Ashlee Kiddell takes a look at where it’s all gone wrong for Arsenal on the pitch
In the 15 games before Mikel Arteta took charge of Arsenal on 15th December 2019, Arsenal had 1 clean sheet and had conceded 28 goals under Unai Emery and interim boss Freddie Ljungberg. However, in his first 15 games, things seemed to have changed for the Gunners. Arteta was able to turn things around defensively and was able to keep 7 clean sheets whilst only conceding 12 goals. Arsenal were also able to score 23 goals during this period, showing that Arteta was able to nullify the threat at the back whilst still being a threat going forward.
Fast forward to now, Arsenal currently sit 14th after 10 Premier League games, scoring only 10 goals (17th lowest in the league). Only the bottom three have scored more than Arteta’s men whilst they have conceded 12. Despite this being less than clubs such as Liverpool, Leicester and Manchester United, Arsenal have only been able to keep 3 clean sheets this year. This basically means, Arsenal can’t keep teams out and they also can’t score goals!
Arteta was clear in his initial approach – press! In his first two home games at the Emirates Stadium, Arsenal pushed high up the pitch in the first half, trying to squeeze the time and space in which the defence had. However, the issues with this is that it takes time to sufficiently be able to keep the level of intensity up over the course of 90 minutes. In both of these games, Arsenal were deeper in the second half with them having 10% and 18% less possession in the second half against Chelsea and Man United respectively. After the restart, the high press was clearly still a priority for Arteta. Two clear examples of this came in the games away to Southampton and at home to Norwich. Whether it be Eddie Nketiah, Alex Lacazette or Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Arsenal’s forwards pressed high up and were able to capitalise on two mistakes made by Alex McCarthy and Tim Krul.
Arteta originally deployed a 4-2-3-1 system at Arsenal, with German international, Mesut Ozil, being deployed in the ‘number 10’ role for Arsenal. After the restart, Arteta moved to a 3-4-3 with Mesut Ozil nowhere to be seen. Arteta has seemed to have a change intact with his defensive set up and structure. His emphasis has changed from a high press to a specific, solid structure. In Arsenal’s first win away at Old Trafford since 2006 and their first win away to the ‘big six’ since 2015, wide players Aubameyang and Willian were moved more centrally when out of possession with central striker, Lacazette, dropping to occupy the space between the defence and midfield. This worked effectively in this instance since Arsenal were able to use the support of wing-backs Hector Bellerin and Bukayo Saka and the high work rate of Mohammed Elneny and Thomas Partey in central midfield.
With a change of formation to 4-2-3-1, Arsenal looked lacklustre in their 2-1 defeat at home to Wolves on Sunday. Aubameyang, Willian and Willock led the press for Arsenal but without the support of wing-backs like at Old Trafford, the job becomes a lot more difficult. Arsenal attempted to deploy a similar press like they previously had when Arteta first took charge at Arsenal but without support from the midfield, Arsenal were not able to stop Wolves from the back and Nuno Espirito Santo’s men were able to utilise the pockets of space opening up all around the pitch. With central midfielders Dani Ceballos and Granit Xhaka in the side, Arsenal lacked support to the attack with both midfielders sitting deep and lacking the work rate and stamina like that of Partey and Elneny.
Under a 4-2-3-1 system, Arsenal are unable to provide enough support going forward. With Mesut Ozil being left out of all squads for the gunners, Arsenal are lacking a creative player in the midfield who is able to link the play between the midfield and attack. Since Cebellos and Xhaka sit deep and are not considered to be very mobile, they are unable to drive the ball forward. This was clear on Sunday against Wolves with Arsenal only registering 2 shots on target during the whole game and having 0 in the second half. If Partey and Elneny were able to play in this system with Willock or Smith-Rowe occupying the ‘number 10’ role, Arsenal may be able to create more chances and progress further up the pitch. However, with Partey being out for the foreseeable future.
Arsenal may need to revert back to their 3-4-3 system in which Ceballos and Xhaka played a key role in for last season’s FA Cup win. This system does come with its faults and if Arteta uses this formation with the central striker sitting deep, it can lead to having no focal point up top. However, it does offer a solid defensive base for Arsenal and with a few tweaks to adapt to deeper lying midfielders, it may work.
This all comes down to Arsenal needing a player who can link the play and offer creativity. Arsenal have looked very similar to Ole Gunnar Solskjaer at Manchester United. Arsenal have improved their performances against the bigger sides such as the 0-1 win at Old Trafford and a respectable 1-0 loss at the Etihad. However, the main issues seem to be against the smaller sides where Arsenal are simply unable to create enough chances going forward. Arsenal have been linked to players such as Houssem Aouar at Lyon and Dominik Szobozslai at RB Salzburg who could potentially solve this issue. However, Aouar may seem to be out of Arsenal’s price range with Lyon staying firm on their asking price and Arsenal being concerned with Szobozslai’s passing retention and age. Is it time Arsenal recall Mesut Ozil to the squad in January?
Written by Ashlee Kiddell