It’s widely accepted that both Unai Emery and Mikel Arteta assumed a tough gig when they signed up to become the Head Coach of Arsenal. Arsene Wenger’s reign was allowed to drift into a managed decline and the club made a series of expensive, incorrect decisions in pursuit of Champions League football.
Behind the scenes, upheaval became the new normal as the post-Wenger building blocks were put in place in the executive branch of the club. Many eggs were broken in the making of that particular omelette. Arsenal gradually transitioned from a club that had grown stale through stability to an institution in the grip of revolution.
A poorly constructed squad has been one of the main consequences of this chaotic period. Most Arsenal fans and keen Arsenal observers accept that the squad is, at best, an uneven mish mash of qualities and, at worst, just plain low on talent. What are the specifics of this malfunction though? What are the tactical and personnel issues that Unai Emery failed to address that Mikel Arteta is now wrestling with?
A lack of end-product from wide areas
Arsenal sold Alexis Sanchez and bought Pierre Emerick Aubameyang and Henrikh Mkhitaryan to replace him. Finding another Alexis is pretty much impossible, there are few players in the world that can produce the number of goals and assists the Chilean offered as standard. Put simply, Arsenal’s thinking seemed to be that they would replace his creative output with Mkhitaryan and his goal tally with Aubameyang.
Only one half of that jigsaw really fell into place. Sanchez was so good that the club had to replace him with two players, but that created a tactical problem as Arsenal sought to shoehorn Alex Lacazette and Pierre Emerick Aubameyang into the same team. Aubameyang often plays on the left because Arsenal do not have a left-sided forward with regular end-product.
Aubameyang is not really a wide forward, he is an average ball carrier and crosser and does not really create chances for teammates. He does score goals though. Playing the Gabonese through the middle at the expense of Lacazette would be a much more viable option if Arsenal had a reliable left-sided forward.
This tactical mismatch has been exacerbated by the purchase of Nicolas Pepe [I explained why Arsenal have struggled to accommodate his skills in last week’s column]. A lot of resource has been allocated to three players who, for all of their individual qualities, just do not mesh together at all. Gabriel Martinelli provides hope for the future, but he is too similar to Aubameyang for the two to play in the same team.
Even two fairly average wide players like Alex Iwobi and Henrikh Mkhitaryan have been missed this season. For their flaws, they at least loosely slotted into Arsenal’s attacking system. Arsenal have superior, but ill-fitting options in those slots now. Considering Arsenal used to boast the likes of Theo Walcott, Alexis Sanchez and further back, Freddie Ljungberg and Robert Pires, the lack of a quality left-sided forward has unbalanced the attack.
Lack of end-product from midfield
If your front three fires like Liverpool’s, you can afford to have a workmanlike midfield whose main job is to progress the ball into the final third of the pitch. Arsenal don’t, which makes the paltry number of units the midfield engine is churning out all the starker. The squad has plenty of midfielders who can move the ball nicely enough, but not enough that move it dangerously.
This has been exacerbated by the loss of Aaron Ramsey, who provided a decent number of goals, assists and a sense of jeopardy from midfield with his movement. Even behind the naked numbers, Ramsey helped the attack by creating confusion in opposition defences. The strikers probably helped themselves to a couple more tap-ins a season thanks to his runs from deep.
Finding another Aaron Ramsey on the transfer market is not easy, especially when you allow the original one to leave for free. The club elected to fill that gap in the squad with Dani Ceballos. Ceballos is a really good player, but he offers too many of the qualities Arsenal already have in Guendouzi and Xhaka and not enough of the attributes they are missing.
A lack of ball carriers
Which brings me onto the next bone of contention. In recent seasons, Arsenal have lost or sold Jack Wilshere, Santi Cazorla, Tomas Rosicky, Alex Oxlade Chamberlain and Alex Iwobi, all of whom were capable of unsettling the opposition by carrying the ball over long distances and beating players. Football has become uber-structured tactically speaking in recent years and with an emphasis on pressing players in possession.
The value of a good dribbler has never been higher. An unstructured act like dribbling creates jeopardy and being able to beat the opposition press is valuable tactical currency. Currently, Arsenal only have Nicolas Pepe who can do it and he is often asked to wriggle his way through three or four bodies from the touchline when he receives the ball. It can make Arsenal’s play too staid and predictable and too easily contained by a low block. Sometimes watching Arsenal is like watching fußball.
A lack of technical quality in the final third
Arsenal have some good passers of the ball. One of the tweaks Arteta has made in recent weeks is to introduce more progressive passers into his team. Mustafi and Mari have ousted Sokratis at centre-half because of their superior technical ability. David Luiz partners one of those players and the Brazilian is renowned for his expansive passing range.
Arteta has also nudged Lucas Torreira out of the team in favour of Dani Ceballos [or sometimes Matteo Guendouzi], in order to get another technically sound passer into his starting eleven. Since the winter break, a typical Arteta team selection will see Luiz alongside one of Mustafi or Mari and Xhaka alongside one of Ceballos or Guendouzi. That’s a decent collection of passers.
The problem is that they all largely play in their own half. Passing is not the speciality of Aubameyang, Lacazette or Pepe, while Mesut Özil’s numbers have been declining rapidly in terms of end-product for three seasons now. Özil is easily the most technically accomplished player Arsenal has, my heart rate drops right down when he collects the ball because I know he will control it excellently and that he won’t give it to the opposition.
That’s very nice. A few years ago, when Özil got the ball, my heart rate rose because I thought he might find a clever reverse pass or spot a nook of space in the area for an onrushing attacker. Özil has effectively become another Xhaka or Ceballos, a technically decent passer, but one that can’t or won’t trouble opposition central defenders with a through ball.
Often, this leads to Arsenal looking staid and predictable as they push their food around their plate in the final third of the pitch. Without Alexis’ snap and crackle and Özil having retired his pop, Arsenal’s attack morphs into a form of footballing presenteeism, vaguely waiting until a chance falls to Aubameyang.
It puts me in mind of the latter George Graham days when the Gunners would toil and toil and just hope that Ian Wright could muster something from nothing. These are the challenges that Mikel Arteta must unpick as he seeks to forge the team in his own image and I am sure he will look to address a number of these areas in the summer transfer market.