Arsenal have scored four goals in their last five games and that perfectly reflects the number of points they have taken in the same spell which, clearly, is pretty disastrous for a team that has designs on challenging for the title. The conversation over the Arsenal attack is not a recent one, it has been rumbling under the surface all season.
Here are a selection of headlines from this column over the last seven weeks. ‘Doubling Up’, ‘The Spare Man’, ‘How Do Arsenal Get More From Their Attack?’ and ‘Arsenal Need Another Forward- But What Type of Forward?.’
The buzz word among Arsenal fans this season has been ‘control’ as Arteta has clearly sought to protect his team against the sort of transitional moments that blighted them in the second half of last season. There is an important point therein, that Arsenal’s approach needed to evolve and the second half of the last campaign told us this in no uncertain terms.
Whether what Arsenal are currently doing is the most optimal response to that is up for debate but they can’t put the genie back in the bottle and rewind to September 2022. Teams had already adapted to that slightly more thrilling but slightly more high wire approach. I looked back recently at an interview Mikel Arteta gave to Nick Wright from Sky Sports ahead of the Aston Villa game and the beginning of this barren spell.
Arteta pushed back on the word ‘control’ when it was put to him. “More than control, I want dominance. Dominance in the right area and not allowing the opponent to breathe. This is what we do. Control in certain areas of the pitch, I’m not interested at all in that, because we can get in trouble by trying to do that.”
He somewhat buried the lede in that quote. It’s the final sentence that is instructive. “Control in certain areas of the pitch, I am not interested in all that, because we can get into trouble by trying to do that.” I think it’s reasonably obvious that he is referring to playing too much in central areas. Arsenal have prioritised going wide earlier on in moves to protect the team against transitions, it is seen as a better and safer area to try to regain possession in when it is lost.
Arsenal vacate the centre to control a game. It seemed paradoxical at once, but now Arteta sees it as a way to sustain attacks longer: going wide earlier is an assurance against risk if we lose it, stretches opponents press, and allows us to play around it to settle poss. higher pic.twitter.com/E9LNpA4OKF
— Arsenal Column (@ArsenalColumn) December 31, 2023
Clearly, that has created an even greater strain on Saka and Martinelli who are being asked to do more. This season, according to FBRef, Arsenal have “enjoyed” a 40.5% success rate with take ons, the third lowest in division. Last season they had the fifth highest take on success rate. (Manchester City have the highest take on success rate in the league, currently).
This is not just because teams are doubling up on Martinelli and Saka but because both players are receiving the ball earlier in moves. The pace of Arsenal’s attacks has slowed to ensure the team is in position to defend counters but the unintended consequence of this more considered approach is that opponents are being given more time to set.
Unpredictability and spontaneity are crucial factors in breaking down deep blocks. Arsenal are not dribbling well enough- or, the wide players are not being found in optimal dribbling positions. The team are eschewing central areas and swift central combinations are another crucial factor in provoking defences out of position. Arsenal also switch play very rarely, they have the fourth lowest frequency in this metric in the league.
West Ham top this particular metric for the Premier League so, in isolation, it is not a recipe for success. But it is another way of moving defensive blocks around that Arsenal are not really utilising- I imagine that is because switches of play are a high-risk manoeuvre that leave you vulnerable to transition if you get them wrong. It all adds up to a picture of predictability and a team that has probably just got the dial between security and spontaneity cranked up a little too much towards the conservative end.
In recent weeks, Odegaard has dropped deeper in search of the ball, Declan Rice is stationing between the centre-halves quite often, the wide players are receiving the ball closer to the halfway line than the penalty area and the centre-forward likes to drop deep and link play.
In short, Arteta has to find a way to provoke deep defensive blocks out of shape. I am sure he will be concerned too that Fulham seemed to embrace winning the ball back from Arsenal in wide areas and decided to maximise wide transitions, exposing a key part of their security system.
Elite managers are consistently making these tweaks to teams. Liverpool haven’t gone from finishing 5th in May to topping the table on New Year’s Day by crossing their fingers and hoping for the wind to change. Pep Guardiola is consistently innovating and evolving what he asks his teams to do and Arsenal have reached a stage where they need to evolve by necessity.
Their ‘structural’ attacking issues are underpinned by personnel issues too. Firstly, they lack quality in depth in attack. Arteta seems to like Nketiah and Trossard as bench options but is less inclined to use Reiss Nelson and Emile Smith Rowe. It means that the team not only lacks rotation options but it also lacks ways of meaningfully changing the temperature of their attack in-game.
Arsenal had seven open play goals from substitutes in their first 13 league games but haven’t had one since Kai Havertz’s late winner at Brentford seven league games ago. A lot of this is personnel based, Gabriel Martinelli came off the bench to score the winner against Manchester City, Gabriel Jesus notched a crucial last gasp goal against Manchester United. Leandro Trossard technically scored as a sub at Goodison Park but came on in the 29th minute due to an injury to Gabriel Martinelli.
Havertz’s goal from the bench at Brentford kickstarted a period of form that means he is no longer considered a substitute. In short, now that Jesus, Martinelli, Saka and Havertz have been available for a concerted period, Trossard, Nketiah, Nelson and Smith Rowe have not been able to change the pattern of matches in-game (the latter pair have had fewer opportunities to do so, of course, but that’s clearly because the manager doesn’t think they are able to).
Of course, there have been other personnel changes this season. Granit Xhaka has departed and Thomas Partey continues to be a ghost in the playing sense, meaning two thirds of last season’s midfield has altered. (Manchester City have run into similar wrinkles this season with Gundogan having departed and de Bruyne injured).
The truth is also that, as well as eschewing riskier attacking moves, Arsenal does not (yet) possess a high leverage attacker of the quality of Haaland or Salah to really make opposition defences anxious. Loss of form for individuals is an unsatisfying explanation too but just because it is unsatisfying it doesn’t mean it is not true.
Not many clubs with designs on winning the league ask 22-year-old wide players to carry an attack, stop the team being transitioned on and don’t have strong back-up options for either. There are other personnel questions that can be asked too, of course. I think Raya has been a marginal upgrade on Ramsdale in goal but I think it’s fair to ask whether his signing represented a sensible allocation of resources given the importance of depth and variety in attack.
Arsenal will hope that Kai Havertz can push towards that 10-15 goal mark for the season and that his assimilation can continue and offer greater variety (that cannot be taken for granted) but, for the time being, Arsenal need some kind of evolution to make them a more dangerous attacking outfit- not least because a transformative attacker is unlikely to be available on the January market.
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