazette to support Aubameyang. The front 2 both scored during that second half via shots that were not exactly routine and both owed a debt to Ramsey’s disruptive presence.

None of this is to say that Arsenal should start shooting at random from ridiculous angles, of course. But their play is too precise and deliberate, making the conditions for attempts on goal far from ideal. A midfield three of Torreira, Xhaka and Guendouzi does not support the forwards well enough and this means that Emery’s side just don’t cause enough stress for opponents.

The squad has recently lost Sanchez, Walcott and Giroud who, in their own way, represented something of a wild card. Arsenal’s midfield and attack is packed full of ball progressors, but very few dribblers. It makes the building phase too slow and too deliberate. Arsenal have to kick away a lot of foliage before they glimpse the grass of a penalty box.

I certainly don’t think Arsenal would be any worse with Mesut Özil in the team, but I don’t think he’s the big miss many suggest. Özil has started 13 Premier League games this season and has 1 assist. This isn’t because Mesut Özil is a horrible person or an awful footballer, it’s just because he too is a player that prizes precision and deals in technical absolutes like many of his colleagues. Ramsey’s presence has been more transformative, more often.

The combination of Özil and Sanchez worked so well because of its “fire and ice” make-up. Özil is ice and Arsenal need fire- which is why, in my view, Ramsey is a far bigger miss when he doesn’t play. This season the Welshman is not quite as trigger happy (1 SPG), but he introduces an element of unpredictability in the penalty area that causes the opposition problems and creates space for teammates. He is an agent of chaos.

The issue for Arsenal is one of balance between the types of players they have. They have some Goldilocks forwards who tend to only shoot when the porridge is just right, allied with an overly precise build-up style that relies on star alignment. This means that Arsenal don’t pressure their opponents and certainly don’t test goalkeepers often enough.

In terms of goals scored, at time of writing, Arsenal have 53 in the league, which compares favourably enough with Liverpool (59), Spurs (54) and Manchester United (52). This is largely because Lacazette is a good finisher when the chance opens up, Aubameyang is not super clinical but he supports the wisdom that Arsenal need to take more shots. Arsenal have to find a way to increase their artillery, otherwise they will continue to fire blanks.

Follow me on Twitter @Stillberto– Or like my Facebook page.

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