It is a bit ironic, after such a turbulent opening to the Premier League season, that Arsenal have not really been involved in much of the on-pitch drama (although are valiantly trying to make up for this off the pitch). It has been somewhat encouraging to see the side quietly going about their business, but the 5 matches still leave a lot to chew over. Accordingly, I’m going to look into a few things that have stood out to me thus far.
Shot hits the fan
Arsenal have been a relatively shot shy side under Arteta. He has built this attack around creating high quality goalscoring chances, for one of the best finishers in world football (I’m talking about Aubameyang, in case for some reason you thought I was referring to anyone else). Regularly thumbing the eye of the xG crowd last season, and looking likely to do so again this year, there are mounting issues for Arsenal’s forward line in this regard. Currently, Arsenal are averaging 8 shots per 90 minutes; this is the second lowest in the Premier League (at time of writing/researching). When you combine that with last season’s conversion rate for the attack, which at 13% was the best in the country, you average out with roughly 40 goals over the course of this season. I don’t need to tell you that this is not particularly good. In fact, such is the extent to which it is ‘not particularly good’, that it would’ve been bettered by Burnley and Aston Villa in the last campaign, and equalled relegated Bournemouth. So, even if we are to assume that Arsenal continue their unprecedented conversion rate, they are only likely to match the goal tally of 3 sides who last year were about as threatening as a ransom note written by Mother Theresa. The upshot (see what I did there) is that Arsenal need to create more chances, and to create more shots. How do they do that? I’ll touch on that next.
After much rejoicing at the penning of his new deal, and a positive early outing, things look to have dried up for Arsenal’s Gabonese striker (again … Aubameyang). Multiple times this season he has registered the lowest amount of touches for any Arsenal player. Although I, and many others, frequently talk about how he is a ‘low-touch’/’low-involvement’ player, this is the first time this has happened in consecutive matches. Add to that the fact he is averaging 1.2 shots per 90 minutes (ranked 46th in the division) and has registered 0.07 xG per 90 minutes (a staggering 63rd in the league), then there are real causes for concern. Now, I don’t want to suggest this is an Ozil-esque post-contract decline. There just aren’t enough chances being created for him. Arsenal’s failed pursuit of Aouar was a clear sign that the paucity of creativity was acknowledged by Arteta and his staff, but nothing as of yet has been done to fix that. A logical solution to me is to move Aubameyang to a central striking role. Whilst he has the same scoring rate on the left as he does in the middle, he has a much worse creative output than the likes of Saka have the potential to offer. So why not play him down the middle, now that the chances for him out on the wing have dried up so drastically. Against Manchester City the Gunners looked at their best when Saka pushed further up the pitch and Aubameyang tucked inside of him; this resulted in the two best chances they had all game.
I think that Partey’s signing is an indication of an imminent move into a back four, and although I am increasingly sceptical of whether Arteta’s Arsenal, in this guise, will be the creatively free-flowing side I once did, it will definitely allow for an increased midfield dominance, and more avenues for ball progression into the final third. Shifting Arsenal’s left-sided dominance will be vital if more chances are to be created, as flooding that flank effectively nullifies the entire attack; Walker did an excellent job of proving that at the Etihad. By playing Saka in a more advanced role, shifting Aubameyang to the striker position, you also unleash the attacking potential of Tierney, as well as opening more opportunities for Bellerin and Pépé to dovetail on the right. If the focal point of where you want your chances to fall is on one side, the opposite flank naturally becomes neglected. By placing Aubameyang in the middle, you would vary the avenues from which Arsenal could create chances, and so give the opposition a harder time stunting Arsenal’s creativity.
A Case for the Defence
Another topic for discussion has to be Arsenal’s defence. For years, rightly derided for being very suspect at the back, Arteta has brought a new sense of defensive solidity. There has been a lot of discussion about how unsustainable this renewed rigidity is, as if it is some sort of tactical viagra whose firm nature will suddenly revert to the weak and embarrassing mess it once was. However, if we look to a side often touted as one of the most defensively miserly sides in Europe, Atletico Madrid, one can draw parallels to Arsenal. For the past 3 seasons, Simeone’s side has overperformed it’s goals against compared to xGA by 3, 9, and 15. Arsenal, meanwhile, overperformed this same stat by 8 last season, and are currently only doing so by 0.7. Whilst some people rightly acknowledge that elite attackers are able to overperform their xG (see Messi) because they are world class at finishing, there doesn’t appear to be the same acknowledgement that well coached defensive sides are able to overperform their xGA. Atletico are seen as a very hard to breakdown side, but for some reason Arsenal’s defensive record is unsustainable. Having conceded the 2nd fewest goals in the league thus far, despite already having played Manchester City and Liverpool away from home (even if location matters less without fans), it seems odd to me that there hasn’t been a wider acknowledgement of the fact that the Gunners really have improved at the back. Trust me, having watched years of clown-car like displays that would make Cirque du Soleil blush, there is an improvement.
In this, the performances of Bellerin and Gabriel should be acknowledged. New signings often receive a lot of praise in their early months if they show any signs of being half decent, but the plaudits for Gabriel are well deserved. He has been a constant in the defence, and looks both physically dominant and cultured on the ball in a way that reminds me of Laurent Koscielny at his best.
Bellerin has shown signs of getting back to his best after repeated ACL injuries looked to have stunted his growth. The Spaniard is much more cavalier going forward, but is providing the link play and burst of pace that seemed to be lacking over the past 6 months. Albeit he showed an element of naivety against Manchester City in allowing Foden to cut inside, overall I think his recent defensive performances have indicated he has improved under Arteta.
Ultimately, whilst only 5 matches have been played, I think there are definite signs of encouragement, despite the few problem areas I highlighted. Each match has produced a different type of performance. Against Fulham, Arsenal comfortably batted aside a team they were easily better than. West Ham presented a stern test, but ultimately Arsenal managed to grind out a victory when previous iterations might have crumbled. Liverpool was a game that on another day could have gone a different way (were Lacazette to finish a very good chance, and if Mané had been sent off for elbowing Tierney in face), yet Arsenal were shown respect by Klopp’s side and, ultimately, just beaten by a better team who were on top form. Against Sheffield United, Arsenal handily beat a rigid defence who frustrated them immensely in last year. Whilst the Manchester City match presented an odd tactical selection by Arteta, and one which I think he may have gotten wrong, his side were able to go toe-to-toe with City for decent spells of the game, and perhaps most importantly weren’t humiliated.
In a season where the top 4 race appears to be hard to call, more out of incompetence than an abundance of great sides, Arsenal are showing signs that they might be the ‘least bad’ of the sides traditionally thought of as competing for Champions League qualification. The test will come if, as the season progresses, teams like Everton continue to stick around the upper echelons of the table, and European football begins to take its toll on a squad that whilst well stocked in terms of numbers, is not as replete with talent.