With the last interlull until March out of the way, the season is about to come to the boil without further irritating interruptions and this is often the period that really defines the season. So far, Arsenal are probably in A- / B+ category for performances. They are in touch with Manchester City but it still feels as though they are working through some issues.
This is where Manchester City were this time last year, of course. They were in touch with Arsenal but still working through some issues of their own. Luxury issues, of course, like how to accommodate one of the greatest pure goal scorers football has ever seen and even then, he was still scoring regularly as Guardiola tilted his head and scratched his beard.
As far as ‘working through issues’ goes, that probably ranks alongside ‘have I ordered too much champagne for my party on my new yacht?’ Arsenal are working through issues like ‘is Kai Havertz a talented footballer who needs his confidence restoring or is he a footballing Ponzi scheme?’ and ‘David Raya might be really good if he could just stop passing the ball directly to an opposition striker once a game.’ They are still first world issues but not in the same class as City’s. Nevertheless, the attack is under the microscope and rightly so.
Can Arsenal finesse the formula to be more dangerous in attack?
‘Control’ is the buzzword of the season for Arsenal fans and rightly so. There has clearly been an emphasis on tightening the team up off the ball after a series of transitional yo-yo games during the second half of last season. Arsenal’s off-ball game required urgent attention over the summer because sometimes those yo-yo games see Emi Martinez or Reiss Nelson conspire to hand you one of the most memorable moments of your life.
However, just as often, you get slapped 3-0 at home to Brighton. It’s not for no reason that Arsenal spent over £100m on the best off-ball player in the league this summer. Arsenal are conceding an XG of around 0.76 per Premier League game this season so far. Last season that number was 1.1 per game. Arsenal are also scoring far fewer early goals than they did in 2022-23 and I think there is a deliberate move to make the team more durable in-game and across the season so they don’t look totally spent by April again.
However, the attacking output has dipped. Last season they were averaging 1.89XG per game, this season that has fallen to 1.75, which is 1.375 when you take out penalties (last season’s non penalty XG was 1.81). The question, I guess, is whether control has come at the expense of a prolific attack. There have been away games, in particular, that have been decided by fine margins.
Arsenal were very much in control for 1-0 wins at Crystal Palace and Everton and those steady 1-0 wins on the road are a hallmark of any title challenge. However, they can leave you open to jeopardy too, like when you travel to Newcastle, create very little and restrict your opponents to very little only to find Alan Shearer, Jimmy Nail and Geoff from Byker Grove on VAR so you lose 1-0.
Or when you travel to Chelsea, concede an unfortunate penalty and their expensive Ukrainian winger does a post-match victory lap because he shinned a cross into the top corner. I am less convinced that Arsenal’s restricted attacking output is entirely due to a renewed focus on ‘control’, I think it is more likely a personnel issue which I believe to be double barreled.
Gabriel Jesus has started one Premier League game at centre-forward and I just don’t think Arsenal have the same fluidity and potency in attack without him. He is the nerve centre of the Gunners forward line and I think we saw that last season when, forgive me for being reductive, Arsenal looked unstoppable in attack with him and looked markedly more human without him.
Through a quirk of the fixture list, Jesus has started three of Arsenal’s Champions League games upfront and he has played brilliantly and scored in all three. Sometimes two and two really does make four and there isn’t much more to it. The other issue, is the left eight position and how Arsenal have tried to replace Granit Xhaka, which brings me onto…
Can Arsenal solve Kai Havertz?
I think the rationale behind Havertz’s signing was pretty simple. Xhaka was arriving in the penalty area more often than any other Arsenal player last season. He helped himself to seven goals and seven assists. Xhaka was leaving, so why don’t we get someone who can ‘crash the box’ and inflate those numbers a little?
The fact that Havertz was given the charity penalty, to date his only Arsenal goal, at Bournemouth shows you his role is viewed through the prism of end-product. The real curiosity about the signing is that, so far, Havertz has actually done ‘Xhaka things’ pretty well. He presses well, wins the ball back a lot and is able to drop into a midfield double pivot when Arsenal need to exert more control and often finds himself tossed upfront for the ‘lamp post role’ late on in games.
The issue is that his attacking output, which I believe was what he was really bought to execute, has been miserable. He is producing less than Xhaka in this respect and, again, at the risk of being reductive, it really is impossible to view Arsenal’s shrunken attacking output without addressing the fact that one of the guys they bought to score and make goals isn’t doing it.
The left eight position is proving tricky for Arsenal because, beneath Havertz, Fabio Vieira and Emile Smith Rowe are hardly reaching out and grabbing the opportunity that Havertz’s fitfulness is affording them. Instead, Declan Rice is playing there with Jorginho at the base of midfield because those are the guys more worthy of the manager’s trust at this moment in time.
If you want to improve your attacking output, you would prefer for any one of Havertz, Vieira or Smith Rowe to earn the good graces of Mikel Arteta than Jorginho, excellent player though he is. This has had a knock-on effect in other technical areas of the team because you can’t really play Jorginho and Zinchenko together unless you’re playing Tortoise United on a pitch made of treacle, so Arsenal have lost some of the Ukrainian’s build-up qualities.
The absence of Thomas Partey, as well as Gabriel Jesus, is having a butterfly effect on Martin Odegaard’s output in my opinion. I also think Arsenal are still too reliant on Saka and Martinelli to play every minute of every match and I still worry about both feeling the effects of that reliance as the season goes on. However, I don’t think Arsenal should forfeit their focus on ‘control’ entirely.
Perhaps the formula could do with some tweaking but when we look at how City fixed their champagne and yacht dilemma last season, a lot of it was to do with playing four hulking great centre-halves with Rodri ahead of them for additional security. I think what Arsenal really need is a clean bill of health for Gabriel Jesus and they need to hope and pray that Havertz, Vieira or Smith Rowe can really add something in that left eight position on a regular basis.
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