Sunday, December 10, 2023

Scalpels and Sledgehammers

I have lost count of the amount of times that I have written about the attack as a chief issue for Arsenal under Mikel Arteta. Do you remember the 2013-14 season when Arsenal fell out of the title race, in part, because they scored 68 league goals that season while Manchester City and Liverpool racked up triple figures?

Do you recall discussing how Arsenal might up their offensive potential to send them hurtling towards a century of league goals in a season? This season, they are on course for half a century in the league. Whatever you think of Bernd Leno, Arsenal’s defence or even their midfield (though they have their part to play in the impoverished performance in front of goal) scoring goals is Arsenal’s biggest issue.

Arteta has Pierre Emerick Aubameyang, Alex Lacazette, Martin Odegaard, Bukayo Saka, Nicolas Pepe, Emile Smith Rowe, Gabriel Martinelli, Eddie Nketiah and *crickets chirp* Willian at his disposal for the front four positions. Nobody is saying that is a collection of attackers that ought to be conquering Europe- but it should net you more than 50 league goals in a season.

The issue is one of balance. There isn’t always an immediately obvious way of fitting some of those players together. In fairness, Emile Smith Rowe, Gabriel Martinelli and Martin Odegaard weren’t available to Arteta in the first half of the campaign and the attacking numbers have been trending upwards since Christmas.

However, Arsenal at home and Arsenal away are different beasts, in an attacking sense. They have scored two goals in their last five home games and haven’t scored more than one open play goal in a game at the Emirates since the 4-2 victory over Leeds in February. (They scored three “at home” to Benfica but the game took place in Athens). On the road they have scored 20 goals in their last eight matches in all competitions, a marked difference. Across the league season, these numbers hold too.


GoalsExpected goalsShots
Home1922.7 (1.26 per game)199
Away2726.8 (1.58 per game)208


Arsenal shoot more often, score more often and with greater accuracy away from home than they do at home. Liverpool and Manchester United are experiencing something similar this season to a much lesser degree. In this unique “covid season” where nearly every game has been played behind closed doors, home advantage has decreased a little.

The main reason that Arsenal struggle to break teams down at home is obvious, teams play far more defensively at the Emirates and they are far harder to break down. The Leeds game in February, when Arsenal scored four, proved to be atypical because a) Leeds do not play in a deep block and b) because of variance. They ran hot in front of goal that day, scoring four goals from an XG of 2.5 (according to Understat).

One of the most interesting- and difficult- aspects of Arsenal’s attack is the variance among the players. Arteta has a number of binary choices and players with very different attributes. Having different clubs in your bag is no bad thing, of course, but it can be difficult to promote continuity in the way the manager would like.

This conundrum is best illustrated by the striker choices. Aubameyang and Lacazette are very, very different types of centre-forward (which I covered in depth in this piece recently). Arsenal began the season with a straight choice between Willian and Nicolas Pepe on the right flank and, again, these players could not be more different.

In theory, at least, Willian is your typical ‘structure’ player. He won’t rack up the goals and assists but he will hold your attacking shape and won’t surrender the ball cheaply (unfortunately, neither of those things have really proved to be true as the season has developed).

Pepe is much your maverick kind of wide forward. He has 11 goals this season (six in Europe) which is…..11 more than Willian. Pepe takes shots, tries to beat players and puts the ball into dangerous areas. In doing so, he will also dribble into dead ends, send the ball spiralling into the upper tier and he might not necessarily help you to create effective passing triangles, though he is improving rapidly in that respect.

Much the same is true of Gabriel Martinelli, who is not your pattern play type of player but he will take lots and lots of shots on goal. Sometimes Emile Smith Rowe is deployed on the flank and he is very much a pattern play type of wide forward, he won’t take a lot of shots (though I think we will see more of that from him next season) but he will help you to get up the pitch.

The only Arsenal attacker who combines potency inside the penalty area with efficiency in build-up is Bukayo Saka and that is why he always, always plays. He is the only attacker that doesn’t give Arteta this binary dilemma between scalpels and sledge hammers. Ultimately, Arteta, at his heart, prefers the scalpel and Arsenal can no longer afford or attract the players who, like Saka, can do a bit of both.

That’s why he brought Willian in despite Pepe’s strong finish to last season. It’s why Martinelli has struggled for minutes in a way that Smith Rowe hasn’t. The “scalpel” approach tends to work better away from home when Arsenal can play on the counter- Willian notched two of his better assists at Leicester and Burnley where he provided the final pass in slick ‘front to back’ moves.

At home against deep blocks, sometimes the sledgehammer is the better approach. In fairness, against Fulham Arsenal produced an XG of 2.9 and Gabriel Martinelli was responsible for 1.5 of this (his four shots were rated at a total of 0.9XG and he created 0.6 XG worth of shooting opportunities for teammates).

Where Arsenal ran hot on their XG against Leeds, they ran cold against Fulham, a game in which they didn’t do an awful lot wrong save for some poor finishing. Though the Gunners’ struggles against deep blocks are not just a consequence of the attackers themselves. One of the team’s issues is that they don’t really pen teams into their own penalty areas.

Arteta likes to build attacks slowly, meaning the ball takes quite a long time to get from A to B. When Arsenal do get the ball in the area and the opposition manages to clear it, it takes a long time to come back at them again, giving them an opportunity to reset, both positionally and mentally. The team doesn’t do enough to stress deep blocks by quickly collecting clearances and sending the ball back into dangerous areas.

Like Arsenal, Liverpool’s central midfielders do not contribute many goals and assists. However, they detail Gini Wijnaldum to anticipate where clearances are going to land so he can collect the ball and quickly send it towards the penalty area. This is an approach that was pioneered by Sam Allardyce at Bolton Wanderers.

His team of analysts spent a lot of time analysing where clearances land and he would position players like Kevin Nolan and Ivan Campo into those areas, just towards the corner of the penalty area. It meant Bolton could keep sending crosses in until defences became weary and stressed.

I am not necessarily advocating for Arsenal to become Sam Allardyce’s Bolton but there is a learning point here. When a deep block repels an attack against Arteta’s team, they know they have plenty of time to reset and psychologically recover. On Thursday, we can make a reasonably good guess that Unai Emery’s Villarreal will look to be defensively secure to protect their slender first leg advantage.

Emery will know well that Arsenal struggle to really build pressure against teams that sit back (he will also know they are perfectly capable of helping even the most conservative opposition to find themselves a goal). In my view, Arteta is going to have to fight some of his instincts and entrust more of the game to his mavericks.

He will probably have little choice but to start Aubameyang on Thursday but he should start Pepe too and if his team still need a goal in the final third of the game, Martinelli is a good option. Playing that trio together would be too chaotic and Bukayo Saka has the right-wing position on lock anyway. Arsenal don’t need to score the perfect goal against Villarreal but they do need to score at least one and they will need to put Villarreal under sustained pressure- something they have consistently struggled to do at Emirates Stadium.

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