With Premier League fixtures released, the Community Shield coming this weekend, and a debut date set for the Gunners to travel to Craven Cottage to open the season against Fullham, the 2020/21 season is fast approaching. It’s hard to believe given the fact that it has been less than a month since Arsenal were wrapping their season up with an FA Cup finals win and a piece of silverware to take home, but I can hardly pretend I’m not excited to see them take the field once more.
Normally an FA Cup winning side would get the opportunity to really bask in their victory before returning to reality. They would get their parade, get their celebrations, and have earned themselves a lengthy holiday. Hardly the case this year and the fall back to reality is a bit sharp.
Arsenal may have ended the year with the great run that saw them beat Liverpool, Manchester City and Chelsea – the Premier League’s 1st, 2nd, and 4th place finishers – and qualify for the Europa League, but finishing the year in 8th place, 10 points out of the top 4 and a whopping 43 points back from champions Liverpool puts a harsh perspective on the year overall. Obviously Liverpool had one of the most impressive campaigns in recent history and it’s tough to compare Arsenal to at this moment, but keeping one eye on the top is never a bad thing.
Arsenal have a large rebuild on theirs hands and, as we have seen this summer, it’s not just a matter of players. We have seen massive club restructuring, coaching changes, efforts to revamp the scouting department, as well as, some early signs of success in the window – Willian, Gabriel being close to signing, and reports that Aubameyang’s extension is a matter of time. There are reasons to hesitate in backing every move if you feel concern for the 3-year deal Willian was given, the long-term deals Mari and Soares have been given, or are worried that the clean out of the scouts followed by Raul’s sacking has left the club being pulled in opposite directions. But in a world where the most we can do is speculate and comment from the outside, we will hope that club has the same long term success plan in mind and are moving as a cohesive unit.
If you needed an additional proof point of the mountain Arteta has to climb to get his side back to where he wants, look no further than FiveThirtyEight who released their updated Global Club Soccer Rankings yesterday. Arsenal sit tied for 28th with none other than Tottenham, the worst club in the world. At first glance, you may not feel 28th is that bad considering it is out of 629 clubs, but when you look at teams surrounding Arsenal, worry sets in. While Arsenal will wish to be talked about in the same breath as Dortmund and Inter Milan, or even Sevilla and RB Salzburg, the Gunners sit beneath Villareal, Getafe, and Ajax.
I take the table with a bit of a grain of salt, especially when I see now-relegated Watford at 48 and 23 places above Aston Villa or Southampton 3 spots above Lyon who were just knocked out of the Champions League semifinals, but to see Arsenal level with Tottenham and below Wolves and Leicester stings. I welcome anyone to view the table and how their equation reaches this conclusion.
There are lots of aspects to work on, and plenty of things that feel like low hanging fruit for Arteta to turn around this year with large impactful results. Here are 3 things I would like to see the team address in the coming season.
We will start with one most obvious areas for improvement. This last year, Arsenal conceded 48 goals in the Premier League and 22 of them came from set pieces, which is a shocking 45.8%. Of those 22, 7 came from penalties. That number of penalties will hurt your percentage, but it still undoubtedly paints a picture of the large scale work that Arsenal need to do. Even removing the seven penalty goals, Arsenal conceded over one-third of their goals from set pieces.
Over the weekend we caught wind of the fact that Brentford’s Andreas Georgson is being added to the backroom staff to specifically address this issue. If Arteta believes he needs help with solving these issues, I am glad he has done it early. What is interesting is Brentford conceded 16 goals from set pieces this year, which was 38% of their goals – not the largest margin of improvement.
It may not just be about defensively handling set pieces as Brentford also managed to score 21 goals from set pieces compared to Arsenal’s 15. Hopefully, if given a higher quality of player, Georgson’s methods and tactics for approaching set pieces will shine through. Lots of room for improvement, but Arsenal could really use it.
