A pinch of Pepe and a bag of Saka

Arsenal’s recent moves in the transfer market demonstrate a clear plan for the future of the defence. Pablo Mari and Gabriel Magalhães have arrived as Arteta’s desire for a left-footed centre-half is laid bare. William Saliba was signed last summer but arrived this. 19-year old and 22-year old centre-halves signed at great expense are demonstration of a succession plan.

Most of us assume that Arteta wants to, eventually, move away from the 343 (ish) system to a back four and a midfield three. That might be an incorrect assumption- Arteta has no history in management so many of us assume that Arsenal will turn into a Manchester City-lite. We will see but one would imagine that the intention is to pivot to a back four with Gabriel and Saliba at the heart of the defence.

Pretty much everyone knows that Arsenal’s midfield needs a facelift and at time of writing, the club is trying to kickstart the midfield regen with the signing of Houssem Aouar from Lyon. Upgrading in midfield is of the utmost importance to the Gunners- everyone was available on Monday evening and they went to Anfield with a midfield pairing of Granit Xhaka and Mohammed Elneny.

However, of greater curiosity to me is Arsenal’s attack and how it is shaping up under Arteta. It’s a small sample size of course, which includes the most difficult fixture of the season but the Gunners have averaged 13 shots conceded per game so far this season, while managing eight per game on their opponents goal in return. Only West Brom have a lower shot average.

Arteta’s team were outshot at home to West Ham United 14 to 7 and this has been a theme throughout his premiership- Arsenal have been outshot in 17 of their 23 Premier League games under Arteta. This article goes into excellent detail about why that matters in the long run and why it’s an issue Arteta needs to solve.

Now, it is entirely possible that Arteta has prioritised making the team more solid defensively- which he has managed- before repurposing the attack. In terms of raw talent, this is a frontloaded squad and you could argue that the individual quality in the final third can cope with tactical under-nourishment in a way that his defence and midfield cannot.

That would make a certain amount of sense. However, I do wonder if we are more or less seeing Arteta’s vision for the attack. While it is true that Arsenal don’t take many shots, the ones they take tend to be of high quality. They have even cultivated a signature goal, playing out from the back avoiding the midfield like it’s lava, progressing up the flanks and finishing with an Aubameyang curler from the left.

This is the sort of goal that requires scalpel like precision to pull off and, in my view, scalpel like precision is how Arteta sees his attack functioning. With the caveat that Arteta has forgotten more about football than I will ever know, I will confess that I prefer some jeopardy in attack. I like players that take risks, that take shots and that take opponents on.

I didn’t care how often Alexis Sanchez gave the ball away as long as he was posting double digits assists and goals. I didn’t really mind Aaron Ramsey leaving a crater in the centre of midfield if he was bursting into the box, scoring goals and creating space for others by giving defenders another headache in the penalty area.

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about the signing of Willian, who I described as a ‘human rhythm section.’ He has tied together attacks that have featured the likes of Neymar and Eden Hazard to his left and it’s not difficult to see why Arteta likes him. Mourinho loved Willian because he follows instruction and keeps the structure.

I was always dubious about the talk of Willian potentially playing on the left so that Aubameyang could move upfront or of him even playing as a number 10. Willian has played 98% of his football on the right-wing, it always seemed likely to me that the manager wanted him to play on the right and that the manager isn’t enormously enamoured of Pepe’s attributes.

Which is not to say he hates Pepe or thinks he’s terrible but you don’t sign a high profile 32-year old on a significant salary for the same position if you think the right-winger you already have is an absolute lock in your team. At the moment, it is very clear that Arteta’s first choice front three is Aubameyang, Lacazette and Willian.

My issue with this is that Lacazette and Willian are both “structure guys” for want of a better phrase. Aubameyang introduces some devil and is given liberty to abandon his post on the left. Willian and Lacazette are not players that take a lot of shots (I know that sounds counterintuitive given that Lacazette has scored in each of his three appearances this season).

I think Arteta doesn’t enormously value Pepe, not due to doubts over his talent, but because he doesn’t provide the structure Arteta wants. He is a bit more of an individual and I don’t think Arteta values individuality. It is true that Arsenal fans have, in general, been willing to make a lot of excuses for Pepe.

It’s understandable that we want the signing to yield value and, in my view, collectively we have probably been too prepared to grasp for straws when it comes to his inconsistency. [I don’t exclude myself from that]. He is a more talented player than Willian and the onus is very much on him to be more assertive and show it.

For my money, Arsenal’s three most productive attackers are Aubameyang, Pepe and Saka and, at the moment, two of those players usually start on the bench in favour of “the structure guys.” I think Pepe, Saka and Aubameyang could have some real chemistry as a front three and, even if you disregard tactical chemistry, Saka is really good at creating chances, Aubameyang is really good at taking them and Pepe can do a bit of both (and do lots of frustrating things in between).

Saka could hold width on the left, allowing Pepe to play more as an inside-forward. I think Aubameyang’s presence on the left is an obstacle for Pepe because Arteta doesn’t want to play with two inside-forwards. I understand the arguments against playing Aubameyang through the middle because of his lack of contribution to the build-up and his inability to play with his back to goal.

I wonder if we are overthinking it a tad. For a start, Arsenal don’t really build through the centre anyway. They build through the wings. Lacazette dropping into midfield to knit moves together is a nice to have, it’s an intermediate value attribute. I think the other forwards would replace that with advanced value attributes like creating and taking more shooting opportunities.

If Arsenal can add Aouar, hopefully that helps fill the chasm between the midfield and the attack but I think Saka helps Arsenal to advance the ball anyway with his ability to drive the ball forward. Aouar + Saka adds up to more than Lacazette dropping into midfield with his back to goal.

Time will tell whether this is Arteta’s plan but I am not so sure. I think his vision for the attack is to be super structured and precise and, personally, I think that has a ceiling unless you have the best attackers money can buy. In the next phase of the Arteta revolution, I would like to see just a pinch of spice added to the attack.

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