When contemplating where Arsenal need to make improvements this summer, I am minded of that famous Manchester United tweet carrying a quote from then manager David Moyes. It’s probably quicker to consider the areas where the team doesn’t need a great deal of improvement. However, in the interests of satisfying the demands of this column, I have tried to condense Arsenal’s needs this summer into bitesize priorities.
David Moyes says #mufc must improve in a number of areas, including passing, creating chances and defending.
— Manchester United (@ManUtd) December 9, 2013
One of the curious tactical developments under Mikel Arteta is that Arsenal have become an effective counter-attacking side. They have beaten Manchester United, Liverpool, Chelsea and Manchester City under Arteta’s stewardship. With wide-forwards like Nicolas Pepe and Pierre Emerick Aubameyang, a fairly solid midfield base of Ceballos and Xhaka, three central defenders and a selection of adaptable wing-backs, Arsenal have set up well against better resourced teams. Plan B is set.
They have struggled against deep blocks, however, as we saw in league defeats against the likes of Brighton, Tottenham and Aston Villa post project restart. They also struggled to break down Burnley [with whom they drew 0-0] and West Ham [grinding out a 1-0 win] shortly before lockdown. This is because Arsenal lack creativity.
That pass map is so glaring that I can superimpose Johnson from Peep Show’s fave into the gap and barely take out a blue arrow pic.twitter.com/aZxfIejWuq
— Tim Stillman (@Stillberto) July 21, 2020
Creativity comes in many guises- an effete artiste floating between the lines isn’t the only avenue through which to create chances. [Who is Liverpool’s “number 10” for example? Nobody, that’s who]. Assessing the materials with which he has to work, Arteta has made creating through the wings a priority since taking charge of the team.
The imminent signing of Willian continues towards that trend- he is an excellent dribbler in short spaces and holds the width of the pitch very well. Last season, when the initiative was handed to Arsenal they don’t quite have the devil or variety to move defences around. This is partially because they lack ball carriers. The likes of Cazorla, Wilshere, Rosicky, Sanchez, Oxlade Chamberlain and Iwobi were ball carriers of varying talent and their skills have not really been replaced.
Pepe is a good dribbler in the final third; but you have to get the ball to him and that has proved hard work for Arsenal, who struggle to progress the ball centrally. The midfield duo of Ceballos and Xhaka provide a solid technical platform but neither really break the opposition lines and neither has the athleticism to provide regular presence in the opposition penalty area.
The Gunners took a total of three points away from home against the bottom four last season, lost home and away to Brighton and didn’t beat Crystal Palace either. Arsenal don’t have enough players that can either receive the ball quickly on the half turn and drive at defences, nor do they have enough presence between the lines. They don’t unsettle heavily manned defences and acquiring players that can do this ought to be a priority for Arteta this summer.
DIVERSE GOAL THREAT
Pierre Emerick Aubameyang scored 39% of Arsenal’s paltry haul of 56 Premier League goals in 2019-20. The table below demonstrates that the Gunners midfield has made a pitiful contribution in the final third this season [numbers in the table are Premier League only]. This was exacerbated by the persistent need to field three central defenders due to the personnel deficiencies at the back.
It was the dilemma that characterised Arsenal after project restart- both the defence and the midfield needed an extra body but Arteta couldn’t find a way to facilitate for both, so he chose the defence. A midfield of Ceballos and Xhaka doesn’t provide nearly enough cut and thrust in the final third- both in the creative sense and the finishing sense.
In fairness to them both, a third central midfielder might be expected to fill in this troubling blank. Alonso and Mascherano played behind Steven Gerrard, Essien and Makelele behind Frank Lampard and even Denilson and Song had Fabregas ahead of them. Bukayo Saka could become that third central midfielder with greater end-product if the system allows for it.
The addition of Willian- who managed nine goals and seven assists for Chelsea in the Premier League last season- ought to augment Arsenal’s modest attacking data. The loss of Aaron Ramsey and the disappearance of Mesut Özil has cost the team two players who, once upon a time, were reliable, high end-product players from attacking midfield. Whether internally or via the market, their output needs replacing this summer.
SET PIECE MAXIMISATION
11 of the 48 Premier League goals Arsenal conceded last season emanated directly from corners and free-kicks. Eight of their concessions were penalties too. The team’s issues defending dead balls run into their more general defensive issues- Arteta has done a good job of ‘hiding’ deficiencies in the defensive areas of the team by closing spaces.
However, set-pieces expose the individual frailties of the squad’s collection of two and three star centre-halves. They lack a dominant voice or presence to take charge of those situations and often, the defenders crowd together or simply follow the trajectory of the ball because they don’t quite trust one another to pick up opponents.
At the other end, Arsenal have scored 11 goals from free-kicks and corners this season and one from a long throw-in. That represents around 1/5th of the team’s goals this season which is not a bad proportion though it does somewhat emphasise their creative difficulties. With the left-footed delivery of Pepe and the right-footed delivery of Willian, there is potential for the team to become a more consistent threat attacking dead balls. There are rumours of Arteta seeking a coach to help with set-pieces and I think this would be a positive development.
Had Arsenal been asked to chase either of the FA Cup semi-final or final, Mikel Arteta’s options from the bench were Eddie Nketiah, Reiss Nelson, Joe Willock and Bukayo Saka. Once he returns from injury you can add Gabriel Martinelli to that roll-call and Emile Smith-Rowe has now returned from loan at Huddersfield.
Martinelli and Smith-Rowe offer additional depth but not additional experience. Willian ought to augment the attack in both respects. Once the Europa League group stages have concluded, there may well be room to send someone like Reiss Nelson or Joe Willock on loan to determine whether they have long-term futures at Arsenal.
With the likes of Mkhitaryan, Iwobi and Ramsey having left, Özil in Siberia and only Pepe coming the other way, Arsenal lost a lot of experience in the final third last summer and, understandably, have focused a lot of their recruitment in defence with Luiz, Soares and Mari coming in. The age profile of the current squad is a curious mix of youngsters and late prime players and that balance needs addressing- especially in attack.