Arsenal 0-1 Leicester: Why are we so uncreative and how can we fix it?
By Alfie Cairns Culshaw (Chief Editor)
When Mikel Arteta arrived at Arsenal to take over from the dismissed Unai Emery in December 2019, we all had our preconceptions over what type of style of play he'd attempt to implement at the club. An academy graduate from La Masia, a player for Arsene Wenger for 5 years, a coaching descendant of Pep Guardiola- there was little doubt in most Arsenal fans minds that an attractive, expansive approach to the game would be instilled in a club which was in need of rebuilding this identity after it had been tarnished by the previous man in charge.
Instead, perhaps intelligently, Arteta's first port of call was to amend and bolster a diabolical defence. He stringently went about implementing a rigid tactical structure, adding shape and discipline to a side that had been ludicrously frenetic and chaotic in the backend of the Emery era. Conceding ridiculous shot volumes every game, relying on heroic work from Bernd Leno and the proficiency of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang's finishing was not a sustainable method of playing football. So, with relatively immediate effect, Arteta worked on designating specific roles to certain players, which made Arsenal a more compact and mechanical side that conceded far fewer shots and high quality chances.
And this worked. Fast forward 10 months, and we're one of the better defensive teams in the league. Although we're occasionally derailed by poor individual mistakes, as a collective we're much more resilient and hard to break down. At the same time, this has come drastically at the expense of our attacking play. Offensively, we struggle to express ourselves and create both high quality chances and a lot of them. We've made the defensive reinforcements, and now we need to transition into a good attacking unit. This won't happen overnight, but arguably we should be making more progress in this aspect than we are. Why are we not?
Last night was another example of our side failing to create many clear cut opportunities. Despite controlling possession, winning it back very well and quickly, and penning Leicester in for large periods, this assertion of dominance didn't translate to clear goal-scoring opportunities. Throughout the game, there was too big a gap between those sitting deep and distributing the ball (Gabriel, Luiz, Xhaka, Partey and Ceballos) and those across what was effectively a front five (Bellerin, Aubameyang, Lacazette, Saka and Tierney). There were few players dropping in between the lines to receive the ball and play on the half turn to link play. We were essentially playing two lines of five, with nobody in between, making breaking the lines almost impossible at times.
This made our attacking play somewhat predictable. There was (and has been under Arteta) a reliance on either creating wide overloads or playing long direct balls over the top. Both of these patterns of play can be effective, but have to be immaculate when playing against low, compact blocks, with little space in behind to exploit. Luiz' distribution on the night was superb, but once he went off and Leicester became more aware of this direct threat we were posing early on, we almost became entirely clueless in how we were going to create.
Clearly, there is a slight personnel issue. We don't have a naturally creative midfield player who can operate in these half-spaces and in between the lines. We don't have a midfield player who is capable of playing these incisive passes in tight areas high up the pitch. We have players who can progress the ball from deep and we have players who are capable of getting on the end of moves, but we have few options in between. The fact we didn't address this in the transfer market when it was evidently our biggest issue is quite frankly unforgiveable, but we have to now adapt with what we have.
So what more can Arteta do to improve our attacking fluidity? Well, as stated before, there is a reliance on two specific plans for chance creation, both of which are very hard to pull off on a consistent basis, and at the moment, if they don't then we look unsure what to do going forward. Arteta must start working on different variations of play and offensive patterns. He also MUST begin to try different personnel in different roles.
I'm not calling for the use of a number ten. Very few teams now a days use a number ten, yet are still able to create and have players dropping in between the lines to link play. We also don't have a ready number ten available to slot in, so there's no point trying to force that.
If you look at Liverpool, their system does not have a technical, creative midfield three, yet they're (thus far) top of the expected goals for table in the Premier League. Their creativity comes from the front three and also their full-backs. Yes, they have the world's most productive full-backs, but all three of that front three can create chances. At the moment, the construction of our front three just is not right.
Aubameyang in a wide role doesn't offer creativity. In his prime days at Dortmund and his first season and a half at Arsenal, he was a penalty box striker. In the last year or so, he's had to adapt his game to become an incredibly good finisher from the left, who offers little else. His movement inside the box is superb, and his ability to get into these goal-scoring positions is world class. In this current side, he's too far from goal, and often left with a creative onus, a role he's just not capable of fulfilling. The argument to play Lacazette down the middle over the Gabonese international is his ability to hold the ball up and link play, but with his clear physical decline, he just doesn't do this effectively anymore. Last night couldn't have showcased this more, and surely Arteta sees that. The Frenchman was bouncing off his more physical opponents, being bullied out of the way time and time again. At the moment, Aubameyang is just watching chances fall to Lacazette he'd be putting away. Change it.
Once moving Aubameayng centrally, it opens up a space out wide which can be filled by a more creative outlet. Someone who is capable of dropping into the half spaces and in between the lines. For me, a balanced front three that must be worth experimenting with would be Bukayo Saka and Nicolas Pepe either side of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. Pepe the inverted winger who can come inside and create and Saka on his natural side going on the outside. Combine these wingers with increasingly excellent full-backs Kieran Tierney and Hector Bellerin outside of them, and all of a sudden it's a potentially exciting and potent attacking force. Obviously patterns have play have to be worked on, but personnel is the most controllable reform that can be made immediately.
Another aspect of Liverpool's system that allows them to create so much is their pressing ability. Jurgen Klopp's notorious gegenpressing system has become a staple of modern day football and is now possibly the best way to create chances. The days of tika taka possession based football have gone. Winning the ball back high up the pitch is almost more important than being able to put together long, intricate passing moves. Arteta's Arsenal are currently only scratching the surface in terms of their pressing potential. If he can implement a coherent and cohesive pressing unit, we'll instantly see improvements in our offensive play.
We must see improvements in our chance creation soon, otherwise this will be a very long season. If we don't see any improvements soon, question marks must begin to be raised. We move.