Mikel Arteta’s tenure in North London could not have started on a much better note.
The former Arsenal captain was hired as the club’s manager in December 2019 after a series of poor performances left Unai Emery fired. What immediately followed was promising. The Gunners won half of their remaining Premier League games, including an eight-week undefeated stretch that stretched from late December to the June restart. They climbed from 12th on the chart to an eighth below standard but hopeful. His first half of the season in charge was crowned with an FA Cup title. Not bad for a rookie manager leading an underperforming team during a global pandemic.
Six months after lifting the trophy, Arsenal are back in the middle of the table with only one outside chance to take part in European competition next season. So where did Arteta and his club go wrong?
We will start with those things that are beyond the control of the Spanish. Injuries have plagued the Gunners since the start of the season. Kieran Tierney, one of his few bright spots this season, has already missed six games and will likely miss more due to an injury suffered nearly a month ago. Thomas Partey, the club’s biggest transfer in the 2020 summer window ($ 58 million), has made just nine league starts (and played 90 minutes just three times) while battling a litany of punches.
It’s not that Arsenal is alone in that regard. Many other teams, namely Liverpool and Manchester City, have suffered a long list of injuries after the condensed offseason. But without the depth of some of England’s best teams, Arsenal have been left without some of their biggest players or comparable replacements.
Now on what Arteta can control. Arsenal’s biggest problem is not a lack of quality. It is a lack of coherence. His season has been one of streaks: six weeks without a Premier League victory in November and December, and then seven weeks without losing which immediately followed. Injuries surely played a role, but the Gunners’ lack of discipline and offensive identity has kept them pinned down in the middle of the table.
You don’t need advanced statistics to understand how five league-leading red cards have hurt Arsenal. He managed to score a point in two games in which a player was sent off, but lost to Burnley after a warning from Granit Xhaka in the second half and then to the Wolves when David Luiz and Bernd Leno picked up reds in a row.
When at full power, the Gunners don’t really have too many defensive problems. Even with the revolving door at the bottom line, Arsenal are sixth in the Premier League in xG opponent and tied for fourth in goals conceded. Leno has had one of the best seasons of any Premier League goalkeeper this year (+3.1 xG fewer goals allowed, currently seventh in the league). The disconnection comes in midfield and in the deployment of forwards Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette.
For much of Arsenal’s winter run, the offensive “creation” came primarily from a large number of balls sent from the wingers into the penalty area. In a 2-0 loss to Tottenham on December 6, Arsenal attempted 34 crosses compared to Spurs’ three. That’s not particularly conducive to goal creation, given that Aubameyang and Lacazette have scored just six headers in total in the past two seasons.
The lack of link play has turned the usually energizing attacking duo into a shell of their old self. Both players are averaging their lowest xG without penalty every 90 minutes since the stat was first tracked by fbref.com in 2017.
Both attackers have spent time as a center forward, but neither has been entirely comfortable in Arteta’s scheme. Aubameyang has played on the left wing and in the middle. He was barely effective in last place during Arsenal’s winless streak (1.4 xG in six games). In the band, you just don’t see enough participation in the attack to produce dangerous opportunities.
Lacazette, on the other hand, has tried to get involved in the build-up, but to no avail. He has received more touches in the middle third of the field every 90 minutes than Aubameyang and far fewer in the attacking third. Even though Arteta has tried to push him into attack by dropping him deeper, he is averaging the fewest shot-creating actions per 90 minutes of his four years with the club.
They are not necessarily square pegs in round holes. They are just players whose skills don’t seem to match their coach’s tactics. So how does a team change their happy ways of creating real, dynamic and dangerous scoring opportunities? Enter Emile Smith-Rowe.
The 20-year-old made his first Premier League appearance since 2019 in December, recording an assist in what was probably Arsenal’s best performance of the season, a 3-1 defeat of Chelsea. That performance was a glimpse of what was to come.
Smith-Rowe leads the Gunners with 0.23 assists expected per 90 minutes in Premier League competition. He has the most goal-creating actions per 90 minutes (0.79) and the fourth-highest number of shot-creating actions per 90 (2.84). Arsenal are, simply put, much better with him on the court: 2.12 net goals every 90 minutes better, in fact.
Smith-Rowe will not be the savior of his team. But it is clear that the young attacking midfielder has a key role as the main creator of his team going forward. How everyone else fits into Arsenal’s attack is less obvious.
Aubameyang staked his claim as a center forward with a hat trick against Leeds last Sunday. Martin Ødegaard, on loan to North London for the remainder of the season from Real Madrid, made his first start in the 4-2 win and looked like a good fit as an attacking central midfielder, with Smith-Rowe and young star Bukayo. Saka runs to both sides. Perhaps the most important stat of the day: Arsenal tried just six crosses!
That leaves Lacazette, the transfer of $ 88 million Nicolas Pépé and Willian with the minutes out of the bank. But maybe that’s okay for now. Arsenal drew with Benfica in the first leg of the Europa League round of 32 on Thursday, with Lacazette on the bench and Pépé and Willian as substitutes. Now he’s back into the routine of the Premier League season against league-leading (and likely league winner) Manchester City on Saturday.
It is a difficult task for Arteta’s team to fight again in the European competition venues with 14 matches to play. But there is still time to prove some things: that Arsenal is not over, that the midseason drought of victories was the product of a conglomeration of external problems and that there is sustained hope, at last, for the present and the future.
Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.