I have written a lot about Arsenal’s attack recently and the need for Arteta to enact “phase 2” of his rebuild. After two scoreless games in the Premier League and an offensively moribund display in the Europa League in Vienna, the subject of Arsenal’s attack has become central to discussion.
I know I have certainly done a lot of complaining about the issue so I wanted to take a step back and consider some of the obstacles Mikel Arteta is facing in this area. Most of the issues are ones he has inherited and he, understandably, made tightening the defence and the tactical structure his priority upon taking the job.
His most obvious issue is one of historically poor recruitment- especially in attack. In the summer of 2017 Arsenal spent £50m on Alex Lacazette, a transfer Arsene Wenger passed up on a few times previously before pulling the trigger- this wasn’t a player he was entirely sold on. His lack of faith in Lacazette was illustrated by the decision to spend even more money on Pierre Emerick Aubameyang just six months later.
Good friends though they may be, Arsenal have never convincingly accommodated both players into the same structure, with Aubameyang usually fielded as some variation of left-winger / inside-forward. In the summer of 2019, the club spent £72m on Nicolas Pepe, a player the Head Coach at the time, Unai Emery, now admits that he didn’t want.
We can see from Arteta’s sparing use of Pepe that he’s no more enamoured with the player. Lacazette has under two years left on his contract and has not been offered new terms which tells you how much Arteta rates the Frenchman. For now, Arsenal have around £180m of attacking talent that cannot play in the same team.
They do not have a complementary blend of qualities and the current manager plainly doesn’t really rate 2/3s of that triumvirate. Compare and contrast with Arteta’s campaign of flattery in getting Aubameyang to sign a new contract this summer. The issue for Arsenal is that they are not in a position to write-off bad signings.
Despite spending huge money on the likes of Fred, Matic and Pogba, Manchester United are still breaking the bank by adding midfielders like Bruno Fernandes and Donny van de Beek this year (even in a badly deflated market and during a year where they have had to pay Alexis Sanchez to leave). Manchester City and Chelsea can park their various poor signings quietly on loan somewhere or allow them to leave for a meagre fee and just spend £60m or more on the next solution.
Arsenal have less room for manoeuvre here- not least because recruiting and contracting errors have been made in so many other areas of the team (lest we forget that the highest paid player in the squad ISN’T REGISTERED AND CANNOT PLAY IN EUROPE OR THE LEAGUE). The club had a relatively meagre budget this summer and had to prioritise talent like Thomas Partey and Gabriel to beef up their powder puff spine.
With those two big money signings, Arteta couldn’t land another of his primary targets Houssem Auoar and the only attacker he could add was Willian on a Bosman free transfer. In short, Arteta is having to make do with an unbalanced attack, 2/3s of which he demonstratively doesn’t want. Arsenal can’t quietly shuffle Pepe and Lacazette off on subsidised deals, so he has to persevere.
Reiss Nelson has the best ball retention of all Arsenal players at the moment, He comes 99th out of 1947 eligible players.
Arsenal have no forwards in the top 500 best ball retainers in Europe. Auba is the closest at 594th
For reference, City have 7 players in the top 21 pic.twitter.com/NbhLM4lx4I
— (@Tw3rcazette) October 26, 2020
Even if it is ill-fitting, Arsenal do at least have talent in attack, especially with Gabriel Martinelli and Bukayo Saka coming through the ranks. The midfield and defence are not unbalanced as such, they just lack elite talent, plain and simple. That’s why these areas were priorities in the transfer market.
Arteta’s tactical innovations thus far have been about trying to hide the weaknesses in the foundations of his team. I am hopeful that the purchases of Gabriel and Partey, two players far more comfortable defending space than some of their colleagues, will eventually allow Arsenal to pivot to a more attacking structure.
Arsenal had plenty of players back when Leicester counter-attacked them for Jamie Vardy’s goal on Sunday evening, it’s just some of those players lack the athleticism and positional intelligence to resolve those situations. Even with the training wheels firmly fixed in position, there are too many players disposed to toppling off their tricycles.
While Arsenal’s defenders are largely a collection of three-star hotels, the midfield cupboard is not quite as bare in terms of raw quality (it’s not markedly better, mind) but it does lack penetration and imagination. The lack of a creator is obvious but creativity is as much about movement as it is a guy that can pass.
Even when he was in the team, Mesut Özil’s assist numbers were dropping alarmingly (2 assists in 18 appearances in the league last season). This isn’t entirely down to Özil’s decline as a player but the lack of movement ahead of him in an attack that lacks a spread of qualities and basic cohesion.
A lot of Arsenal fans didn’t appreciate the way Aaron Ramsey abandoned his midfield post to support the attack but this is what a team entirely devoid of midfield runners looks like. Any combination of attackers Arteta chances upon will always look one-dimensional while there are no supporting runners.
While I think it is high time Aubameyang was moved into his favoured central position, it doesn’t fill the acre of empty green space behind him. Ceballos and Xhaka have useful qualities but none in the final thirty yards of the pitch. While that issue persists, even complementary movement from Arsenal’s front three will not be rewarded as often as it should.
The chemistry doesn’t exist between the expensively acquired forwards yet (I include Willian in that on account of his salary, if not his transfer fee) but even if it did, playing with a pair of midfielders that require binoculars to see what the forwards are doing will make the mixture bland.
I certainly don’t think Arteta is blameless here and the very structured approach to slicing teams open is struggling to come to life at Arsenal. Playing Guardiola football is all very well if you have a de Bruyne, an Iniesta or even a Thomas Muller knitting the attacking sections of your team together.
However, simply “releasing the handbrake” and opening the structure up again is dangerous because of the weaknesses inherent in some of the defensive players. Again, I point you to Leicester City’s goal on Sunday evening as supporting evidence. The attack is, simultaneously, Arteta’s most pressing issue and, amazingly, the least of his other problems.