Analysis: Arsenal's Right Flank Issues
Updated: Oct 21, 2020
By Rob Worthington (Senior Writer)
Arsenal’s dismal attacking display at Manchester City has been well documented in the aftermath of the Gunners’ 1-0 defeat at the Etihad Stadium. There were plenty of positives to take from Saturday’s performance for Mikel Arteta, but fluid, attacking football was not one of them.
Other than during a rampant opening day win against a poor Fulham side, stale attacking performances have been a worrying theme for Arsenal in recent times. Of course, in Mikel Arteta’s defence, upon his appointment, there was a greater need to solidify the North London outfit’s backline than enhance their offensive performance.
However, watching the game on Saturday, one got the impression that Arteta has perhaps focussed too much on defensive structure and has perhaps neglected the need to strengthen going forward. His Arsenal side played out from the back elegantly and were relatively untroubled by a strong Manchester City team but only created two ‘big chances’ and failed to pile on the pressure late on in spite of City’s slender advantage.
To say there have been no glimpses of attractive attacking football under Arteta, however, would be untrue. Arsenal fans have been offered plenty of insight into what the future may hold. Certainly, it seems there is a lot of potential down the left flank. The likes of Kieran Tierney, Bukayo Saka, Ainsley Maitland-Niles, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Gabriel Martinelli have all excelled at different points of Mikel Arteta’s tenure on the left hand-side.
The major issues going forward for Arsenal seem to be on the right. The lack of fluidity on this flank in comparison to on the left often leaves Arsenal unbalanced. Pep Guardiola successfully nullified Arsenal’s attacking patterns on the the left flank on Saturday and his former assistant’s team consequentially looked pretty toothless in their attacking play.
Clearly, Arsenal’s over reliance on left-sided attacks isn’t sustainable. Teams will inevitably find ways to overcome the Gunners’ left-sided threat as Manchester City did on Saturday.
The way to solve this issue isn’t to work on offering something novel on the left. Instead, Mikel Arteta has to improve his right hand-side offensively.
One reason Arsenal aren’t quite so fluid down the right is due to the system Mikel Arteta has implemented in recent times. On the ball, his unconventional 3-4-3 sees his left-centre-back moving out to left-back and his left-wing-back moving into left central-midfield. On the opposite side of the pitch, Arteta’s right-wing back moves back to right-back and the right-central midfielder moves a little wider. This forms a 4-3-3 of sorts.
It is Mikel Arteta’s options at right-central-midfield that handicap this system. This season, we have seen Mohamed Elneny and Dani Ceballos occupy this position. These are two players who have a lot of good qualities, but they’re both reluctant to get forward and help the attack. It is telling that on two occasions they did choose to break forward, Ceballos Vs. West Ham and Elneny Vs. Sheffield United, Arsenal grabbed two goals.
While Thomas Partey does enjoy carrying the ball forward, he, like Ceballos and Elneny, prefers to operate from deep, central areas. Thus, he’s not likely to be a problem solver in this role. Perhaps this is the position Mikel Arteta envisaged Houssem Aouar occupying despite the Frenchman’s preference to play from the left.
Interestingly, on one of the few occasions the unconventional 3-4-3 system did work effectively down the right flank going forward, Joe Willock played in the right-central-midfield role. The game I’m referring to is Arseanl’s 2-1 win over Sheffield United in the 19/20 FA Cup quarter-final. Nico Pépé enjoyed one of his best performances in an Arsenal shirt to date as a result of the Gunners’ fluidity down the right. WIllock’s influence was a key reason why the Gunners looked so fluid.
This is not to suggest Willock is the solution for Mikel Arteta. However, it does exemplify the profile of player he should be looking to bring in during the Winter transfer window to provide something different in the right-central-midfield role. An attack-minded player with strong defensive work rate.
Nonetheless, while It seems Mikel Arteta’s lack of right-footed offensively oriented midfielders is Mikel Arteta’s biggest issue down the right, unfortunately, it isn’t his only problem. Inconsistent performances from the likes of Hector Bellerìn, Willian and Nico Pépé is also a cause for concern.
The combination between Bellerìn and Pépé prior to the Ivorian’s first and only goal this season against Sheffield United just over a fortnight ago shows there is potential for the pair to form a successful partnership. However, it is clear that Arteta needs more from both of them. Arguably more importantly, as two very talented players, the pair should be demanding more from themselves.
Nonetheless, of course, Bellerìn and Pépé would doubtlessly be helped if they had a player in between them who could play the right-central-midfield role effectively. It might be time for Mikel Arteta to gamble in order to find out who exactly can occupy this role in his current squad. Joe Willock and Emile Smith-Rowe will likely feel they deserve a chance. The commencement of the Europa League on Thursday could provide the perfect platform for this.
Until a solution is found, expect a continuation of drab attacking football from Arsenal. Thomas Partey will help the Gunners going forward with his driving runs and forward passing but as aforementioned, he won’t singlehandedly nullify the problem for Mikel Arteta. Until Arteta finds a player who can link up play on the right, Arsenal fans will remain frustrated with their team's offensive return.