No Time for Panic at Arsenal But Questions Should Be Asked
Reactionary fans are probably my biggest pet peeve in the footballsphere. So, at the risk of not sounding like one, I will try to keep my criticisms pointed as I run through my thoughts on what was a dreadful result against Aston Villa on Sunday evening.
There is never any disrespect intended here, either. Villa, having done exceptionally well to retain Jack Grealish, and have recruited well this past summer. The additions of Olli Watkins, Ross Barkley, Emi Martinez, Bertrand Traoré, and Matty Cash signalled intent. And they’ve delivered – all of them.
By contrast, the protracted deal for Thomas Partey finally being completed, and the coup to obtain Gabriel, brought celebrations from Gooners the world over. But with that came higher expectations. In that regard, we have fallen well short of the mark in the opening months of the 2020-21 Premier League campaign.
The promise shown under Mikel Arteta is still there, let’s first be clear about that. But in that fact, we must also remember that this is his first full season in charge at Arsenal, and it’s clear the lessons to be learned on his end remain substantial.
Some base-level data regarding our lack of goals is undoubtedly the most damning criticism levied after eight matches this season. Nine goals in the league overall is poor indeed – only Wolves, Fulham, West Brom, Burnley, and Sheffield United have bagged fewer. Four out of those five clubs sit 17th-20th in the table.
To compound matters, Arsenal have gone four hours and 56-minutes since their last goal from open play in the league. Considering the players we have at the club, that is – in a word – pathetic.
But it’s not the players that deserve the lions’ share of the criticism this time around. The reality is that sights need to be trained well and truly on the manager now.
Some other numbers to briefly consider: Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s last shot on frame (that was not from the spot) came against Sheff Utd., back on match-day four. Additionally, our highest assist count in the league comes from Héctor Bellerín & Willian (2) despite the existence of the likes of Nicolas Pépé, Granit Xhaka, Bukayo Saka, Dani Ceballos, and a derelict Mesut Özil.
Unfortunately, an old friend must now be dusted off and applied to our current iteration as it stands, we are very much back to “square pegs in round holes” territory. And when the only player who really has not put a foot wrong all season long on balance has been Gabriel, that makes for reading far more associated with mid-table mediocrity or a relegation dog fight rather than a club who should be in the premier jousting competition.
This all falls squarely on the shoulders of Arteta, and it is not only just criticism, but valuable lessons he has to learn and grow from as his managerial journey continues.
When taking up an appointment, managers always have a choice: to try to bend your players to your systematic values, or build your values upon your players. But building your house upon the sand never affords you a chance to establish a sturdy foundation. Right now, Arteta is very much subscribing to a house of good players on tactical sand.
Both Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette average just 1.3 shots/90min in the league thus far. As a whole, Arsenal register a paltry 9.1/90min, good enough for 16th in the league. As for possession? 52%, which is only 11th, behind sides like Brighton and Fulham.
How does this and other data stack up to our rivals, or even the top half of the table? Well, have a look for yourself:
|Top Half + AFC||Poss%||Shots/90||Shots OT/90||Dribbles/90||Goals/GoalsOP|
|Leicester||50.4%||9.4||4.8 (51%)||7.5||18/10 (55%)|
|Tottenham||54.3%||13.9||6 (43%)||7.3||19/14 (74%)|
|Liverpool||58.2%||16.6||6.1 (37%)||11.8||18/12 (66%)|
|Southampton||53%||11.4||5.5 (48%)||8.6||16/11 (69%)|
|Chelsea||56.9%||13.1||6 (46%)||6.9||20/11 (55%)|
|Aston Villa||47.4%||14.9||6 (40%)||10.3||18/10 (55%)|
|Everton||52.6%||11.5||4.3 (37%)||9.9||16/9 (56%)|
|Crystal Palace||39.8%||8.4||3.5 (42%)||9.5||12/5 (42%)|
|Wolves||48.9%||11.5||3.1 (27%)||12.1||8/4 (50%)|
|Manchester City||59%||14.7||5.4 (37%)||11.7||10/7 (70%)|
|Arsenal||52%||9.1||3.5 (38%)||7||9/7 (78%)|
In short, we are sitting 11th in the table on merit and merit alone. And we have not been given the platform to cement ourselves further up in the league.
Our possession numbers are middle of the road, which would be okay if we were a counter-attacking side. But we aren’t.
And for a side that wants more of the ball, we still struggle to generate shot volume, let alone shots on frame. This fact would also be okay if we were putting chances away, but we struggle on that front in a big way.
Our percentage of shots on target are in the same bracket as City, Wolves, Everton, and Liverpool, but each of those sides have players who are far more clinical at current. Our chances gone begging hurt us far more than most, which goes back to the fact that we struggle to generate shots in general.
We are also finding it difficult to offset our lack of creativity and possession-based dominance with relying on our technical quality on the ball, as evidenced by the low figure of just seven dribbles each outing. This often sets bigger teams apart over the course of the season, the ability to let your quality on the ball shine if possession isn’t bearing fruit.
This all goes back to one question: what are we? What is our brand of football…or tactical ethos? We aren’t dominant with the ball, and we aren’t an incisive counter-attacking side. Arsenal are very much bogged down in a tactical grey area that is proving costly.
Yet again, this falls on the manager and those pesky puzzle pieces that do not fit the picture…reminiscent of unboxing a 750-piece table-top picture of Neuschwanstein Castle and stopping halfway through because things aren’t matching, abandoned pieces laying across the surface without their correct place vacant for them to slot into.
To many, it seems so simple. Let those with quality on the ball express themselves. Let those who excel in a creative mould pull the strings when an incisive pass presents itself. Guarantee your finishers are afforded space to get on the end of service. But none of that is occurring for us right now, and the frustration is mounting. Not just amongst the fanbase, but the players as well.
Identity in football is everything. Though it will always change completely, or go through periods of revamping, it’s at the very core of a football club on the pitch. It is of the utmost importance that Mikel Arteta asks himself tough questions regarding whether his approach to establishing his regime in north London needs to be tweaked in any number of ways.
It is beyond clear that our current iteration fails to get the maximum out of the players we have on the books. And let’s be clear, quite a number of them are very good and in their prime (or just about), while others are promising indeed.
But this is not Pep’s Manchester City where if players do not bend to your vision, you buy more players that suit it at the expense of those who only arrived twelve months ago. There needs to be much more parity than we have seen thus far under our former captain.
In his bid to establish his vision at the club, Arteta must also provide our players with the best platform possible to be successful. Both can very easily coexist. Both need to coexist.
Perhaps the upcoming international break will provide the Basque headmaster time to sit down and tinker in the tactical laboratory to come up with better solutions. With league fixtures against Leeds, Wolves, and Spurs on the horizon, adjustments are needed in rapid order.
It’s not doom and gloom, but certain alarm bells are beginning to sound.