When Mikel Arteta was appointed Arsenal head coach, a prevailing view was that his more progressive ideas would liberate their talented attackers but rebuilding the defence might take several transfer windows.
In a surprising turn of events after his first nine games in charge in all competitions, the opposite has been true. Arteta has immediately affected Arsenal’s off-the-ball rigour in a positive way, protecting that makeshift defence with better structure and organisation. Arsenal were conceding 16.8 shots per game under Unai Emery this season, but are allowing just 12.4 under Arteta.
They are taking even fewer shots than they did under Emery however, 9.6 compared to 12.5 according to Opta. Shot-shyness has been a chronic problem for some time – Arsenal ranked 11th for shots on goal in the Premier League last season. They are yet to score more than two goals in a single game under Arteta.
Arsenal’s attack is home to their most famous names and inflated egos, but paradoxically often goes without scrutiny or criticism because their reputation precedes them. Their defensive ills are discussed relentlessly, and with good reason after conceding 102 league goals in the last two seasons. A reluctance to analyse their stuttering attack risks missing some illuminating detail, however.
In a bizarre season, only Liverpool and Leicester have lost fewer games than Arsenal but only Norwich and Watford have won fewer. They are not crumbling to soft defeats, but their inability to pull away from opponents when dominant is costing them a top-four challenge. Why are goals proving so hard to come by?
The Mesut Ozil conundrum
Ozil has been more active and engaged since Arteta’s appointment and has started every league game for his former team-mate. The German’s performance in the home victory over Manchester United was his best of the season, and after he was largely bypassed by Emery’s wing-focused attacks Arsenal are finding him in dangerous areas between the lines again. In an otherwise disjointed performance in a goalless draw at Burnley, Ozil was heavily involved in Arsenal’s positive opening 20 minutes when Burnley struggled to get to grips with him.
The below passage of play was a stark example of this, after Arsenal successfully drew Burnley on to them and stretched them vertically to create space for Ozil. You can see how disheartening this is for Burnley players trying to press Arsenal high.
As is becoming a theme however, Ozil receiving the ball in a threatening position fails to result in a shot on goal or a key pass behind the defence. Alexandre Lacazette’s reluctance or inability to run off the shoulder plays a part in that, but Ozil’s diminishing contributions in the final third are a long-running story. He is without a Premier League assist away from home since January 2018 and is yet to score a league goal in 15 appearances this season.
Ozil likes to play on the extremity of games – this is not intended to be a pejorative – searching for space. In this respect, he operates more like an extra forward than an extra midfielder. However, his lack of goal threat necessitates playing a second striker which suddenly gives Arsenal are very top-heavy feel and brings us to a second issue Arteta is grappling with.
Shoehorning Lacazette and Aubameyang
Arsenal have played well and won matches with Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang starting together, but it is not an optimally balanced way to attack. Very few teams at the elite level of European football operate with two strikers in tandem – Romelu Lukaku and Lautaro Martinez at Antonio Conte’s Inter are an exception but are supported by a back three and wing-backs, a system Emery used to try and maximise Arsenal’s two star strikers.
Arteta has been more subtle, using Aubameyang on the left of a nominal 4-2-3-1 but positioned in a way far more suited to his instincts. Arsenal have had to use 18-year-old Bukayo Saka at left-back, so Arteta has encouraged the winger to push forward and Aubameyang to play in the left half-space in support of Lacazette. When Saka attacks, central midfielder Granit Xhaka drops deep to cover for him which also suits his strengths as a distributor. It is a mutually beneficial arrangement, and gives Arsenal either a 2-3-5 or 3-2-5 shape in possession.
Saka pushing forward and right-back Hector Bellerin staying back gives Arsenal an asymmetrical shape and lets Aubameyang play more like a centre-forward, as shown by these average positions at Turf Moor.
A turning point at Burnley was the knock Saka sustained to his knee, which incapacitated him for the second-half of the first-half and eventually saw him substituted. Xhaka filled in at left-back which robbed Arsenal of their overlapping threat and dragged Aubameyang out wide into the role of orthodox winger. The striker had two good chances in the first half that came from runs in between Burnley right-back Matthew Lowton and James Tarkowski, but he was too wide to affect the game in this way during the second period.
Arsenal have clearly been focusing on left-sided overloads in training, but failed to adjust when this Plan A was taken away from them mid-match. They did not switch the emphasis of their attacks to the other flank, where Gabriel Martinelli was ineffective and £72 million summer singing Nicolas Pepe was strangely left on the bench.
“What I want is to have more options and more availability to be more unpredictable with what we will do,” said Arteta when asked about Arsenal’s January arrivals Pablo Mari and Cedric Soares. “Having different phases of our play, different options to make it difficult for the opponent.”
Arsenal now have a two-week break to train more varied ways of attacking that are less reliant on their left side. Aside from these structural problems, Lacazette’s hesitancy in front of goal is like a weight around the neck of the team. The Frenchman has gone almost a year without an away league goal.
Competent but one-dimensional midfield
Lucas Torreira was outstanding in Arteta’s early games in charge, Xhaka has excelled and Matteo Guendouzi has taken positive steps towards his best form. Despite all three of Arsenal’s midfielders impressing individually though, Arteta might feel he is lacking an important piece of the puzzle in the middle of park.
Constant comparisons to Manchester City are perhaps not healthy given their immense resources and depth of quality, but Arteta’s lack of managerial history means it is only natural to speculate about Pep Guardiola’s influence. Add the fact Arteta was educated at Barcelona’s academy as a young player, and it would be a surprise if he did not try to implement a more classical 4-3-3 at Arsenal.
Arteta’s team currently has two central midfielders who stay behind the ball and support play with one – usually Ozil – pushed higher up. In the 4-3-3 shape that is City’s default, there is one deep-lying No 6 behind two more attacking midfielders. Before Guardiola’s arrival in England, playing David Silva and Kevin De Bruyne in a central trio would have been considered ludicrously reckless but the paradigm has shifted when it comes to this area of the pitch.
The problem for Arteta is Arsenal have few natural No 8s. Dani Ceballos might be most suited to it, but is short of fitness, minutes and appears out of favour. Joe Willock remains unpolished but at least possesses the raw materials for the role. Guendouzi could be pushed higher up, but Xhaka and Torreira cannot be. In short, Arsenal have a collection of midfielders built to anchor a 4-2-3-1 but a collection of forwards who suit a 4-3-3.
There was much excitement in August about Arsenal mimicking Liverpool’s front three by picking Lacazette, Aubameyang and Pepe (more recently, Martinelli’s performances have put him in the mix). Finding the right structure to cover and create for three forwards is proving difficult however, and is a new experience for Arsenal fans who are accustomed to watching one or two forwards being surrounded by more creative types. Their best attacks of the past decade followed this formula: Theo Walcott, Cesc Fabregas, Samir Nasri and Rob van Persie in 2010/11, Walcott, Ozil, Santi Cazorla and Olivier Giroud in 2013/14 or Walcott, Ozil, Alex Iwobi and Alexis Sanchez at the start of 2016/17.
That does not mean a more striker-heavy forward line cannot work, but it might need a more unorthodox midfield combination to provide for it. This is likely to be a priority when Arteta draws up his summer shopping list.