Arsenal’s rather top-heavy squad has attacked like a wooden spoon since project restart began, instead of the knife-blade we payed top dollar for. Our attack needs sorting out, and fast.
All season long, Arsenal have struggled scoring goals. Whether because of tactical ineptitude, a rash of injuries, or a certain Frenchman’s inability to perform away—and often at home—our attack has had serious trouble putting the ball in the back of the net.
We have a goal difference of 0, with 41 either way after 30 matches played. That’s a miserable record to begin with. Even worse, our xG—expected goals—is less than that, sitting at 37.7, which is right on par with Watford and Brighton. How much more midtable can you get?
And while our defense has major problems—our xGA sits at a beautiful 45, which is seriously shabby—it also attracts far too much attention, both in terms of transfer rumors and allotted blame. Because of the money we’ve poured into the attack, we expect it to function. And so often, it doesn’t. We lose matches, not just because we concede stupid goals, but because we don’t score enough.
For reference, the two teams who have the best goal records this season are City and Liverpool. The record-breaking champions incumbent have spent a combined £105 million on Sadio Mane, Mo Salah, and Bobby Firmino. £145 million was the combined cost of Sterling, Mahrez, and Aguero, who currently lead the attack for City. Tepid, 11th place Arsenal dropped £172 million on a front three that lead the line to a 2-0 defeat against Brighton. £172 million for a front three who are expected to score 8 fewer goals than they concede. There’s something seriously wrong.
The trouble comes down to two factors: lack of creativity and squandered chances. They both carry equal importance, and should be addressed in turn, as one is systematic and the other individual.
How many times do our player ratings for Auba and Laca boil down to: “looked sharp on the ball, missed a few sitters, but were starved of service.” My personal favorite—warning, sarcasm inbound—is when a certain goal-scoring Gabon international will touch the ball fewer than 20 times per half. Now don’t get me wrong, he’s clinical and all, but that’s not poor service. That’s starvation.
Some of our chance creation comes down to issues in the midfield. Torreira is limited in possession, Xhaka lacks the mobility to maneuver around the press, Ceballos is flighty and mercurial, Maitland-Niles dwells on the ball, Willock often fails to execute the simplest of passes, and Guendouzi is a blunt instrument—effective at everything, but lacking a cutting edge. Kind of like a wooden spoon. Very few perfect solutions there.
One notable flaw in Arsenal’s midfield is also our fear. For some reason, we look scared to play through the press, instead worming it around the edge of our own box until we turn it over with a poorly placed pass. We’re the only team in the league who retains a majority of our possession in our own half. We just don’t move back-to-front well enough.
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Another issue is the tactics employed to get the ball up to the attack. I love Mikel Arteta, but the 4-2-3-1 really does not work. Our number 10 often gets stranded, and has to drop deeper because the two holding midfielders are caught behind the press and seemingly can’t pass through it, which clogs passing lanes further. And Mesut Ozil won’t solve that problem, as he’s wont to disappear, the worst possible thing if you’re the lynchpin of a creative force.
Aubameyang and Nicolas Pepe don’t function well without the ability to cut inside, which just shoves everything into the middle and makes it hard to stretch defenses open. We try to use the wings, but the players often just aren’t there to receive a pass, and we cycle it back to the center backs. It’s a shambles.
The 4-4-2 against Brighton showed some promise, especially with Saka and Pepe out wide—their hunger was evident, and wonderful to watch—but we don’t have enough industry in the midfield to cope with our opponents. Ceballos struggled against Brighton because he’s best in possession, but seriously limited out of it. Guendouzi was a whirling dervish with a rare bit of positional intuition, but he can’t do everything. Far from it.
Thomas Partey will solve that problem fine—especially given his familiarity with Diego Simeone’s Atletico system—, and he and Guendouzi is a seriously scary proposition to play against, especially as the Frenchman matures, but that’s not a solution we can have until next season. So until then, we have to fix the supply lines to our attack, and fast.
If Arteta doesn’t continue with his 4-4-2 experiment, a 4-3-3 has to be the next step in the process. Lucas Torreira at the base of any midfield will allow Ceballos and Guendouzi to actually get flowing, get in a rhythm, and get creating. It actually prioritizes the best positions of all three players, and covers for the injured Granit Xhaka quite nicely.
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Furthermore, our lack of service to the attackers is seriously worrying, because they cannot do it all on their own. One of them is the wrong side of thirty, the other just turned 29, which should be his prime age, but he looks slower every game. They’re getting old, and don’t have the pace to keep up. It’s an issue.
The two-striker system really helps with that problem, because they’re able to play off each other, and start counter-attacks together, and combine constantly, but it’s still not enough. We can’t do what Everton do with Dominick Calvert-Lewin and Richarlison—strand them up top and expect them to do counter and score.
Aubameyang is a striker who relies on service, and he’s getting bupkis. Lacazette recieves far too few passes to his feet, and then he gets frustrated, and then his confidence monster decides to pay a visit, leaving us with 15 straight games bereft of goals.
This is where transfers enter the discussion again. Danny Ings and Luka Jovic have both been heavily linked to the Gunners in recent weeks, and God help me I love the idea. Ings is 27, the same age as Partey, and his industry and skill would be a wonderful asset.
And while Jovic hasn’t exactly blown the roof off of the Santiago Bernabau due to Real Madrid’s continued reliance on Karim Benzema, his 48-goal 2018-19 season came in a 2-striker pairing, alongside Sebastian Haller. How amazing would it be to have the 22-year-old back in his element, but in the red-and-white? That’s a dream scenario.
But hey, since we’re expected to score as many goals as Brighton, let’s talk Neal Maupay. Much as I really don’t like him at the moment, he killed us in our 2-1 loss with his constant pressure, and his willingness to drop deeper and cause our midfield problems. He’s hungrier than our forwards, and less reliant on midfield support than our forwards. He’s also younger. I don’t want to sign him, but emulating that style of attack could be a start.
I would love to experiment with Gabriel Martinelli and/or Eddie Nketiah up front in a 4-4-2, just to see what what we could create. Although the Brazilian’s recent injury means that dream can’t become a reality, youth and talent and hunger might be a better recipe for success than the aging ability currently at our disposal.
The one bright spot in this whole discussion Nicolas Pepe. He’s really starting to grow into the English game, and although he literally runs himself into the ground trying to do it all himself, he really is a spark in our team.
He creates chances out of nothing, provides assists and goals at a commensurate rate, and genuinely busts his butt every time I see him on the pitch. More than that, he’s a fighter. He gets into it. He’s a cornerstone of our future attack, and no mistake.
Change needs to happen. Arsenal have some good building blocks, but we can’t cover up the holes in our squad for another few months. Formation changes, squad rotations, and opportunities for youth to really effect change won’t carry us through, but we need to start somewhere. I’m not suggesting we tinker with everything, but something needs to change, and fast. No more wooden spoons.