Shots Fired

By now, the statistic that Arsenal have allowed 96 shots at their goal this season- more than any team in the Premier League, La Liga, Serie A or the Bundesliga- is well known. This is a worrying expansion of a trend that has persisted throughout Unai Emery’s premiership. Arsenal don’t take many shots but allow their opponents plenty. So why and how does this happen?

Per this piece from Daniel Zeqiri, last season Arsenal averaged a total of 3.9 shots on target per game away from home, while conceding 5.7 shots on target. The Gunners were outshot by their opposition in more than half of their league games last season and the issue seems to be getting worse.

You could start by saying that Arsenal’s defenders are just bad, but I think this to be a gross oversimplification. Sokratis, Luiz and Kolasinac have excelled elsewhere. Sokratis, Luiz and Xhaka have all made shocking errors that have led to goals this season, while Shkodran Mustafi has made the custard pie in the face a personal trademark. But when individual errors happen repeatedly to a smattering of individuals, you have to start asking more probing questions about the overall unit.

Arsenal have conceded 14 penalties since Unai Emery was appointed. This illustrates the extent to which the defence are stressed and vulnerable. I am dubious about the “errors leading to goals” statistic because it’s too subjective to be strictly scientific. However, there is other data that supports the supposition that Arsenal’s defenders are placed under a significant amount of duress.

According to opta Arsenal have conceded 34 high turnovers this season, more than any other team. They are losing the ball deep in their final third which leads to alarmist, last ditch defensive actions. Part of this is down to the team’s troubles playing out from the back. Emery might reasonably argue that the large turnover of players this summer meant it was always going to take time to drill the players into a well-rehearsed exit strategy.

However, the coach is creating unnecessary issues that will prolong this already painful process. Firstly, the constant chopping and changing of players and personnel will only serve to extend the adjustment period for his new players. Nicolas Pepe has been played upfront in Arsenal’s last two away games, which suggests Emery does not trust the Ivorian’s defensive output from the flank.

If you’re Dani Ceballos, what on earth are you supposed to make of your first five games for Arsenal? What is the message he is being given about his role given that he is asked to do something completely different- be it from the start or from the bench- every time that he plays. Shaking up the formation and the combinations game to game is going to extend the bedding in period- possibly in perpetuity. Arsenal simply won’t fall upon a well drilled exit strategy from goalkeeper to forwards.

In individual games, Emery has made decisions that have served to increase the stress placed on a defence that already looks to be suffering from PTSD. Playing Granit Xhaka at the base of a midfield diamond is a baffling decision, really. It means that Xhaka is left on his own to cover lots of ground in front of his defenders.

We all know that Xhaka is a limited athlete and this is not a problem he can solve. So quite why the manager has opted to expose his flaws so badly by giving him the sole responsibility of protecting the defence is difficult to decipher. The continued delay in naming the Swiss club captain, while also setting him up to fail tactically provides further damning evidence of Emery’s muddled thinking.

Lucas Torreira forged his reputation at club and international level by playing at the base of a midfield diamond. He has the energy and athleticism to cover that type of ground, yet Emery has opted not to start him at Anfield and Vicarage Road while deploying a system the Uruguayan is custom designed for.

Diamond or no diamond, the truth is that it is too easy for opponents to advance the ball from the edge of their own area to the edge of Arsenal’s. A lot of the issue lies in Emery’s passive approach. Too often, when Arsenal get a foothold in a game, they sit off and invite pressure. The defence and midfield drop too deep and they allow themselves to be dominated.

The Watford game on Sunday was the first time Emery has taken his team to the side bottom of the league since February. On the previous occasion, the Gunners travelled to Huddersfield Town and assumed a 2-0 half-time lead, an advantage they gleaned from just 3 shots on goal. Instead of standing on Huddersfield’s throat in the second half, Arsenal sat off and opted to become the rabbit to Huddersfield’s greyhound.

After 90 minutes, Huddersfield had more shots (16-9), more touches (704-637), more passes (482-410), more corners (5-0) and more shots on target (7-4) than their visitors. Fortunately, Huddersfield were severely lacking in cutting edge, but Watford have far better players and were able to punish Arsenal for replicating this anaemic second half approach.

A 2-0 lead with Özil, Pepe and Aubameyang on the pitch ought to have been a coach’s dream, but instead Arsenal retreated and invited pressure. For all his tactical tinkering, Emery is often guilty of underestimating the human side of football. He tends to view his players like golf clubs. But sometimes games switch on pure momentum, fuelled by adrenaline and testosterone.

Emery failed to appreciate this when his PSG side retreated into their shell to allow Barcelona to claw back a four-goal deficit in the Champions League in 2016. Over the weekend, a tweet did the rounds highlighting how he once led a Valencia side from a 1-1 vantage point against 9-man Real Madrid, only to go 4-1 down. Sometimes, you have to appreciate the visceral side of a game and Emery just doesn’t seem to have a feel for when the pendulum swings against his players.

In their passiveness, Arsenal invite pressure and that usually means inviting shots on their goal. His Gunners side rarely dominate through possession or draw the sting from a game by keeping the ball in the opposition’s most intimate quarters. Put simply, they don’t stress opponents enough which in turn, encourages opponents to apply stress to them.

This has created an economies of scale effect. Everyone knows that if they go behind against Arsenal, they can commit numbers forward without fear of leaving space in behind them. It’s not just that the team’s shots against numbers are high, their own shots on goal totals are consistently low. It is baffling that a squad so obviously frontloaded with talent is so often asked to adopt a conservative, stand-offish stance.

The lack of shots versus the volume of shots raining down on Leno’s goal show that the scales are not at all balanced and the distances between Arsenal’s defensive and attacking departments are all over the map. Emery is cutting the umbilical cord between his connectors and his attackers- Ramsey, Özil and Ceballos have all been used fitfully due, in part, to the coach’s preference for passivity.

Michael Cox probably summed up this approach the best, “Entirely incapable of imposing their style upon the contest and regressed into a feeble, passive side: defensive without actually being able to defend.” This has led to poor game management and costly individual errors and the feeling that Arsenal’s five-star attackers are left to watch from an island while the midfield and defence retreat and invite bombardment.

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