Arsenal have now played three consecutive, diabolical, Premier League matches. A 3-0 whomping from Aston Villa, a 0-0 draw to Leeds that would have been a hefty defeat nine times if you played it ten, and yesterday’s 2-1 defeat at home to Wolverhampton.
Much like the Leeds match, yesterday was another example of the scoreline being modest compared to the performance being atrocious. Arsenal conceded two first half goals to a side that has struggled as badly at scoring as Arsenal themselves, and then struggled their way through 45 minutes of Wolves essentially saying, “here, take the ball. You can’t score with it anyhow.”
As Wolverhampton dropped into their defensive low block in the second half, they allowed Arsenal to have 66% of the possession. With that possession, Arsenal worked 9 shots and not a single one was on frame. In the whole match, Arsenal managed 13 shots and 2 on frame. The Gunners attempted 36 crosses in the match and only 3 managed to find their target. To say it was a punch to the gut is an understatement. Watching a full half of a football where the opposition is content to let you do whatever your team would like, knowing they can deal with the danger is a tough one to stomach.
Arsenal as a team were exposed, and weak links in the side were found once more. The entire center of the field was vacated for the full match. Looking at the heatmaps after the match for Granit Xhaka, Dani Ceballos, and Joe Willock were a show to the system.
Look at how disjointed this midfield was. By design or in execution, most would agree having that large of a space unoccupied by your three central midfielders is a problem.
Even trying to rationalize this and saying, “okay, maybe Xhaka and Willock took up the left, and Dani and Willian will have occupied the right. By adding in Willian that void will be filled.” Wrong. In fact, as you can see above, the alleyway that guts straight through the Arsenal midfield only becomes clearer.
I even added Aubameyang to the mix. Wouldn’t be unreasonable to think that he would have dropped a bit central like our other strikers — didn’t help. It’s really not until you add in Rob Holding that that gap starts to get filled, but only in the back
But really, the full team heatmap tells it all. Look at that sizeable gap in the central, danger area. With everyone out there, it’s an area of the field become completely and utterly ignored by the Arsenal attack. Even when Arsenal go out of their way to add an attacking central midfielder in Joe Willock, he is asked to spend a good amount of the match on the far-left side, looking to overlap Saka on many occasions.
The central attacking area, just outside the box, is an area that Arsenal have struggled to attack under Mikel Arteta. Many will point to Mesut Ozil, but even when Ozil was playing within Arteta’s 4-2-3-1, he often drifted wide to the right, occupying a defender. Sometimes this went swimmingly he found opportunities to clear defenders for his teammates or had the ability to jut in and make something happen in a flash, other times it made him feel obsolete and ineffective. His combination play with Pepe on the right left a person wanting.
However, the issue wasn’t just the space outside of the box. This time it went all the way back, almost to the midfield. It’s pretty alarming that Arsenal could deploy three central midfielders and have that kind of hole, and yet it some ways in makes sense.
Ceballos spent much of his game filtering backward to the right as we have seen Elneny do in the past, Xhaka who seemed to look to go negative with just about everything he did, also spent a lot of time in the backline, and Willock far to the left. It leads a person to ask the simplest question: why?
The only two answers I can think of are, getting Bellerin and Tierney up into the attack and involved while funneling the ball into the wide attacking areas and providing defensive security in everything they do. It’s as if there is a philosophy that for every attacker that gets forward, one has to get back. I’ll assume that’s not actually the case, but if there is that much worry over the backline then no matter how much the fans want the false dream of an attacking team through a 4-3-3, they won’t be satisfied and it’s leading to poor results.
If you flash back to the beginning of the season, when was the moment it seemed truly possible to play a 4-back system? The moment Arsenal signed Thomas Partey. He’s a good defender, technically secure, very mobile, and can occupy a central role box-to-box. Before him, Arsenal were trying to find success through the 3-4-3. It’s fair to add Gabriel’s defensive qualities to the list of reasons that Arsenal could feel more secure in a 4-3-3, but it was Thomas Partey’s quality that really opened the door.
Take a look at Partey’s heat map versus Manchester United, a match I would consider the midfield pivot to have been pretty successful. Granted This is within a different system and formation, you can see the space that Partey occupies centrally. What he brings to Arsenal’s midfield is something that Xhaka and Ceballos aren’t replicating together in the 4-2-3-1 but did offer last season toward the end. It’s for that reason, and Arsenal’s need to gut their way to a few results that Arsenal should return to the 3-4-3 while Thomas Partey is out.
Some will believe it to be a step backward. I would choose to look at it as a pause, because forcing the same team that failed playing a 4-2-3-1 last season to play it and expect a different result seems like a recipe for more weeks like this one. I’m not huge on the Party-Partey puns, but when it comes to deploying a 4-2-3-1 at the moment, it truly feels like no Thomas, no Partey.