By Ashwin Raman.
As many Arsenal fans would tell you, it’s the hope that kills. You travel to the stadium each week, ditch your weekend plans, stay up during ungodly hours, or wake up before dawn to watch the club descend from their Golden Age to the seemingly endless Banter Era. Not easy stuff.
And then there’s a glimmer of hope that looks like a turning point: “Oh, here’s where we begin to heal. We’re gonna be alright. The good old days are coming back, baby!”
The sudden upswing in results early on under Unai Emery in 2018 looked just like this. Of course, that was before Arsenal fans were hit with the sucker punch of things getting even worse. Worse than when some fans flew plane banners over the Emirates Stadium with “Wenger Out” emblazoned across them. Soon enough, you’re coming to the conclusion that you’ve reached something worse than the Banter Era itself.
In an attempt to get back on track, Arsenal appointed Mikel Arteta to replace Emery. As a former Arsenal player, and most recently Pep Guardiola’s assistant at Manchester City, Arteta is someone just about everyone likes.
The Spaniard offered hope and, once again, there was an early upturn in results starting with a 2-0 win against Manchester United. Arsenal began to win many big games and were soon lifting the FA Cup and the Community Shield.
But things soon swung back to Arsenal’s depressing new normal. By December 2020 the club were firmly in the lower half of the Premier League table. Fans began calling for Arteta’s head, just before the narrative shifted again thanks to three consecutive wins including one against Frank Lampard’s Chelsea.
Away from the volatile scorelines and storylines, some things remain stable. The defence does look better under Arteta, who uses more of a midfield block, than it did under Emery.
At the same time, though, the attack — despite it being an improvement on Emery’s — is stale for a side with bigger ambitions. They’ve scored just twenty goals from seventeen games this season which is partly due to a misfiring Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, who’s scored just two non-penalty goals from 1,347 minutes (0.13 per 90 minutes). A far cry from his usual prolificacy.
Arsenal’s lack of goals isn’t simply a case of chances not finding the net. Arsenal produce 1.3 expected goals (xG) per game which puts them 10th in the league for this metric.
Breaking down this xG tally, the Gunners don’t take enough shots, and the shots they do take are of lower quality on average than most other sides in the top half of the table.
A lot of things make up Arsenal’s attack. Let’s take a deeper dive into all these things — the good and the bad; from the build-up to the set pieces.
Deep Build-Up Attracting the Press
Something that stands out to anyone who watches Arsenal is their deep build-up with short, rapid passing that baits the opposition press — as shown in this memorable goal.
This rapid passing — with players very deep in their own half and small distances between each other — shows an intent to lure the opposition press (or with the Man City goal, the counter-press) before suddenly upping the tempo and attacking the spaces it leaves behind.
It’s worked well, but only at times. We don’t see Arsenal creating as many chances through this manoeuvre as they did earlier under Arteta.
My first thought was to see if teams are pressing Arsenal’s deep build-up as much, either because this aspect of their play has been ‘found out’ (it is an era of good opposition analysis, after all) or because pressing intensity has declined since COVID struck, which is something that’s been written about well recently.
This was not the case, though, and on watching every possession sequence of theirs this season involving a pass from the keeper, most of these build-up chains result in the opponent pressing them.
The reason most of these build-up sequences fall apart is simply that this is a high-risk routine and difficult to execute well.
The transition from moving the ball around the defensive third to playing a direct pass to attack with speed is frequently fluffed, or one of the players may be pressured into making a clearance or playing a desperate long ball. The latter has happened a lot in the case of Rob Holding, who is arguably not as proficient a passer as the likes of Gabriel, David Luiz, and Kieran Tierney. This kind of passing circuit is hard to pull off on a regular basis.
When Arsenal do pull it off though, it’s enthralling. The most recent example is Bukayo Saka’s goal (0:49 in the video below) against Chelsea, which continues to attract debates about whether it was meant to be a shot, a cross, or Superman.
Ball Progression and 3-4-3 Issues
If you’re about as much of a nerd as me and take a look at some stats, it’s clear that Arsenal has some issues with ball progression. They move the ball 40.7 yards up the pitch per possession, which is only the 10th-highest in the league.
Most of Arsenal’s possession play is the kind of thing most possession-heavy sides do as they move at a gentler pace up the pitch. As the graph below shows, Arsenal are among the least direct teams in the league and take a high proportion of their touches in their own third. This is only a matter of team style, though, and not quality.
In the 3-4-3 they’ve used on numerous occasions (until recently), the following tends to roughly be their shape when they have the ball deep in their own half.
As you can see, when Tierney plays at left centre-back he stays wide, similar to a left-back in a back four, with Leno staying close to the centre-backs and participating in the passing move.
