I haven’t written much about Arsenal for a long time. Partly because it sometimes felt pointless. Partly because I had become apathetic.
I’ll admit, Mikel Arteta’s appointment got my interest back up in a short space of time. We had a number of fringe and/or underperforming players get a new lease on life, a clean slate to prove their worth. Players like Shkodran Mustafi were playing LANS (like a new signing). There was an air of optimism. Yet, the new season is quickly giving me latter day Emery vibes, and that’s seriously worrying.
Firstly, the lack of creativity is well documented. I saw a stat after the Spurs match that we are dead last in chances created in the league. I know some people think this stat or stats in general are pointless. But the role of numbers is to report on what the current situation is, which all eventually feeds into the most important statistic: the points tally.
In the simplest terms, teams that don’t create many chances don’t score goals much. This explains why we’ve only scored 10 in 10 games, and only scored one goal in open play since October 4th (Gabriel’s header versus Wolves) while shipping 9 in that period. That is 2 months of Premier League football, and our only goals were a penalty, and a header by our best defender currently. To be sure, we’ve scored fewer goals overall than West Ham, Newcastle, Crystal Palace…a long list of teams we should be embarrassed to have outscoring us, which includes Fulham and Brighton who are both directly below us on the table. Our squad is far superior to these teams, so not having Houssem Aouar is not a valid excuse.
Listening to Arteta, one gets the idea that he expects his forwards to put away the very few chances they get. But, without getting into the statistical technicalities, this happens only occasionally as no team has ever sustainably outscored its xG. And that leads me to my next point.
While most seem happy about it, some have lamented our most creative player (a fact, whether you like him or not) being frozen out of pretty much all first team football. For the record, I quite like Ozil despite the perception many of our fans have of him. Yes, he’s not the superstar we want him to be, but he’s the most creative player on our books as it stands. (Aside: I never thought I’d hear the likes of Tony Adams and Paul Merson calling for Ozil’s return. The year 2020 eh?)
Yet, as much as I think he should be playing, I don’t think creativity depends on an individual player. A creative player is as good as his supporting cast. Surround him with technical, like-minded players and you’ll see his best. Even if players around him aren’t as brilliant, as long as they support the main creative outlet, that also proves effective. The Aston Villa game showed us a good example of what we could be – Jack Grealish is the obvious maestro in that orchestra, but the likes of McGinn, Barkley and even Trezeguet do what they need to in order to allow Grealish to do what he’s best at.
Many believe once Arteta signs the players he desires such as Aouar, our creativity will be solved. In our current financial position, we probably won’t be signing such expensive players anytime soon, so Arteta needs to squeeze the hell out of any potential this team might still hold. Additionally, a coach is appointed on the basis that he can improve the current squad’s output. Even if new signings are promised by the club, the core of the squad will remain the players he has inherited, so he has to make it work. I think we have the players to create a lot more goal scoring chances than we currently are (they did under Emery’s supposed lack of direction, and in Arteta’s earlier games), but for some reason there’s a sore lack of initiative. I do hope he has other ideas beyond playing Lacazette as a “false 10” though, or hoping the maths will convert our endless crosses into goals.
In the past, many of our fans decried Arsene Wenger’s supposed lack of coaching. Some wanted to see him do more shouting from the touchline as they drooled over other teams’ coaches who barked orders for 90 minutes. Mikel Arteta, in this aspect, is quite the opposite of Wenger. Instead of observing and allowing players to make their own decisions on the pitch, Arteta can be heard telling players individually where to pass, where to move, who to mark, when to run, and so forth.
While there should always be space for a manager to communicate what he wants from his players at any point in time, especially when he’s still establishing a structure, there’s also the very real danger of over-coaching. I think Arsenal is currently over-coached. It’s almost as if Arteta doesn’t trust that his players can make the right decisions while on the pitch, so he constantly tells them what they should be doing. This creates a few problems.
Players tend to be a lot less adventurous because they don’t want to do something the coach won’t approve of. I think this partially explains the slow and static nature of our game which features a lot of backwards and sideways passing, even when there are players running. During the Manchester United match, I noted a number of times how Bukayo Saka made a number of runs to which Kieran Tierney responded by passing backwards. As much as I don’t see a lot of movement off the ball in the way we play currently, I also see the few runs we make being ignored for the safer pass.
We are doing it consistently enough for me to believe it’s being coached into the way Arteta wants to play, which is keeping possession all costs and taking zero risks. It’s also a little frustrating how we seem incapable of playing through the middle, while Tottenham, for example, passed through our midfield at will in the earlier stages of that match.
Over-coaching (please excuse the lack of a better term) also means players are highly dependent on the coach, to the point where the poor display on the pitch can be directly linked to the coach’s lack of ideas. If the coach doesn’t know what to do in a particular match, the players – who have now been taught to follow the coach’s precise instructions – are also bereft of ideas. Interestingly, after the Spurs game Arteta effectively admitted that he doesn’t know what to do to get the team scoring, and it actually shows.
I think Arteta started out really well. He brought in structure, communicated his vision well, and the players seemed to respond quite positively. Defensively we were more solid, we were pressing with intensity, and fashioning some scoring chances from unlikely situations. But since the cup euphoria, it’s starting to look like Arteta’s overthinking will be his downfall.
I fear the massive buy-in he had initially might start to dwindle among some players. For example, our team captain is in poor form and his general body language looks uninspired. He labours through games these days, and that’s a serious concern. When your striker’s lack of goals is the result of missing many chances, that’s okay as he’ll usually get back to scoring quickly. When his lack of goals is the result of getting one or two shooting chances per game, that’s a much bigger problem because it also reflects on the failure of the players around him, and possibly the way the team is set up as well.
Arteta was always a risky appointment, but many of us were happy to give him a chance. I think if he doesn’t find sustainable solutions to the team’s lack of creativity and scoring (and that doesn’t include making 40 crosses and hoping the maths will do the rest), I’m afraid even his biggest fans will start questioning their loyalty. Whatever those solutions are, they’ll need to include allowing a bit more freedom and trusting the players to take some initiative in scenarios they see play out in front of them. That also means accepting that they’ll make mistakes, but that’s the price to pay for building the automatisms that produced the champagne football we love at this club.
I liked Arteta as a player, and I want him to succeed as a coach at Arsenal FC. I do hope he turns this around.
I first encountered Arsenal when I got exposed to English football around 2004 (that champagne football sold it for me), but only learnt of the Invincible season much later on. I used to think the club is named after Arsene – a bit silly in retrospect. Appreciate the perspective and stories of older Gooners who’ve supported the club longer than I’ve been alive. Market researcher with a keen interest in photography (David Price and Stuart McFarlane have the best job in the world).
Oh, almost bought a Man United shirt as a youngster because I saw a friend of mine, who was the cool kid, wearing one. So glad I didn’t go down that road!