Why is Arsenal’s attack so dysfunctional? by Yusuf
In football quality rules, and in order for quality players to be maximised to their best ability, coordination and synergy is required from the players in the squad to work together and be successful. You can easily look at Barcelona’s current league position and see that having a squad littered with high quality players does not always equate to a successful functioning team. Like in any industry a collective, or team, needs to have individuals that have attributes that can maximise each other’s strengths and compensate for each other’s deficiencies in order to find success. Arsenal’s incompetence in recruitment has led to a poorly structured squad and their inability to replace four key players had caused massive attribute deficiencies in their attack.
In terms of pure quality, Arsenal did replace Alexis Sanchez with a player of equal quality in Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and although Aubemeyang had been immensely successful in replacing Sanchez’ goal return, Arsenal have been unable to replace Sanchez’s other qualities. In the 2016/17 season of which Sanchez played 38 league games, Arsenal had 566 shots with an average of 14.8 per game (Premier League) in the 2018/19, the first full season without Sanchez, they had 467 shots with an average of 12.3 per game. This season in the 14 games they’ve played they’ve had 146 shots with 10.4 per game. Whilst Arsenal’s drop off in shots is partially systematic and not only due to Sanchez’s individual departure, it’s clear to see the correlation. Arsenal are lacking in any player that provides the shot opportunism that Sanchez brought. All of Arsenal’s strikers do their best work in the penalty box and Arsenal are lacking in any player who provides a threat from distance or has the quality to produce shot creation situations. Sanchez also provided dynamism and unpredictability, Bruno Fernandes and Jack Grealish provide similar qualities in different profiles, and it is clear what immense impact they have on their respected teams in attacking moments.
It’s obviously that Arsenal attempted to replace these qualities in the summer of 2019 with Nicolas Pepe who can be a similar unpredictable individualist, however although Pepe has shown flashes of brilliance he has been unable so far in his Arsenal career to sustain high quality performances for any large period of time. Arsenal’s attack is desperately lacking in unpredictability and shot creation and if these deficiencies aren’t addressed then they will continue to find themselves being shut out by teams who are well organised as we have seen so far.
In the long term Santi Cazorla will have been replaced by Thomas Partey, who similarly to Cazorla is elite at ball progression. Partey differs to Cazorla in that his blend of physical and technical qualities provide a positional versatility that even Cazorla lacked. Due to Partey’s injury problems however, he has not been able to fully contribute to Arsenal this season and provide that much needed ball progression from deep. Cazorla most importantly provided technical versatility at a high level. He was capable of taking the ball in any situation and had the passing from both feet and dribbling ability to progress the ball into attacking positions at any moment of the game. When looking at Arsenal’s midfield subtracting Partey, it is clearly technically limited, symbolised in Granit Xhaka. Xhaka is the player trusted to connect the defence to midfield however his limitations are made clear when up against high quality opposition. Xhaka is good passer of the ball although largely only on his left foot, this limits the angles he can use to pass the ball forward. Xhaka is also a poor dribbler of the ball and not athletically talented limiting the amount of ground he can cover in attack or defence. Ceballos does present qualities more akin to those of Santi Cazorla however he struggles similarly with Pepe to find consistency and does show a lack of risk taking and adventurism in his passing that Cazorla was so confident in. The hope is that Arsenal can solve this issue internally with Partey once he returns to full fitness as without him Arsenal will struggle to progress the ball into attacking positions let alone create any chances.
When Arsenal fans think of Aaron Ramsey it is easy to remember his running in behind and goal scoring qualities. What’s often overlooked with Ramsey is his sheer athleticism and ability to contribute to multiple phases of play, not just goal scoring. Ramsey set a record for the most ground covered ever in a FA Cup final agasinst Chelsea in 2017 at 14.4km, whilst similar statistics can be found with Mohamed Elneny, like Arsenal’s other midfielders he specialises in one phase of play and cannot do multiple different roles as effortlessly as Ramsey could. When Arsenal sold Aaron Ramsey they identified Christopher Nkunku as a successor, a player Unai Emery knew well from his time at PSG. Nkunku is an all action midfielder who excels as a box to box presence as he has the engine to cover ground, reflected in his decision to join RB Leipzig a club often associated with high energy and pressing. Arsenal failed in their pursuit of Nkunku but should continue to look to replace that high level of athleticism that Ramsey provided in order to find balance in midfield.
Now clearly Mesut Ozil is still employed by Arsenal, however from a footballing perceptive his Arsenal career is effectively over and even if he was still playing for Arsenal, at 32, a long term successor would still need to be identified by the club. What Ozil excelled in for Arsenal was his ability to find space and receive the ball. Ozil was highly competent at finding positions in half spaces around the opposition area where he could turn and contribute to a goal threatening moments. Often it felt like games were passing him by because of his lack of involvement in play, although his decisions to at times move away from the ball was completely intentional for him to find space to be at his most effective. Arsenal’s current attack lacks any subtly or positional intelligence from the attacking players to find those half spaces that Ozil or a David Silva is so effective in. Finding those pockets is only half the job as a level of quality is also needed to be able to create goal scoring opportunities from a shot or pass. It’s been well documented and reflected in Arsenal’s poor attacking numbers that they are lacking in these attributes, and the creative players they do have such as Emile Smith-Rowe and Joe Willock are still too young and inexperienced to be relied on consistently. Willian was a short term solution to this issue the club brought in however hasn’t been successful, and regardless, due to his age Arsenal still need a long term replacement (Perhaps Houssem Aouar) for these qualities and need to address this deficiency immediately if they want to see a more fluid and balanced attack.
Of course it is immensely difficult to replace players of this calibre at affordable prices when outside of the Champions League, simply put the message of this article is that it is not solely that quality is missing for Arsenal to start attacking better, but the profiles or attributes that those former players had that need replacing for a more functioning attack. Arsenal’s attack needs cohesion and recruitment is the best way to improve that. The club needs to start recruiting smarter and more effectively whilst acknowledging their attribute deficiencies if they want to give the manager the best opportunity for success and propel the club back into top four contention.
Yusuf Malik (Twitter @YMalik77)