Arsenal bossed it a week ago at Old Trafford — a place they haven’t won at for 14 years — and won. They were tactically convincing and exciting, and it’s far from the first top team they’ve beaten since Mikel Arteta took charge. They were extraordinary.
This weekend, however, the Gunners stumbled on a familiar speed bump against Aston Villa. Taking on the weaker teams on the schedule, they struggle, they lack creativity from their midfield and individual brilliance from their forwards. Arsenal looked completely ordinary, if that…
The Gunners have escaped with narrow one-goal wins against Rapid Vienna, Sheffield United and West Ham already. Now they lost 3-0 at home against Aston Villa.
Furthermore, Arsenal have scored less than all teams but one (Wolves) of the top 16 clubs in the league and left the pitch goalless three times already. It’s the theme of the season.
Is the problem tactical? Lack of motivation? Fatigue? The rain?
New ideas with new keys
Hindsight is 20/20 but I doubt most of us can put a finger on one exact reason why Arsenal struggle against weaker teams. Neither could Arteta after the game, who said he would reassess his tactics over the international break.
But we can predict a midfield duo of Mo Elneny and Thomas Partey won’t be the most creative one. That leaves more on the shoulders of the forwards and the overall structure of the team when attacking. This setup didn’t work against Aston Villa and against even more defensive teams, when the forwards’ space is even more limited, there needs to be a creative spark from midfield.
Arsenal’s “chaos man” Nicolas Pepe could’ve started. Dani Ceballos, who is our only (registered) playmaker, could’ve started, too. Or Joe Willock. Changes that would undoubtedly make Arsenal more unpredictable going forward than Willian and Elneny. Playing Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang up the middle is another idea Arteta should consider.
Perhaps it’s time for a change of formation. Adding another midfielder can create more opportunities when attacking. Now that Arteta knows Gabriel is reliable, going back to two centre backs to facilitate a midfielder is perhaps the way forward.
Arteta has said numerous times that if a player performs well in a game and trains well, he will continue to play. That could explain why he lined up the same team against Aston Villa and Manchester United. But those are two different kind of challenges with different key holes. My car keys aren’t going to work on my neighbor’s Porsche. It creates an awkward form-over-tactical reasons selection process. A double-edged sword that is sometimes counter-productive.
“Have a bit more fun on the ball“
Arsenal.com the Breakdown’s analyst and former Gunner, Adrian Clark, suggests that there’s too much focus on tactics and structure at Arsenal.
“Change the mindset. Have a bit more fun on the ball. For me, the team is a little too structured, he said in the Breakdown’s post-match show after the Villa thrashing.
Arteta’s rigid structure works perfectly against the top teams. But really not against the others this season. Plan B, ‘Break Down the Opposition’, needs to be hatched.
Since after the first interational break, Arsenal have played six games — two each week. Aston Villa have played three. Physical fatigue could be a factor.
But more worrying is the sense that from the first minute, even after being rescued by VAR, the team seemed mentally content with “just putting a shift in”.
Overall, it’s a bit of everything. Arsenal’s impotence when attacking is not new and it’s mostly a tactical issue. The structure is too restrictive; we barely saw Aubameyang on Sunday; Arsenal’s wingbacks have become their playmakers. Arteta has 14 days to hatch a new plan against all but the top six teams.
Next up is Leeds. The manager has some work to do…
Further reading: Pepe’s enigma