“Arsenal’s midfielders (not counting attacking midfielders) create just 0.86 key passes per match. That is total, not per player. This ranks 14th in the league. Arsenal’s midfielders create just 0.06 xA per match. So even on the rare occasion that they create chances, they are often not very likely to be converted into goals. This ranks 19th, only ahead of the relegated Norwich City.”
Scott’s ‘By the numbers’ column for the Spurs game laid bare Arsenal’s creative problems. You don’t have to watch much of Arsenal to understand that watching them try to carve defences open is like watching someone try to push a bolder up a hill. Since the league resumed, opposition goalkeepers have represented the team’s most prolific creative outlet. Why do the Gunners lack invention in the final third? Well, there are a few reasons.
Many of their issues emanate from the defence. Arteta has stumbled on the same conclusion Unai Emery came to- that the defensive players he has at his disposal need a stabilising wheel on their bicycles. None of Luiz, Mustafi, Kolasinac or Holding can defend space and neither can defensive midfielder Granit Xhaka.
Good teams leave their defences and defenders exposed in the name of scoring goals. Manchester City leave Fernandinho with lots of ground to cover. Virgil van Dijk is often isolated in one-on-one defensive situations. Those players are good enough to handle it, whereas Arsenal’s emphatically are not.
Part of what made the Invincibles defence to formidable was their ability to defend one-on-one. Toby Alderweireld’s goal against Arsenal on Sunday represented the first time the Gunners truly had to chase a game since matches restarted in June. Brighton went ahead with the last kick of the game in the second game of the restart, while Arteta’s side were never truly chasing the game away at Manchester City. We saw what happened to Shkodran Mustafi, for instance, the instant he was asked to cover a slightly larger space at Spurs.
Arteta has worked to reduce the amount of space that these players are required to defend and that takes away from the attacking department of the team. Arsenal’s need for a third central defender leaves them with a midfield two. Even creatively speaking, there is a tactical plan to get the ball from defence to midfield.
Luiz and Xhaka or Ceballos play at the tips of a diamond with the wide centre halves pushed to the side of them. It means they have an exit strategy in the initial phase of play- even then, Kolasinac is a redundant element of that diamond because there is roughly a 40% chance that he will give the ball to the opposition.
Xhaka too is a ‘goldilocks’ distributor. If he has time to spin the ball onto his left instep then his passing is superb. He tends to get that time in deeper areas, but anywhere halfway line or north and he is quite marshalled into passing backwards because he won’t use his right foot and he can’t turn. He and Kolasinac are so one-footed and opponents have twigged that it’s simple enough to stop Arsenal progressing the ball up that flank by denying them time.
Yet even with time and space in the middle third, the problem is that Arsenal don’t have a system for distributing the ball into the final third. Recently the club have shed Aaron Ramsey, Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Alex Iwobi and Arteta is the third consecutive manager to consider Mesut Ozil more trouble than he is worth.
All of these players have some ‘between the lines’ value and offer some kind of connection between the midfield and the attack. Presently, Alex Lacazette is the player that is asked to drop into this area and link play and he’s the centre-forward, so defenders are happy not to follow him away from the penalty area.
Ozil is not the defence splitting passer of yore, but even in his current decline, he offers a roadmap to progressing the ball into dangerous areas by standing in them and not losing the ball when he receives it. Creative ‘nuisance value’ is not a good return for Ozil’s salary but it’s the best Arsenal can do from the available options. Joe Willock can occupy this area but his technical level is too low to make a difference against a deep block, he is far more dangerous when a game is stretched.
You want to see the big big problem with Arsenal summed up in one picture? It’s this pic.twitter.com/IMI5CX94rg
— JB™️ (@gunnerpunner) July 12, 2020
Nicolas Pepe moved into this more central zone more often against Spurs and the team is just starting to take a step towards the Ivorian. He certainly offers more threat than most of his teammates but his technical level and his decision making still needs a lot of work. Too often he loses the ball with loose touches or poor control. Pepe reminds me a little of Andrey Arshavin in this respect and Arteta is right to demand greater consistency from him.
The left flank is also an issue for Arsenal. When Arsenal fans debate the merits of Pierre Emerick Aubameyang on the left hand side, they tend to focus on his goalscoring return, which isn’t unduly altered compared to when he plays in the centre. The problem is that it doesn’t give you any of the creative output you would want from a team that lacks it in other areas.
Arsenal had 62% possession, made 260 more passes than Tottenham, but only 3 more into the final third, and 8 fewer key passes (Spurs =14, Arsenal = 6). #AFC also had an xG of 0.69, with the highest value effort at 0.12, didn't have a big chance & never led the running xG metrics
— Adam P (@ThreeFiveWho) July 13, 2020
In a Breakdown special back in April, Adrian Clarke analysed the burgeoning relationship that had started to cultivate between Pepe and Aubameyang. However, the pair are too far apart to really build on that chemistry. Attacking wise, putting your best attackers close together is usually a decent idea but Arsenal haven’t found a way to do it often enough.
This means that the team are just hoping for an individual feat to score a goal. Nicolas Pepe’s goal against Brighton and Alex Lacazette’s against Spurs were in this mould. In games where the team struggled to move the opposition’s defence around, an excellent shot from outside of the area or pressing the opposition into an error have been required to break the deadlock. These were pleasing goals but they don’t represent a sustainable attacking strategy.
Mikel Arteta could be braver with his substitutions when games fall into a pattern of sterile possession. The decision to replace Nicolas Pepe with Bukayo Saka in the North London derby lacked imagination and didn’t solve any of Arsenal’s issues in moving Tottenham’s defence around.
Taking off a defender and introducing Saka into a midfield three would have given Spurs far more to think about. Replacing like for like meant Tottenham could just maintain their tactics. He is going to need to hit the ‘gamble’ button more often to eke more out of this team in an attacking sense, even if his attacking options in reserve are limited.