Hector Bellerin stays slightly tucked in, sometimes underlapping the right-winger, while Ainsley Maitland-Niles (when deployed in the role in place of Bellerin) moves into the inside channels.
Granit Xhaka, or occasionally Mohamed Elneny, generally stays deeper, sometimes dropping to the left — a feature more common when Arsenal deploy a back four.
Alexandre Lacazette drops deep to collect the ball, which is something we’ll talk more about later.
Because of the extra man as a result of the back three, and because of the deeper positioning of the double pivot, Arsenal are pretty good at playing out from the back.
Moving from this position into the advanced areas of the middle third is usually the issue, especially through the central space. This often appears to be down to a lack of options for central progression.
Here’s one standout example in their 0-1 loss at home to Leicester City in October, one of their more sterile games in terms of creativity.
As you can see, there’s a lack of central passing options due to the way Arsenal players are positioned around the midfield block. Dani Ceballos is inaccessibly wide, advanced, and has his passing lane cut off.
In general, Arsenal tend to have a disjointed midfield line in this stage of the build-up.
Something else that’s very common is the two midfielders occupying similar spaces with little staggering. When the ball gets to the two midfielders we start to see what, to me, looks like one of Arsenal’s biggest issues: the way the team positions itself around the opposition midfield line.
The wide forwards rarely present themselves as passing options and, as you can see here, there’s usually a large hole between the opposition midfield and the forwards.
Here’s another example, against Tottenham.
That U-shaped circulation is a recurrent sight when Arsenal play out from the back, restricting penetration and forcing sideways passing. This happens due to the lack of forward passing options.
While passing maps can sometimes be as difficult to understand as a bad Christopher Nolan movie, this visualisation of Arsenal’s passes by Dom Currigan for Arseblog from their loss against Leicester narrates a clear story.
Arsenal rarely have opportunities to move it forward through the centre of the pitch, resulting in lots of sideways passing in midfield.
Because of the structure they move forward with, most of the time the only available passing options are out wide. In the game against Southampton particularly, passes out wide led to several turnovers because the Saints usually press the flanks very well. No matter who the opposition is, longer passes out to the flanks are both difficult to execute and difficult to create chances from, making them low-EV decisions.
Lacazette often drops very deep to collect the ball. While the Frenchman’s link-up play is underrated by many, him dropping this deep into midfield takes him away from where he is best, and is a symptom of Arsenal’s issues in finding passing options in the centre of the pitch.
Aubameyang is more suited to running in behind than playing in between the lines and Willian, in contrast to his role at Chelsea, seems to run in behind close to the touchline on the right flank rather than positioning himself closer to the opposition midfield line.
Improvements Offered by 4-2-3-1
Of course, there are no inherent ball progression issues with 3-4-3 formations, merely with Arsenal’s version and the way they position themselves around the opposition midfield.
This issue is less prevalent when Arsenal use the 4-2-3-1 formation, as they have in the last couple of games.
While it’s still a small sample, forward progression is easier with the No.10 — in this case, Emile Smith Rowe, who is very good at positioning himself in the buildup and providing an option behind the midfield line.
Having someone like Saka on the right-wing has also helped, as his decision making is excellent. He knows where to be in the attacking third, constantly offering himself as a passing option.
While the build-up is still a long, long way from where they’d want it to be, the simple presence of a player whose role seems to offer an extra forward passing option changes things.
Arsenal would hope that this uptick in results following the change of shape continues.
Attacking Down the Left
One other stand-out trait of Arteta’s Arsenal this season is the fact that lots of attacks go down the left-wing, which they overload.
With talented players like Tierney, Saka (when played on the left in the 3-4-3), and Aubameyang usually occupying the left flank for Arsenal, the ball is frequently moved out there and there is dynamic play down that side.
Patterns in Bernd Leno’s distribution also point to this emphasis on the left side. The vast majority of Leno’s long passes were all towards that wing. Here are a few examples from recent games, from Wyscout’s reports.
An exception to this was Arsenal’s 3-1 victory against Chelsea where there seemed to be an attempt to overload the right flank, with a high-gravity player like Saka deployed on the right-wing in the 4-2-3-1, opening up space on the left for quicker progressions.
In the 3-4-3, Saka and Aubameyang are constant targets for expansive passes from midfielders and central defenders, sometimes because there are no real forward passing options. When the ball is in the middle third, Tierney, Saka, and Aubameyang often fill the same vertical lane, enabling quick progressions up the pitch.
A common move is Aubameyang dropping deep to receive a pass and then playing a wall pass to Saka, who has by now run beyond him (often losing his marker) to receive the ball in space, and with more space to carry the ball into.
