Since Mikel Arteta took over the reins at Arsenal they have only scored eleven goals in nine games- that they have only conceded eight in the same period shows that Arteta has made the Gunners a more solid unit. He has done so, not in the way that the Premier League’s ‘ferryman’ managers like Tony Pulis and Sam Allardyce have done, by sticking ten large slabs of meat behind the ball and building a human Maginot Line on the edge of the penalty area.
Arsenal haven’t become ‘defensive’ under Arteta, it’s just that they are structured more coherently than they were under Unai Emery. Emery’s latter games in charge took on the appearance of basketball games. Shots would rain down on the Arsenal goal while the centre-halves adopted the foetal position in their penalty area, gently rocking themselves backwards and forwards until the final whistle signalled ceasefire.
However, the attack has misfired in Mikel’s opening weeks in charge. As Michael Cox explains in this podcast, this isn’t due to a lack of commitment to attack. Under Arteta, the Gunners have adopted the fashion for ‘filling up the five attacking lanes’ as Michael puts it. The left-back pushes right up to become a left-winger, the left-winger moves inside to play as an inside-forward.
Lacazette is the planet around which this activity orbits in the number 9 role, while Özil tucks into the inside-right channel and the other winger holds the width of the pitch on the right hand side. Despite playing in quite an attacking fashion and with some top-tier [or seemingly top-tier] attackers, why have Arsenal struggled to convert territory into goals? Let’s start with the basics.
Two members of the front five are in poor form when it comes to end-product. Mesut Özil hasn’t provided a Premier League assist since the days when Liverpool dropped the occasional point, while Alex Lacazette hasn’t scored away from home in the Premier League since dinosaurs roamed the earth. Indeed, the Frenchman’s overall goal drought feels a lot longer than six weeks. He sports the demeanour of a man stuck in a lift with Piers Morgan.
Özil earned the ultimate condemnation at Turf Moor because Burnley seemed happy for him to have the ball in space, unconcerned about what he might do with it. I think a goal will lift the gloom around Lacazette, Özil is trying hard and taking up good positions, but that sprinkle of pixie dust just doesn’t seem to be in his passing. Whether that’s a temporary glitch in the Mesut matrix or evidence of long-term decline, time will tell.
FIVE LANES OF ATTACK
Arsenal’s ‘five lanes of attack’ model suits some players better than others. On the left-side, the attack is well-tuned. Bukayo Saka is well-suited to the wing-back role given his grounding as a left-winger and the role suits Sead Kolasinac because wing-back is pretty much the only role he can play with any distinction.
Martinelli and Aubameyang have the sensibility of strikers, so the inside-left position works very well for both. Aubameyang’s movement in that lane is unsurpassed in world football; he is a fairly average finisher that regularly nets 30 goals a season based purely on the strength of his nose. Allowing Lacazette to move away from the front line to open up space for the Gabonese to motor into the area suits the captain.
It’s one of the reasons that Lacazette has not been dropped despite his lack of scoring form, Martinelli and Aubameyang have been able to pick up some of that slack partly due to the job Lacazette does. However, there is an issue of depth here. The decision to retain Eddie Nketiah is, in my view, evidence that Arteta is not blinded to Lacazette’s confidence issues.
It’s possible, of course, to move Aubameyang inside to a more central role, but he doesn’t quite have those link-up attributes. The principal goal threat in Arteta’s front five is, by design, the inside-left, so it makes sense for Aubameyang to play there. It made sense for Martinelli to play there for the same reason, it’s the starring role. The centre-forward position is not, conversely.
I wonder whether it is worth looking at how Aubameyang and Martinelli can inter-relate if one plays at centre-forward and the other as the inside-left. Maybe they could swap around in-game and produce more of the variety Arteta has asked for. The left is where most of the creative activity happens, and Saka and Martinelli is the only fruitful relationship the front five has spawned so far. Having Arsenal’s two most likely goalscorers closer together and closer to the left-back might make some sense.
The right-back does not overlap as much as the left-back in Arsenal’s system, instead tucking inside to create a barrier against the counter-attack. As I wrote last week, Pepe’s role on the right is quite a lonely one and it makes sense for Arteta to put his best dribbler there. The manager shuffled his pack and played Martinelli on the right at Turf Moor and we saw that Pepe’s inconsistency in the position is not entirely attributable to his own shortcomings.
The bigger issue for Pepe is that, in this system, the right-winger is asked to hold the width of the pitch. This doesn’t come entirely naturally to Pepe, who would probably prefer to play more of an inside-forward role so that he can cut in on his right foot, with the right-back overlapping. Pepe is a left-footer playing on the right, so holding the width of the pitch is doubly unnatural to him.
It means he is often left to go outside of his opponent and onto his weaker right-foot. Arteta might look at tilting the formation in the other direction, with Pepe playing as an inside-forward with a right-back overlapping. If the left-back’s job is then to tuck into midfield, maybe Granit Xhaka is a more viable option in the position. If Saka and Kolasinac aren’t available for the Newcastle game, this is an avenue I would investigate.
CHARGING THROUGH THE MIDFIELD….OR NOT…
Dan Zeqiri wrote a good piece in the Telegraph recently pointing to the lack of an attacking midfielder breaking from deep to cause issues in the penalty area a la Aaron Ramsey. I think an attacking central midfielder should be on the shopping list for this summer, but part of the reason I am attracted to the idea of flipping the formation and playing Xhaka at left-back is to fit another more dynamic midfielder like Dani Ceballos or Joe Willock in one of the central-midfield roles.
I still think Arsenal lack some ball carriers too, to upset the structure of the opposition defence, but, in truth, the team have not totally struggled to create chances under Arteta, they have struggled to finish them. Some of that is down to the form of individuals, but a lot is down to an attack that is unbalanced in terms of its attributes and it will take a transfer window or two to rectify that.