Runners and Riders

After a week in which Arsenal have conceded nine goals in three league games, I bet what you really want to read is an article about how shit Arsenal are at attacking. Wait, where are you going? Come back! What’s the matter? Too zeitgeisty for ya? Fine, go enjoy another lukewarm ‘Shkodran Mustafi is shit’ hit piece, see if I care.

That Arsenal’s defence is ‘flammable’ is well documented. Their best defenders are either the wrong side of 30 or else injured. The squad is top heavy in terms of talent and numbers, but the attack remains very imbalanced in terms of the type of player Arsenal have. Very few of their existing options mesh in any serious way.

Beyond Aubameyang and Lacazette there aren’t many players you would seriously back to break double figures for a season in terms of goal scoring. In February, I wrote about how few shots Arsenal take and this wasn’t really a call to arms for players to shoot from ridiculous angles, but more of an observation that they don’t have enough players that trouble the penalty area.

Aaron Ramsey has been such a big miss in recent weeks because he is one of the few players that abandons his post, so to speak. His tendency to make forward runs frustrated some Arsenal fans, but we can see now why that movement is so important. There are plenty of players that move the ball well enough, but too few that move themselves.

The opening 20 minutes against Wolves provided a case in point. Torreira, Xhaka, Ozil, Iwobi and Mkhitaryan moved the ball around pinball style. All are good technicians to varying degrees, but Wolves, frankly, just sat in a deckchair and watched the ball move to the edge of the area unconcerned. There was no Arsenal player incurring into their territory off the ball. At times, Arsenal’s build-up play took on the appearance of a fußball game.

This is what a team looks like when the formation graphic remains untroubled, this is what happens when everybody stays in their position. The striker(s) become(s) isolated when the midfielders and wide forwards are solely comprised of ‘final third entry’ players. In essence, Arsenal’s attack lacks unpredictability, movement and a touch of jeopardy. Where there is no chaos, there can be no fortune.

Losing the likes of Alexis Sanchez and Theo Walcott (or at least, the former versions of those players) has robbed Arsenal of some devil in their attack. Lacazette likes to move back towards the midfield to link play, which essentially turns the penalty area into an exclusion zone as nobody breaks in behind him in the absence of Ramsey.

Even when partnered, Lacazette and Aubameyang often look isolated because every striker needs someone behind them willing to run into the area and occupy defenders. Arsenal don’t get that from Ozil, Iwobi or Mkhitaryan. They wouldn’t have got it from Denis Suarez either had he been entrusted with more than the odd cameo. Suarez is the kind of player Unai Emery already has plenty of in his attack.

Aubameyang is an almost entirely off the ball player, he doesn’t want to involve himself in the build-up, which is fine for Emery’s side because they have plenty of players that can take care of that for him. Yet a striker’s movement can only achieve so much in isolation. A late run into the area creates that little frisson of panic that causes the moment’s hesitation a player like Auba can thrive on.

In short, the strikers are left to fend for themselves in the final third, save for the galloping intervention of the full-backs. And it’s not just off the ball running that Arsenal lack, there is a general lack of runners and riders with the ball. The skillsets of Cazorla, Wilshere, Rosicky and Oxlade Chamberlain’s have not really been replaced.

Only Iwobi looks to commit defenders via the noble art of dribbling. In modern football, dribbling is one of the most valuable attributes an attack can have. I would argue in these days of high pressing and painstakingly choreographed teams, an unstructured, chaotic act like dribbling has never been more important.

This is especially noticeable in away matches, where opponents tend to favour a more high-octane approach. Arsenal struggle to parse any sort of wrinkle in the pattern of the game, largely because they have so few players that thrive in the chaos of a motivated home team playing to a partisan crowd.

Earlier in the season, the likes of West Ham, Watford, Everton and even Cardiff outshot Arsenal at home and the Gunners enjoyed a degree of serendipity in winning each of those matches. Their home record has cowed opponents into their shell and for most of the season; they have subserviently sat deep and waited for Arsenal’s collection of ball shufflers to pick them off.

Eventually, opposing managers are going to realise that treating the Emirates like their home stadium and trying to disrupt Arsenal is a far more viable tactic. Taking Arsenal on in a knife fight is not the suicidal leap of faith it once was. As a point of urgency, Emery needs to acquire a wide forward and probably a midfield player that can break lines with off the ball movement and with the ball at their feet.

Arsenal’s strikers are of such a quality that this issue has been concealed well enough this season. Lacazette and Aubameyang are not an especially symbiotic pairing and they are not well supported in the penalty area. But both have been good enough to eke out their own opportunities and Aubameyang’s ability to find space in the penalty area is akin to a super power.

Ramsey’s recent goal against Napoli is a neat illustration of what Arsenal have missed in his absence. Whisper it quietly, but Alexis Sanchez’s brand of bombastic trial and error attacking in the final third has been missed away from home. I was never convinced that his individuality was holding back the collective because I didn’t ever think there was a cohesive orchestra waiting to break out of his shadow.

Emery’s maiden season has been a year-long battle with balance. Tactically, Arsenal are a duvet that is a little too short and Emery has battled between hiding his second rate defence and properly supporting his overworked strikers. Ramsey, or a player like him, in midfield gives the team a little more coverage. At the moment, Arsenal’s strikers look cold and alone.

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