After another lackluster performance and loss against Wolves, the evidence continues to mount that Arsenal has significant problems in their attack. The attention in the offseason focused on the Gunners failing to upgrade defensively, so what’s gone wrong and can it be fixed?
To start, the Arsenal offense was probably hiding underlying issues last season. While they finished the campaign 7th in the league in goals, they did so while being 15th in shots. Some of that was due to a style that ensured they didn’t take low-quality chances from outside the box, but they were still in the bottom half of the table in shots from inside the penalty area and the six-yard box.
None of those stats have dramatically changed this season other than the final product - the club ranks 15th in shots per 90 again this season, but have only turned it into ranking 16th in goals. The underlying profile of the shots has declined even further; Arsenal ranks just 16th in the league in shots inside of the penalty area.
Arsenal’s issues offensively ultimately come down to one thing - they are one of the slowest and least creative teams in the Premier League. That all starts on the defensive end. While we’ll get to the lack of activity offensively, Arsenal doesn’t give themselves any chances to get out on the counter.
The Gunners play a style defensively that just looks to avoid the big mistake, possibly a choice Mikel Arteta feels forced to make due to the team’s deficiencies in the back. There is a complete lack of action while the other team has possession; while that avoids giving away free kicks or being dribbled, it also avoids getting out in transition to generate easier offensive chances at the other end. In an era where the game is continuously moving towards high-pressing and/or quick counter attacks, Arsenal is leaving themselves forced to work through opposing defenses that are able to get set.
The statistics offensively point to the same style and the struggles that have ensued. The team not only doesn’t try to counter-attack, they also avoid other risks like dribbles that risk giving the ball away. If you’re going to play such a slow style, then you need to be extremely creative and efficient to make up for that - Arsenal isn’t. They aren’t able to create key passes or accurate crosses, and all of that leads to bottom five rankings in shots from open play and shots on target.
Player positioning and the intentions of passes back this up as well, in particular with Partey missing from the lineup. The two DCMs have been practically on top of each other in their average positioning, and have lacked creative attacking options to distribute the ball too. Far too often this Arsenal team is moving the ball backwards or sideways even when an attacking option is available.
This may all be an intentional choice made necessary by a weak backline, designed to avoid the other team counter-attacking. However, it plays against the strengths of almost the entire attacking threat that Arsenal has. Aubameyang is certainly getting older, but has always been better at using his speed to get out on the counter. Similar cases can be made for Saka and Pepe while they’re in the lineup, and Lacazette isn’t a great fit for the system either.
Perhaps no player has been impacted as much so far this season as Willian. His performance has not been strong, and as a result has received significant amounts of criticism. However, it’s worth wondering how much of the performance has been him and his age vs the system he’s playing in. Willian was not a strong player from open play with Chelsea - he was 11th on the team last year in shots per 90 from open play. However, he has excelled on the counter through his career - he’s now been brought into a system that doesn’t suit him at all.
In the short-term, a fix to Arsenal’s season is going to require a change in how they play. There are likely two options there:
Keep the current formation, but allow the team to press and/or counter-attack. Arsenal has to find a way to get easier opportunities on the offensive end, and this is the quickest change to make that happen. The problem becomes that it leaves a relatively weak backline open to easier attacks by the opposition; willingness to track back will become even more essential, but even that may not be enough to avoid more goals going into Arsenal’s net.
Go back to playing with a back three. In my opinion this would be the better option, at least until Partey returns, but I’m doubtful that Arteta would want to go back. A back three shores up the defense, while freeing up others to push forward. Arsenal might still be slow in this scenario, but they’ll at least have the option to attack without feeling as vulnerable at the back.
Long-term, Arsenal has to do a much better job of matching their signing and transfer strategy to the planned tactics on the field. It doesn’t necessarily matter which changes, but they can’t be as diametrically opposed as they are currently. I’ve argued in the past that all facets of a club need to be in communication on a shared vision of where the team is heading and what it should look like, and it’s hard to argue that Arsenal isn’t failing that currently.
Mesut Özil to an extent is the perfect example of this - if he’s not in the team’s plans tactically, then they should be doing anything they can to get his wages off the books (I know this is easier said than done). Meanwhile, they’ve done nothing to replace his creativity in the squad. While he’s aging as well, few have been better over the course of his career at finding the hidden passing lane that can open up a game. Last year he had 2.1 key passes per game even in a year where he wasn’t in top form; Aubameyang leads the team this year with just 1.2.
Özil is only one example - the Gunners have continuously let creative players go while failing to bring anyone in to fill that gap. Similarly, they brought back a backline that struggled for the most part last season. There seems to be no overall plan on where transfer strategy is heading and how to fill holes, or how targets will fit into the tactics on the field. If those issues aren’t fixed, then similar conversations will be had about Arsenal every year.