Arsenal’s win over Rapid Vienna brought some feelgood factor back to the Emirates Stadium but can they transfer it into the Premier League? Watch Tottenham vs Arsenal
Daniel Podence’s smartly-taken goal at the Emirates Stadium on Sunday consigned Arsenal to their fourth defeat in six Premier League games. The Gunners sit 14th in the table, sandwiched between Newcastle and Crystal Palace. It is their worst start to a season in almost 40 years.
The optimism generated by their FA Cup triumph in August has faded and Mikel Arteta finds himself under pressure. He promised high-intensity, attacking football when he arrived last year. But recent displays in the Premier League have been sluggish and sterile.
The Europa League has offered some relief. Arsenal’s second string played with refreshing verve in Thursday night’s 4-1 win over Rapid Vienna at the Emirates Stadium. But Sunday’s 2-1 loss to Wolves typified Arsenal’s problems against tougher opposition.
Arsenal, a side known in years gone by for their slick, passing football, looked devoid of creativity and lacking in inspiration, reduced instead to aiming a barrage of 35 crosses at a visibly frustrated Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang – only three of which were successful.
It made for dire viewing – and not for the first time this season. Arsenal have scored just 10 goals in 10 Premier League games so far. Only West Brom, Burnley and Sheffield United – the current bottom three – have scored fewer. Arsenal rank 17th for shots too.
It should be remembered that Arteta inherited a huge task when he succeeded Unai Emery last December. It will take more than two transfer windows to transform Arsenal’s bloated squad. But the recent issues are not just down to personnel.
Arteta’s approach merits scrutiny too.
Slow build-up and ball progression
This Arsenal side have shown how dangerous they can be when afforded the chance to play on the break. Last season’s FA Cup wins over Manchester City and Chelsea stand out in that regard. But it’s a different story when they are faced with deep-lying opponents.
This is largely down to how ponderously they move the ball.
Often, it appears Arteta’s men are instructed to wait for openings to appear rather than seek them out themselves. They are passive rather than proactive and the statistics bear it out.
According to Opta’s advanced metrics, only Southampton and Burnley progress the ball upfield more slowly than Arsenal per passing sequence. The Gunners also rank 12th among Premier League sides for distance moved upfield per sequence.
That laboured build-up play makes it easy for their opponents to get into shape defensively, in turn making the task of finding a way through them even more difficult. Arsenal then struggle to move the ball into areas from which they can cause problems.
Consider the fact that this season, Arsenal rank third for passes in their own half, behind only Chelsea and Everton, and yet only 16th for passes into the final third. Arsenal’s shot count is so low for the simple reason that they do not put their players in shooting positions.
The result is that they are easy to defend against and the problems are compounded by an apparent aversion to even attempting to progress the ball through the middle of the pitch.
This issue is most apparent in Granit Xhaka.
The Swiss midfielder has made 440 passes in the Premier League this season, but remarkably, only nine of them have gone into the opposition’s box and only 65 of them have even made it as far as the final third. In 580 minutes, he has only created one scoring chance.
The numbers are damning and Xhaka is not the only one directing the vast majority of his passes sideways or backwards. In fact, Dani Ceballos, his central midfield partner against Wolves on Sunday, has sent even fewer passes into the final third – just 58 out of 468.
It is hardly surprising, then, that there is such a clear disconnect between Arsenal’s midfield and their attack.
Arteta will hope Thomas Partey’s return to fitness helps. The Ghanaian was brought in for his passing ability as well as his defensive qualities and his absence has been keenly felt in recent games. But little else the manager has tried has worked.
He hoped moving Aubameyang into the central striking role might bear fruit, but the 31-year-old had fewer touches against Wolves (23) than in any other game all season. On the rare occasions he did have chances, he was uncharacteristically wasteful, suggesting the lack of service is now compounded by a loss of confidence. It is a vicious circle which is not easy to break out of.
There is certainly an argument that Arsenal lack a playmaker to fill the gap between midfield and attack. Some fans have called for Mesut Ozil to be reinstated. Others are pining for Houssem Aouar.
But the reality is that little will change until Arteta’s side start moving the ball quicker as a team, and learn to use the middle of the pitch as well as the flanks.
No risk means no reward
Many of Arsenal’s issues in possession stem from their rigidity.