In the opponent’s half, there are rotations galore, with this trio interchanging positions. Sometimes Tierney will move ahead of Saka, maybe Saka will occupy Aubameyang’s usual position with the latter moving wider, and occasionally Aubameyang receives the ball deeper while the two younger players run beyond him.
There is lots of dynamism all around. In the case of Saka, or Ainsley Maitland-Niles when used there, it’s hard to determine what position he’s playing.
Ainsley Maitland- Niles and Arteta talk positioning pic.twitter.com/QAkMDpEsJj
— Poorly Drawn Arsenal (@cantdrawarsenal) September 12, 2020
Once closer to the opposition goal the trio combine to try to knock an opponents’ defensive block out of shape and aid them in the attacking third, which brings us to the next part…
The Attacking Third
Perhaps surprisingly for a big team that doesn’t have the tag of being a counter-attacking side, and especially considering that it’s Arsenal, Arteta’s side don’t pass it around the final third all that much.
Possession interchanges among Arsenal players 14 times in the attacking third per shot, which is only the 9th-highest in the league. While the side moves the ball around their own third slowly, trying to drag the opposition in, they’re moderately direct and attempt risky passes.
Like most big sides, Arsenal usually use a front five once in the final third. It occasionally turns into a front six should one more wing-back come into the mix, overlapping the winger.
One snag for Arsenal is that they find it slightly harder to break down compact, deeper blocks. While the deep press-baiting and the combination play on the left does work against some opponents, it’s difficult to use cheese to trap a lactose-intolerant mouse. Some opponents just don’t try to win the ball high up the pitch or out wide and, as a result, Arsenal are forced wide and look to move the ball into the box via the wings.
Overlaps are very common for Arsenal in the final third, especially down the — you guessed it — left flank.
This lack of penetration through the centre, and penetration through the wings instead, is also evident in the data.
Arsenal may need to try to pursue other ways of creating space in addition to their deep rapid passing and the combinations down the left-wing.
Increased dribbling can be one. According to FBref, Arsenal attempt just 13.2 dribbles per game, which is the third-lowest in the league. Things do look brighter when Saka gets on the ball and begins to dislodge the deep block, and the side is likely to open up more space with more players who can take on a player in this manner.
While Nicolas Pepe can also provide the dribbling, his disappointing performances rule him out as a guaranteed starter for now.
Personally, I think a purchase that could enhance Arsenal’s overall attack is someone who can be deployed at No.8 or No.10, link midfield and attack, receive and carry the ball under pressure, position themselves well, progress the ball into dangerous areas, press the opposition effectively, and play the penetrative final pass.
Houssem Aouar, Emiliano Buendia, and Julian Brandt all fit the bill, and have also been linked with Arsenal at some point. Christopher Nkunku is another option. Because Smith Rowe, for all his talent, still has some way to go, and Mesut Ӧzil seems to be out of the picture, a signing in this role may really help Arsenal.
The Final Ball, or: Crosses Rule Everything Around Me (C.R.E.A.M)
Arsenal’s reliance on crosses under Arteta is something regularly mentioned. A lot. By everyone. From fans to mainstream media houses.
The big problem is that Arsenal are about as efficient from crosses as a B-grade movie villain’s henchmen shooting at the hero.
Of course, being reliant on crossing isn’t inherently an issue. Nor do you have to figure out how to create multiple Peter Crouch clones to be successful with a cross/cutback-focused style — something Manchester City and Liverpool have shown in recent years.
Man City and Liverpool have created many high-quality chances using: good spacing, the extra man in the box, good runs, exploiting empty spaces in the box, and attempting crosses and cutbacks once close to goal.
On the other hand, Arsenal’s crossing situations involve little movement from their attackers, several opposition defenders in the box, and many deliveries from the first touch and from pretty far off.
Occasionally there are promising cutbacks, especially from Saka and Tierney, but the vast majority appear suboptimal.
The way crosses are delivered is an issue. Most are aerial from the byline into the danger zone. Arsenal’s strikers, while competent in the air, don’t dominate a crowded box, and this puts them out of contention for heading crosses. Moreover, because of where the crosses are delivered without having aerially-dominant players on the end of them, many only find their way into the hands of the opposition keeper.
Being inefficient with crosses, especially when you’re reliant on them, has a real opportunity cost. Arsenal give the ball away 16.6 times per game from inaccurate crosses, which means 16.6 opportunities in advanced areas wasted.
This is crucial because, again, Arsenal just don’t move the ball into these areas as much as they’d like to in the first place, and each turnover that doesn’t result in an opposition goal-kick or kick-off can lead to an opposition counter-attack.
