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A change to the source of creativity

A change is needed if Arsenal are going to reach the level of play they want, and step one may be changing who is supplying their creativity.

It’s the international break and it may surprise you know that I, as an Arsenal fan, have spent my days thinking about the Arsenal attack. Shocked?

Arsenal’s attack has been…cautious this year. Whether it’s because Arteta remains unconvinced by his backline’s ability to yield the same excellent results if he removes the midfield support system and extra central defender, or he is striving to build the attack upon the sturdy, defensive foundation he has put in place — he hasn’t really let the attack loose, nor supported it all that much.

In 8 matches, Arsenal have only produced 71 shots (26 on target), 8.87 shots per game (3.25) which ranks 14th in the Premier League. To their credit, they have yielded 9 goals with their few attempts and do average over 1.00 xG per game which suggests that the chances they are creating are moments of quality, but it’s certainly not frequent enough to rely on match after match for the course of a full season.

Last season, Arsenal scored 56 goals and recorded their worst finish since 1995. This year they are on pace to score 42 goals. While we can forgive them for having had their fair share of difficult fixtures to kick off the season, the notion of “easy matches” is dissipating by the season meaning it doesn’t get that much easier from here. Arteta has openly stated his belief that Arsenal need to be notching 90-100 goals in a season if they want to be a top team, which leaves them with a lot of goalscoring left to do.

In fairness to Arteta, he said top teams and Arsenal are still a work in progress meaning that might be out of reach this season. Additionally, last year’s winner, Liverpool, didn’t even manage to break the 90-goal mark. In fact, only Manchester City managed that achievement. To reach 90 goals this year, Arsenal would have to average 2.7 goals in their remaining 30 matches. I suppose I won’t say it’s impossible, but what a feat that would be.

To do that, Arsenal are going to have to start finding ways to score. A lot. While I would like to see a shift in the formation itself, Arteta seems to have a desire to stick with the 3-4-3 formation that he developed after Arsenal’s lost to Brighton, late last year. Prior to that, Arsenal had found form in a 4-2-3-1. Whether or not the 3-4-3 shape is a bit of a crutch keeping Arsenal restrained is an argument I certainly have time for, but one that doesn’t matter if Mikel continues to believe it’s the best option.

What’s not up for debate is the clear fact that Arsenal have turned to their outside backs, Kieran Tierney and Hector Bellerin, to supply their creativity. The tactic itself isn’t necessarily a problem. Liverpool have proven that through their usage of Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson. However, I wouldn’t consider them the main source of creativity within the squad. That lies with Liverpool’s devastating front three, even with their outside backs piping in difficult balls for defenses to handle.

Additionally, it has to be admitted that Lacazette is far from a prolific finisher when it comes to tucking away crosses. Look no further than his failed header against Aston Villa, and his completely whiffed effort against Leicester City. All of this to say… Arsenal should look to make a change to who is creating the attack even though Tierney and Bellerin have been the two most consistent suppliers of attacking opportunity so far this season.

Arsenal’s 3-4-3 shape

On paper, Arteta’s squad lines up in a 3-4-3, but the shape transitions very differently as Arsenal look to get into their 2-3-5 attacking shape.

Arsenal’s shape when building down the left
Arsenal’s shape when building down the right

Depending on the channel in which Arsenal funnel the attack down, left or right, we see Arsenal shift into a few different shapes that maintain the 2-3-5 end result (images above). When down the left, we often see Tierney bombing from the back to get down the left wing and supply width and service.

On the right, Bellerin has less distance to cover as Arsenal’s left-center back but still looks to overlap down the right wing, allowing the right winger to tuck inside. The other potential outcome for Bellerin is to read the game and get into the attack on the inside of the right winger. This pushes Willian or Pepe wide, almost the chalkline while Hector occupies the more central space.

A third option, similar to when Arsenal build down the left side, would be when Bukayo Saka tucks inside and joins the midfield.

Arsenal’s 2-3-5 shape with Tierney overlapping Saka who has joined the midfield, this time with Bellerin tucked into the inside of the right winger.

In all three of these shapes, Arsenal generally have three players shielding the backline to prevent quick counter attacking opportunities. This 2-3-5 concept makes a lot of sense if Arteta believes the backline is in need of this sort of protection while resulting in Arsenal conceding very few goals. Until their nightmare day against Aston Villa, they had conceded the fewest goals in the Premier League this season. An impressive step from last year’s porous defensive situation.

The problem with this set up, and a potential explanation of Arsenal’s struggles, lies with the fact that on many occasions, two of their 5 attacking players are natural defenders. That is not to disrespect the contribution that Tierney and Bellerin have added this year, but it places the responsibility of the creation and creativity on their shoulders while reducing the role our midfielders play in the attack. Add in the fact that Lacazette and maybe even Aubameyang aren’t prolific finishers with their head, and things don’t quite add up… Or it does add up, and it equals 9 goals in 8 games.

If Arteta looks to persist with the 3-4-3, he is going to have to find solutions within the current squad. Simply biding our time until another transfer window isn’t going to be enough. With that in mind, it could make sense to involve our midfielders in a more blunt and obvious way given they are some of our more technically gifted players when it comes to playing with the ball at their feet.

Ignoring the position names within the image, it could make sense to continue to achieve the 2-3-5 shape by having both Bellerin and Tierny’s first look be tucking in to shield the defense. From that spot, the more gifted midfielder gets forward from a central area and assists in more intricate combination play with the ball going into attacker’s feet, rather than settling for crossing opportunities.

In the image above, I have Partey, the more gifted attacker in an Elneny-Partey pivot (although Elneny can pick and choose his moments), sitting in behind and joining the attack. Bellerin, Elneny, and Tierney form the defensive shield while the attacking front gets a little narrower to form their passing triangles. From here, Bellerin and Tierney could continue to look for opportunities to join wide from the midfield three.

Ignoring the position names once more, an alteration to the above option would be to select Ceballos or Joe Willock in place of Elneny and look to get into similar pockets of space between the lines that Willock had immense success with against Dundalk and Molde. Truly, his performances in those games were some of the best attacking we have seen this season and Arsenal as a whole could benefit from getting skilled players into those same attacking positions.

This doesn’t simply limit Partey to a defensive, holding midfielder either. On many occasions this season, Arsenal have added extra attackers and altered their shape to more of a 2-2-6. Whether they achieve that by having Bellerin or Tierney join down the outside channels, or have Partey join down the middle while Tierney and Bellerin pinch a little tighter, this would still allow more numbers to get involved in the attack.

To simplify and summarize, as good as Tierney and Bellerin have been at times, they lack the ability to get into tight spaces and help facilitate Arsenal’s attack with the ball at their feet. Yet, Arteta is insistent on having 2/5ths of the attacking front be natural defenders, while having natural midfield players diligently defend. It seems a bit counter intuitive in many ways. The above solution could result in the Bukayo Saka and Willian/Pepe being pushed wide at times to facilitate with crosses, but it gets more naturally gifted attackers involved centrally and those wingers have the ability to deliver a decent ball themselves.

It has the potential to cater to the Arsenal attackers that prefer the ball at their feet and it creates more opportunities to break down defenses by getting in between the lines, and into the tight spaces, with players that can still operate from those areas. Ideally, this limits the amount of side-to-side passing we settle for and eliminates the horrid U-shape attack that has plagued us for much of the year so far. A change is needed, and the most important change could be altering who is providing our main source of creativity.

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