Arsenal Still Need a Playmaker by AI
Arsenal knew they needed a creative force going into this season. Houssem Aouar was supposed to be the answer to that but it was not to be—mostly because they couldn’t sell players in a window suffering from the effects of the pandemic.
Arsenal started with a 3-4-3 that had Lacazette, Willian and Aubameyang leading the line. On paper, that was a seemingly good front 3. An inside forward in Aubameyang, a central forward who can drop to build up play like Oliver Giroud and a playmaking forward in Willian. All of them are Premier League veterans and one is a genuine superstar.
The first game of the season showed what this frontline was going to be all about: Lacazette would drop to fill in the midfield, Aubameyang would move into the central hole left behind, Willian would be responsible for serving it to Aubameyang from out wide. On that day, Aubameyang scored from a Willian pass and the Brazilian got an hattrick of assists. But since then, performance levels have dropped and it has a real struggle to get goals from the frontline. As the situation got frighteningly worse with Willian seemingly tired of football, transfer rumors started linking Arsenal to Dominik Szoboszlai. It made some sense. Cheap, young, good in the final third and setpieces, the Hungarian could have been a great buy. But something was missing — Arsenal were too quiet about the transfer—and it became apparent with the new round of rumours linking them to Julian Brandt and Emiliano Buendia.
Julian Brandt and Emiliano Buendia have a different profile to Dominik Szoboszlai. They are less about direct actions and more about contributing to play. Dominik Szoboszlai has the profile of a creator: someone who receives the ball and often immediately attempts to make a decisive action. Bruno Fernandes is a player with this profile, too. But while Arsenal’s attack suffered from the low quality of their final third actions (be it crosses, shots or passes), a deeper problem was revealed by the data analysis community: Arsenal were one of the slowest at moving the ball up the pitch.
A creator wouldn’t necessarily solve that issue. This is why Sporting FC had often used Bruno Fernandes in a deeper role. Smaller teams usually lack the quality to move the ball quickly and cleanly up the field. It’s a testament to the Portuguese’ intelligence that he was able to fulfill this role for Sporting. But most creators simply won’t have Fernandes’ versatility and Dominik Szbozlai was one of them.
What Arsenal needed was a playmaker: someone who is good at contributing to the buildup, shielding the ball, carrying it and keeping it in the final third. Eden Hazard, Neymar, Jack Grealish are notable examples of this. It is extremely important to be able to move the ball quickly and keep it under pressure when you are playing against a lowblock, which was where most of Arsenal’s problems were stemming from. This helps you maintain sustained pressure against the block where they do not get out and you can then attack in wave after wave. This is best mechanism for breaking down a lowblock. Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal were very good at this. And so are Liverpool and Manchester City now.
Emile Smith-Rowe has shown Arsenal what they were missing in the last couple of games, but an injury-prone youngster, though extremely talented, is not who Arsenal should rely on throughout the rest of the season.
Julian Brandt and Emiliano Buendia are adept at being playmakers to a certain extent, especially the former. This is the sort of profile that Arsenal are looking for and should look for. Houssem Aouar is the best option out there. Don’t be surprised if Arsenal decide that there is no good option out there, reintroduce Mesut Ozil and wait for the summer to resume their chase of Houssem Aouar. That’s who and what they need.