Finally, with Arsenal’s press suffering from clear problems (maybe a topic for another day), there are limited counter-pressing opportunities.
There are also doubts about whether Arsenal’s strike force is well-suited to being on the end of crosses. Aubameyang and Lacazette didn’t usually get their service from crosses (since 2014, crosses made up only 12.8% and 11.4% of their shot assists before this season) and might be more accustomed to receiving penetrative passes from central areas.
Fundamentally though, it’s just not easy to suddenly move to crossing less or crossing low or from closer to goal. Bad crossing is often an indicator of deeper issues rather than being the issue itself. Or vice versa.
For instance, so many of Man City’s cutbacks and crosses that have created goals for them in the past look like this.
Or like this.
The crosses come in situations where Man City have lots of space in front of them, or when they’ve reached very dangerous areas, which is a result of good possession play earlier in the sequence.
This is how Arsenal’s issues with crossing tie in with their ball progression and space creation problems.
They’ll need to improve their progression into dangerous areas through the centre and come up with more ways to displace the deep block.
After all, it’s no coincidence that the game where they attempted forty-four crosses and completed nine was against Spurs, where their North London rivals shut up shop in a horizontally and vertically compact block and forced tons of crosses simply because Arsenal had no other way into the opposition box. An alternative road into scoring goals is the real solution.
While Arsenal did make an exciting staff addition in August — Andreas Georgson, a set-piece specialist previously at Brentford — the side doesn’t generate enough opportunities from dead balls, yet.
According to FBRef, they create just 1.1 shots per game from set-pieces, which is the second-last in the league.
Let’s start with corners. They need lots of work, as only 17.4% of Arsenal’s corners lead to an accurate first contact, the second-lowest in the league.
They tend to be aggressive with putting players in attacking positions at corners, with nine or ten players forward. Recovering the ball from the rebound seems to be the plan to prevent counter-attacks.
While there are different approaches at corners, with different delivery types and player movement trajectories, a basic template seems to be common for Arsenal. It involves one or two players in the six-yard box, four or five players in the middle of the box marked man-to-man, at least one player outside the area, and usually one short corner option who may also stand over the ball in an attempt to disguise the subsequent delivery.
Most deliveries swing into the shaded area, right in front of the six-yard box and slightly closer to the corner taker.
The second basic template, seemingly used against zonal marking for inswinging corners, involves lots of bodies in the six-yard box, occupying the zonal markers.
While we don’t know what the actual routines on the training ground are, the Arsenal players seem to spread wider and move forward when the ball is delivered, creating more space for each Arsenal player. 56.8% of all corner deliveries are inswingers. The second kind of routine, usually used when the opposition has more defenders performing zonal marking roles in and around the six-yard box, tends to look like this. The delivery usually is an inswinger into the zone.
From throw-ins in the opposition half, players usually quickly interchange positions at the last minute or make a late run towards the player taking the throw. The throw is usually to feet, which tends to be a more accurate way of taking a throw.
Personally, as someone who hasn’t designed any set pieces in a coaching or analysis context, I don’t have much more to say about Arsenal’s set plays, but what is undeniable is that Arsenal need to improve from attacking corners and free-kicks.
There’s always something exciting at Arsenal. Whether it’s the history, the talent, the large fanbase, or the brand and style that we associate with the North London side. This is still true today.
There’s a core of vibrant youngsters at the club like Saka, Tierney, Smith Rowe, Gabriel Martinelli, Matteo Guendouzi, Joe Willock, Reiss Nelson, Eddie Nketiah, William Saliba, Miguel Azeez, Folarin Balogun, and many others. The club has lots of youth to fall back on.
Nevertheless, it’s not an easy task to bounce back. They have a bloated squad that still doesn’t fulfil their needs. They have a gigantic reported wage bill. The side is plagued by a series of decisions geared towards short-term success that never panned out, like offering large contracts to 31-year-old Aubameyang and 32-year-old Willian, both of whom have been disappointing this season. The freezing out of Guendouzi and Saliba is concerning, too.
It’ll take some work, but a signing like Brandt or Buendia (or both) can go a long way to solving some of the problems. There are only a few creases in the tactics that need to be ironed out.
The way Western European football is right now at the top, marginal gains in different areas can go a long way.
Either way, none of it will be boring. Say what you want about Arsenal, but one thing the club doesn’t lack are narratives.
Big, big thanks to FBRef.com and WhoScored.com for their free public stats that have built the base of this piece. In addition, while I tried to break down what I can, if there are any tactical terms that need clarification, check out Jamie Adams’ wonderful glossary