Unless you have been living under a rock for the past few months, you’d know that Arsène Wenger has left Arsenal after 22 long years and the new manager charged with filling in his boots is Unai Emery. They were always going to be big boots to fill. Over the past two decades, the system, the policies, and most importantly, the players were all Wenger’s legacy – his name itself had become synonymous with the club. And yet, most would agree that Emery has done reasonably well. The transition was always going to be difficult yet Emery has managed to keep things steady. The Gunners haven’t improved as a whole, but they haven’t been a disaster either.
However, there are plenty of issues which still need resolving. In this series, we’ll try to identify some of them and possibly outline solutions.
Do Arsenal have a problem creating chances?
An xG plot is just a line plot of the xG created by a team in every match during a certain period (since the beginning of the 2017/18 season until present day, in this case). It is evident from this plot that Arsenal have been creating chances at almost the same rate at which they used to during the tail end of Wenger’s reign. However, the problem they’re currently facing is where they’re creating these chances from. We’ll get to that in just a second – after we look at how their attacking statistics look compared to all of the other Premier League sides.
In the above graphic, we’ve compared the shots the team take on an average every 90 minutes and contrasted them with the mean quality of each shot.
Arsenal fall a little short of the first quadrant – the teams which generate a lot of shots as well as take good shots. They have to improve on their shot volume and the number of chances they create to be considered a proper top four league side.
Now let’s look at the breakdown of Arsenal’s chances and who are creating them.
As is clearly depicted in the pie-chart, it’s Kolašinac who emerges as our major creator. Second to Kolašinac, in xA per 90 minutes, is Iwobi – another wide man. The other contributors are Ramsey, Özil, and Mkhitaryan. Ramsey is set to leave next season; Özil isn’t started at all having not gained the trust of Emery and Mkhitaryan is out injured. It’s not a stretch to conclude that Arsenal have a minor crisis, as far as the apportioning of chances is concerned. The heavy reliance on our fullbacks is further confirmed by the simple statistic that Kolašinac has had three assists, Monreal has had three and Bellerín has had five(despite being out for two significant periods due to injuries) this season.
What this tells us is that Arsenal’s major chances are coming from wide areas. The fullbacks are acting as playmakers and they have the sole responsibility to create for the team. Emery’s system usually depends on creating overloads on the wing and underlaps/overlaps to free up the fullbacks to cross. Although this is a very common feature of many teams, it has a few significant disadvantages – which are very relevant to Arsenal.
The over-dependence on fullbacks to create leaves us vulnerable during transitions as they’re usually too high up to defend in case of a turnover. Defending during transitions has been a major headache for the Gunners this season and this is one of the reasons.
However, the overarching (and much bigger) problem is the monotony of Emery’s system. Using width during build-up is never a bad idea but what hurts Arsenal is the one-dimensionality of the plan. Arsenal’s only way of progressing the ball is via the flanks and this leads to very predictable build-up patterns – predictable for the opposition.
Hence, Arsenal have faced difficulties against low blocks. Matches against Wolverhampton Wanderers (1-1) and vs Brighton(1-1) are clear examples. In both of the matches, Arsenal faced a low block of 4-5-1 and 5-4-1 respectively and in both the matches, the Gunners kept the majority of possession (67% and 69% respectively) but created little in terms of chances (having just four and three only shots on target respectively). And in such matches where the flanks are well-guarded, Arsenal’s lack of a viable plan B results in them suffering offensively. This either leads to our other defensive midfielders like Torreira or Guendouzi having to step up and help create – a job at which they don’t particularly excel in or relying on individual talents to take them across the line.
What Arsenal sorely missed in the match against Brighton was an elite playmaker. Fortunately, Arsenal have one such player amidst their ranks – a certain somebody called Mesut Özil. However, Emery’s reluctance to start Özil proved frustrating as Arsenal cut a woeful figure throughout the entire match. That is a problem which needs solving which we’ll talk about in later instalments.
It seems like Arsenal have their work cut out for them for the summer transfer window. If Özil is to leave, Arsenal will either need a central midfielder to solve this particular issue or a winger – ideally both. An eight would provide much-needed creativity in the middle of the park while a winger would release some of the pressure off our fullbacks.
In Lacazette and Aubameyang, we have two amazing strikers and great finishers. However, often times, they’re forced to drop deep to progress the ball. Xhaka is great at progressing the ball via his passing but a highly mobile box-to-box midfielder is also needed and Xhaka’s absence (due to injuries) clearly reveals the lack of depth in the central midfield department as Arsenal fail to even get out of their own half. Guendouzi is seen as the ideal performer of this box-to-box role and age is on his side but right now, he can’t do it consistently on a week-in-week-out basis against top sides. Therefore, a decent midfielder – who can break at pace and dribble well – would not only add some versatility to the team; it would also help our strikers to stay further up and do what they do best.