Finally: Leicester City Result is a Welcome Fluke. by AI
One of the problems of Arsenal’s 2020/2021 season under Arteta has been the dearth of chances for the team. Arsenal have not been creating much. They have been creating shots like a relegation-bound team. The other side of that is that their shots taken have been of premium quality — the highest — in the league, with the expected goal average (Gx) of their shots tied with Manchester City’s. Basically, Arsenal have been a relegation team creatively and a title-winning one when they do shoot.
They cannot afford to continue like that. A top side needs to generally be very good at creating chances (and preventing them: but we are already good at that). It is in the multitude of these chances created that the top sides end up scoring enough to top the table. That is what every Guardiola side does. Guardiola sets up his sides as a chance creating factory. The idea is that if you create more than the other team (and allow them to create little in return), you are very likely to win the match. There may be fluke matches in which you outplay the other team and still lose, but over thirty-something games, that investment will pay off.
There’s an argument to be made that the reason why Arteta’s Arsenal do not create so much is because they play a constricted 3-4-3 with no quality attacking midfielder. Once Arteta reverts to a back-four, the argument goes, Arteta will remove his Simeone mask and show his inner Guardiola. Arsenal will transform into a chance-making machine overnight.
Well, here’s the expected goals from Arsenal vs Leicester, the first game in which Arteta employed a conventional back-four:
HT: Arsenal (1.01) 0-0 (0.02) Leicester
FT: Arsenal (1.27) 0-1 (0.79) Leicester
Arsenal have averaged less than 8 shots per match before this game. In the first half alone, they had 11. Leicester set up like a lower league team in the first half. They didn’t press much and simply waited for Arsenal to play through them so they could hit them on the counter. Arsenal called their dare and should have been ahead by two goals by half-time. Sadly, it was not to be.
In the second half, Arsenal lost both David Luiz and Bukayo Saka, their best creators in the first half. Luiz’s loss was particularly impactful. Luiz was very responsible for pushing the attack sometimes down the right towards Bellerin in the first half, as well as switching play to either Saka or Tierney on the left. Although Arsenal still switched play to the left after he came off, they lost all zip and bite down the right. Bellerin’s problem-delivering runs faded out of existence. Ceballos, tasked with supporting/instigating right-sided attacks, was simply not in the game from the first half. Leicester also brought on quality and pace in Cengiz Under and Jamie Vardy, while stepping up their pressing a bit. The result of all that was Arsenal, who had previously created 11 chances, could only muster one more.
Of course, individual quality matters. And chance creating teams are not coached equal. The likes of City, Liverpool and Bayern create more chances than the likes of Madrid, Barcelona and PSG. Yet each of them constantly dominates smaller teams. Arsenal do not have much of an X-factor in the passing and movement phase. Neither is the attack structure and movement coached to the highest quality. The likes of Ceballos could have done more yesterday. In fact, everybody could have done more. But what matters, at this moment in time for Arteta, is this question: Did we create enough chances to win this game if it was re-run.
The answer is obviously yes. At least in the first half. Hear it from the gaffer’s mouth: “I think the team started really well,” Arteta told Arsenal.com. “We had a really good first half against a really low block but they’re a team that has the ability to play and open you up as well. We didn’t allow that to happen, we were really aggressive, we won every duel, we were a threat.”
There were enough quality moments in which Arsenal could have gone ahead and out of sight. That is what they need to do well throughout the season. Leicester’s goal came from a single moment in which we allowed the ball to be played behind us. Apart from that one moment, they had little in this match, and we had enough to have won. In that sense, we need more of this game throughout the season (with a better second half, of course), where we create more and limit the opponents to as little as possible. I would be curious to see what we play like in a 4-3-3 against other teams like Southampton or Leeds who press high.
We still have to improve many aspects of this 4-3-3. We need to be able to create more through different means. Liverpool, for instance, can create chances from deep counterattacks, pressing, wing-overloads, crosses from deep, combination play in between the lines, set pieces, and from third man runs from deep. Structurally, we can seemingly only create well from pressing, set pieces and wing-overloads — that is not good enough to build a chance factory on.
Can Arteta coach more ways of scoring for his team in a 4-3-3? I think so. This is as dependent on coaching quality as well as individual quality (plus time!). You need individual quality to be at a sufficient level to combine in between the lines as a safe and effective means of creating chances. That was how Arsenal made the second goal against Sheffield United. Evidently, that moment was something from the training ground. How fast can we see more of such at Arsenal? That depends.
Arteta is still missing a lot of individual pieces. I suspect that he already can coach these to a high level. Time is needed for that coaching to show up at a high and consistent level. As his team begins to understand his demands better, we will be seeing more of his coaching. For better or worse. I think it is for the better. Arteta surely has learnt how to train various types of attacking automatisms from Pep. The good news is that he’s also a pragmatist at heart, so even as his team might mature to attack with more inventiveness and variety, they will stay compact and solid — especially in tough fixtures. Arteta’s Arsenal, by that definition, has more potential for trophy winning than Wenger’s in the current football age.
This is the dawn of Arteta’s Arsenal going forward. Attacking-wise, the Pep in him is revealing itself. This game is a welcome fluke. May the moments (and VAR) continue to favour us.