Midfield Chance Creation
It’s no shock anymore that Arsenal scored only 56 goals this year, one of their worst years in over 2 decades – the team make up just didn’t work. If it weren’t for Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s incredible efficiency and ability to score 22 goals, 39% of the team total, this season could have been an absolute disaster. On one hand, that’s why a team is willing to pay Aubameyang so much money and why securing his signature will be one of the most important ones Arsenal can capture this summer, but on the other hand, expecting him to continually repeat the feat continues to get harder and harder by the year.
This year Arteta will need to find a way for Arsenal to simply create more chances to provide Aubameyang and other attackers the ability to convert. With Pepe as this year’s number one chance creator (40), barely beating Ozil (38) who didn’t play a single minute during the restart, you can see the desperate state of Arsenal’s creation. Possibly worse, Aubameyang created 26 chances and had 3 assists – the 4th highest in the squad. Unfortunately he is only able to do some much to create his own scoring opportunities.
I think one thing should be made clear about Ozil. Yes, he managed to create the second most total chances and averaged the most per 90 on the team, but thats not exactly setting the bar high. After all, Arsenal were nearly in the bottom quarter of the league in shots created (406) and Ozil’s total was hardly that impressive in the scope of other top creators. Nonetheless, it is a huge indictment of his fellow midfielders and indicative of the work Arteta has on his hands.
Arteta needs to not only add chance creation to the midfield badly, but create a backline that will allow the midfield to expand their role. It is clear that is why Arsenal added Willian to the side with the intent of playing him in a more central location, but it could be fair to feel that is hardly enough. Seeing an attack containing Aubameyang, Lacazette, and Pepe put up the such poor numbers is shocking and needs to be addressed quickly.
There is a litany of adjectives in the dictionary used to describe the heart of Arsenal’s defense and very few of them will feel positive. From porous to sloppy, untrustworthy to simply poor, finding success at the back without requiring constant protection from the midfield is a major issues that Arteta needs to address. While the defense performed better under Mikel in terms of goals conceded, it was clear that it cost the team a good amount when it came to problem number two, chances creation.
Many will feel the boost of having William Saliba in the side after he posted very impressive statistics in his 16 appearances for St. Etienne, and by the impending announcement of Lille’s Gabriel Magalhaes. However at 19 and 22, neither of these players are yet touted as a finished product. That’s not to take away from how promising they are and how glad people should be about the pair of potential stars, but to simply say that tempering expectations to start the season could do everyone some good. Setting the bar at a reasonable place and allowing them to outstrip it seems like a much more appealing route than expecting them to be the saviors we hope they are, and having them fall short and feel pressure.
Arteta will have the task of introducing them at key points and surrounding them with veterans that can help cultivate some early success. Will have be in the form of a three back system with Luiz? With one of them, Luiz, and another veteran like Mustafi? Where does a player like Pablo Mari fit when he is healthy?
Arteta has a lot of options. In all reality, too many options, which is why there is hope the club will thin the herd this summer and invest earnings back into the midfield. But getting the central of defense right early, and allowing players to compete with one another for the spot, will be a crucial step toward unlocking the rest of the team. As much as I love Arteta’s pragmatic approach and ability to get his players to adjust fluidly from a 4-2-3-1 to a 3-4-3 from one week to the next, heading toward a 4-3-3 feels almost impossible without solving the issues at the back.
The rest of the window will be very interesting to see play out and I have my fingers crossed that there will be a lot more activity. Making significant improvements toward the team’s overall build in this first window, following up Mikel’s first successful half-season with strides in the right direction, and keeping our eyes on the long term prize will go a long ways to coming out of these current, uncertain times in a good place.
There is plenty of work to be done on the field and off, and little time to do it, but it’s nice to see some things heading in the right direction and feel as though Mikel has a plan in mind. In Mikel we trust? Absolutely. Addressing these three issues would continue to show what he is capable of as a manager as Arsenal climb the mountain to claw their way back up the rankings.