The defeat to Aston Villa on Sunday is one which, as I wrote yesterday, demands serious consideration from Mikel Arteta and his coaching staff. There is, at a time like this, a tendency to think we need to rip it up and start again, but that’s not necessarily true.
We have to do something about our attacking inefficiency, no doubt about it. The reason that Alexandre Lacazette miss stung so much isn’t just because it was a gilt-edged chance to equalise, it’s because we all knew that we don’t create anywhere enough goalscoring opportunities so the importance of that one was even greater. When you only have a couple of chances in a game, the pressure to take them is huge, which isn’t to excuse Lacazette in any way, but it’s true nonetheless.
In certain fixtures, Mikel Arteta has found a system and a formula which works. Our dismal record against the other members of the so-called ‘Big Six’ has been a bit better, as victory at Old Trafford demonstrated just over a week ago. It’s hard to argue that defeats against Liverpool and Man City also show progress, but when you hold them to single goal wins after routinely shipping three or more, it’s a small indication that you’re going in the right direction. We can still obviously improve, but in these games, the way we set up and the way we try to play produces better results than we’ve seen for a while. Fine.
It’s trying to apply that same system to games like Villa which is the problem. The same eleven players, the same mindset, the same structure, but a markedly different result. It’s easy for the opposition to suss out what we’re going to do – to come to the Emirates and not be in any way worried about who we are and what we might do to them. That has to change.
Arteta was scathing in his post-match analysis, first and foremost of himself, which is fine, and I like that he has accepted that responsibility. Yet he has to recognise that some of the faith he’s put in certain players is misplaced. I believe there is an issue of the system inhibiting the players to an extent, and some of the players not suiting the system, but the solution remains the same: change things.
Before the Villa game, Arteta spoke about our lack of goalscoring, and said:
To become a top top team you have to score 90 or 100 goals to be competing with the top guns and it’s a challenge for us and an area that we have to improve and do better.
That he recognises that is positive, but how he expects his team to do it in the current system, I’m not sure. We don’t make enough chances, we don’t take enough shots, we’re wasteful with the ones we do have, and all the metrics tell you this is an area in which we’re really struggling. As per @Orbinho (Opta), we haven’t scored from open play in the Premier League for over six hours. Whatever way you want to dress that up, it’s a big problem.
And let’s be clear: this isn’t one which simply just manifested itself in the Villa game, it’s something that has been growing for some time. It also can’t be something Arteta is unaware of. If a growing criticism is that he’s micro-managing the players throughout games to the detriment of their freedom on the pitch, the idea that he doesn’t pore over all the statistical data available to him is fanciful. He’ll be able to see that in eight Premier League appearances his best goalscorer, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, has had just ten shots. He’ll see that centre-half Gabriel has taken as many shots as Willian. He’ll note that Aubameyang has more ‘key passes’ than anyone else, but those are things he should be on the end of, not making.
And he’ll see by simply looking at the Premier League table that from 7th upwards, every single team is averaging at least two goals per game, whereas his is squeaking by on 1.12 per game. What he needs to do is obvious – score more goals, create more chances – but how he’s going to achieve that is the big question.
I fully accept this is full-on Armchair Manager stuff, and it’s something we discussed at length on the Arsecast Extra yesterday, but looking at what we have available to us right now – rather than focusing on what we don’t – I’d do the following:
- Move to a back four
- Play a midfield three
- Shift Aubameyang to the centre-forward position
- Flank him with Nicolas Pepe and Bukayo Saka
That’s very basic, but it’s the bones of a shift away from what we’re doing at the moment. Neither Willian or Alexandre Lacazette should be starting until they earn their places back by producing on the pitch, not because they work very hard in training and Arteta’s apparently natural default towards experience gives them the edge over others.
The midfield three doesn’t have to be the same in every game, but the default member is obviously Thomas Partey. Sometimes it’ll be Elneny, sometimes Ceballos, sometimes Xhaka, but I would also give serious consideration to Joe Willock as someone whose movement and running gives the opposition something to think about. It’s not to say he is the answer to all of our problems, but he’s an option which we should have at our disposal until such time as we have others.
As for Aubameyang up front, I feel like this is a drum that I’m banging a lot, but it makes perfect sense to me. Those who say he can’t play as a centre-forward in this system overlook the fact that perhaps it’s the system that’s the problem. We’re playing in a way which would suit a striker like Olivier Giroud, without having a striker like that. Using Auba there would force us to play in a different way, Pepe and Saka are the two players with whom he combines best in this team – his friendship with Lacazette might be great off the pitch, but they don’t really work on it.
It might be a bit simplistic, I know there are other factors a manager has to consider, but it’s also uncomplicated, gets our best attacking players in their best positions, and gives us the chance to play with a variance that the opposition won’t be expecting. I think there’s also a need to consider the use of subs and, when games require it, eschewing the like for like changes to give the team we’re playing something to think about, rather than simply a different player in the same position. Adjust to make them adjust.
Finally, I do have this hope – perhaps misplaced – that a lesson like the one we were given by Villa, our performances so far this season, the statistics which make for such unpleasant reading, and all the rest, have to spark a rethink from the manager. He came in in December last season with the team in a mess and had a positive impact. Now, he’s got to find a way to do it again, but these are the challenges of management, the things he’s going to have to face throughout his career, and I’m hopeful he can address these problems as he prepares for our next games.
The podcast from yesterday is below, listen/subscribe etc, and I’ll be back with more here tomorrow.