Arteta is a hugely promising coach, that much is not in doubt, but his players often appear constrained by the tactical demands placed on them as he incessantly corrects their positioning during matches.
The subject was touched on by summer signing Willian in an interview he gave in Brazil earlier this season.
“I’ve not worked with a coach with this way of thinking before,” he told Globo Esporte. “A lot of the time you need to respect the position, what the manager asks for, his instructions, knowing that it’s what’s best for the team.”
Willian was not speaking negatively of his new manager. In fact he described his early months at Arsenal as a “great experience” and said he had been “learning a lot” from Arteta. But it is fair to wonder in light of those comments whether he and his team-mates might benefit from a little more freedom.
At the moment, there is little risk or spontaneity in the way they play.
It seems instead that Arteta is trying to establish pre-planned patterns of attacking play, something which worked for his old mentor Pep Guardiola at Manchester City, where close-range goals from cut-backs became a trademark. But there has been little evidence of such progress at Arsenal. Instead, Arteta’s players appear inhibited and seemingly reluctant to express themselves.
The lack of improvisation was particularly evident against Wolves, when, as well as relying on crosses as their sole means of creating chances, Arsenal only completed two dribbles all game. In the second half, Nuno Espirito Santo’s side simply sat back and soaked up the pressure, knowing the hosts would do little to truly test them.
Arteta’s squad is not exactly bursting with individuals capable of conjuring something out of nothing, in fairness. It doesn’t help that Nicolas Pepe, one of few players who fits that description, got himself sent off when called upon last weekend. But Arteta may find that loosening the shackles helps them rediscover their groove.
What’s happened to the pressing?
This Arsenal side are as passive without the ball as they are with it.
Arteta talked about injecting energy and aggression into their play in the early months of his tenure and there have been examples of it in big games, most recently in last month’s 1-0 win over Manchester United at Old Trafford. But more often than not this season the pressing simply hasn’t been there.
Wolves were able to play through them with ease on Sunday and it was the same story against Leeds and Aston Villa before that. Arsenal are not just easy to defend against; they are easy to get at too.
Opta’s advanced metrics highlight their lack of off-the-ball urgency. This season, Arsenal rank 17th among Premier League clubs for pressed sequences (opposition passing sequences of three passes or fewer which end within 40 meters of their own goal) and only one place higher for high turnovers.
Arsenal are seemingly no longer even trying to force their opponents into mistakes high up the pitch and their numbers for passes allowed per defensive action (PPDA) further prove it. Last season, their opponents averaged 12.5 passes before Arsenal attempted to win back possession. This season, that number has risen to 15.2.
Arteta is viewed as Guardiola’s apprentice. He is regarded as a coach who espouses the same high-intensity approach as his old mentor and there was evidence of that philosophy against Rapid Vienna on Thursday. But Arsenal’s pressing numbers in the Premier League put them closer to Burnley and West Ham than Manchester City.
It is especially curious given that Arteta has shown he can implement high-pressing tactics effectively in big games. Why, when his side are capable of causing Manchester United so many problems by taking the initiative and applying pressure high up the pitch, do they not play in the same way more often?
Perhaps Arteta should heed the words of Jurgen Klopp, who said during an appearance on Monday Night Football in 2016 that “no playmaker in the world can be as good as a good counter-pressing situation”. It is certainly one way of overcoming a lack of creativity.
Spurs trip a tough test
It could be said that a trip to Tottenham is the perfect fixture for Arsenal right now. What better than a north London derby to fire up a struggling squad?
Arteta will certainly hope he sees a response from his players, but the fixture could hardly be more daunting given the way in which Jose Mourinho’s side play. Arsenal, so often hapless against deep-lying opponents, will find themselves facing the master of the low block.
Mourinho used the approach to great effect in the same fixture last season, with Spurs claiming a 2-1 win at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, registering nine shots on target to Arsenal’s four despite having just 37 per cent of the possession.
Arsenal found themselves struggling to break their rivals down that day but the challenge is likely to be similar – if not tougher – on Sunday.
Mourinho’s men, top of the table after a strong start to the campaign, will be compact and well organised off the ball, just as they were against Chelsea last weekend, and ready to hit Arteta’s side on the counter-attack as soon as possession is turned over.
Arsenal must show drastic improvement on recent Premier League performances in order to claim the positive result they so desperately need. Recent evidence suggests Arteta may need to adjust their approach in order to get it.
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