In the end, it was all too predictable. Leicester City, sat deep in their own half, nullified an Arsenal side bereft of ideas and then provided the killer blow themselves, thanks to the typically lethal Jamie Vardy. The execution of the away side was admirable, even if the game plan of how to succeed against Arsenal has become as obvious as anything in the Premier League right now.
Sunday’s defeat at The Emirates perfectly summed up where Arsenal are with Mikel Arteta at this moment in time. While they are still prone to errors, as shown by Shkodran Mustafi losing Cengiz Ünder in the lead up to Vardy’s winner, the Gunners are more organised, both in midfield and defence – they have conceded the second-fewest number of goals (7) in the Premier League this season. However, the prioritisation of improving this area seems to have had a negative effect on things going forward.
Arsenal Progress Under Arteta Suffering From Lack of Creativity
Limited Chances Lead to Downfall at Leicester City
Despite having a goal dubiously ruled out for offside and Alexandre Lacazette missing a glorious chance in the first half, Arsenal struggled to turn their 56% possession into consistent meaningful attacks, as Leicester gradually grew comfortable against the predictable, slow build-up of the home side. This was especially the case during the second period, with Arteta’s men only having one shot at goal – Hector Bellerin‘s volley, which was saved by Kasper Schmeichel.
“It’s very difficult to create chances against ten men behind the ball,” said Arteta after the game. “In those spaces we saw what they did against Manchester City. I was expecting them to do it but we had open situations where we should have finished better. It comes down to two or three chances that you are going to have. When you have those moments you have to take them and not make mistakes at the back.”
“In the second half and it was about being patient and waiting for the right moment against a team that wanted to defend really deep. They didn’t have any shots on target and they were just waiting for a mistake to go on the break, and the moment we had a minimal mistake with no pressure on the ball, trying to step in, they caught us with the space at our back and we lost the game.”
Arteta may have a point when it comes to the difficulty of breaking down teams who defend deep but the reality is that he and his side have struggled to find solutions to this challenge for some time now. According to WhoScored.com, Arsenal are averaging only 8.8 shots per game in the Premier League this season – only Crystal Palace, Newcastle and West Brom are having fewer.
This is mainly down to two reasons. The first of which is the formations which stem from Arteta’s seemingly over-cautious approach. For most of his time in charge, the Spaniard has operated a 3-4-3 system, in which the four midfielders include full backs on the flanks and two hard-working, disciplined central midfielders. This, in turn, puts more pressure on the wide forwards to do the majority of the creating.
While this has indeed made Arsenal harder to break down, the problem Arteta is finding is that opposition teams can negate his side’s attacks by sitting deep and not allowing any space for the wide forwards to run into. Therefore, the necessity for a creative midfielder who can find key passes then increases.
This was also the case against Leicester, as Arteta changed to a 4-3-3. The three midfielders, Granit Xhaka, Thomas Partey and Dani Ceballos were tasked with controlling play but were not given the license to push further forward to try and create an opening. As a result, Arsenal struggled to create an opening.
Lack of Creative Players
The other reason for Arsenal’s ongoing attacking problems comes down to personnel. Mesut Ozil has been axed from the squad entirely, while Ceballos is currently struggling for consistency, despite having a strong end to last season. The unsuccessful pursuit of Lyon’s Houssem Aouar emphasised that Arteta is keen on adding quality in this area.
While Ozil’s performances in recent years support the fact that Arteta can not rely on him, you would be forgiven for wondering how much use he could be for Arsenal, especially in games where opposition teams drop deep and reduce spaces in behind. Despite only playing 18 times in the Premier League last season, only Joe Willock (1.28) created more chances from open play per 90 minutes than the German (1.24).
It is not just in midfield where Arsenal are struggling, either. Arteta has come under recent criticism for playing his most prolific striker, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang on the wing to accommodate Lacazette, who has scored three league goals this season but also missed a number of big chances. Consequently, the Arsenal captain’s form has suffered – he only has one league goal in six games so far this season.
What this decision has also done is reduce the game time of Arsenal’s wingers. Record signing Nicolas Pepe has played only 204 minutes in the league this season, while Bukayo Saka, one of the squad’s most creative players, has struggled to secure a consistent starting spot. Even the form of new signing Willian, who provided three assists during the win at Fulham on the opening weekend, has seen his form decline.
With the reliance on Arsenal’s wide men to create the majority of chances, it seems strange for Arteta to offer just one starting spot to a natural winger. Pepe, although inconsistent, has proven to be a key creative player when on the pitch. Along with his 1.16 chances created from open play per game on average in the Premier League last season, no Arsenal player bettered his 0.36 big chances created during this period. Saka and Willian have also proven to be key creators and with Gabriel Martinelli close to a return, Arteta might be tempted to change his personnel in the attack.
Arsenal are already an improved side under Arteta. They are more organised, smarter, more physical and are managing games better. Yet their lack of creativity means that, until the manager can find a solution, their progress will be on pause.