As Arsenal produced yet another impressive display under Mikel Arteta against Manchester United on Sunday, the notion that they have become their identity is now the opposite of that in the Arsenal Wenger years became a stronger one. Arteta has made his side extremely well organised and difficult to break down – an area that Arsenal have previously been found wanting. No team has conceded fewer goals (7) than them in the Premier League this season. It represents a major step forward.
Yet, ironically, the challenge for Arteta now comes against weaker teams, particularly at home. Due to the Spaniard’s rigid system and his reluctance to play more attacking formations, Arsenal have often struggled to break teams down that defend deep and leave little space in behind. In the Premier League this season, only Sheffield United, West Bromwich Albion and Crystal Palace are averaging fewer shots per game than the Gunners, while they also rank tenth for total big chances created (7) and 17th for the average number of key passes (6.4) per game, according to WhoScored.com. Nine league goals from seven games also emphasise their attacking struggles.
In-Form Willock Gives Arsenal Another Dimension
Willock a Midfield Boost
These issues largely stem from the set up of the midfield. Arteta often opts for a 3-4-3, with full-backs occupying the wide areas and two central midfielders responsible for providing discipline, control, and a relentless work ethic. Thomas Partey and Mohammed Elneny provided a masterclass in that department at Old Trafford, dominating the home side’s midfield and forming a reliable base for their side. The resurgence of the indefatigable Elneny, in particular, sums up how Arteta wants his side to set up.
Yet what Arteta’s system lacks is creativity. While it proves to be very effective away from home, especially against better sides, it remains slow and predictable when the onus is on Arsenal to force the pace. The Gunners boss has insisted that creativity comes from his wingers but when teams drop deep and leave little space in behind, his side looks short of answers. This is where a more creative midfielder comes in, yet with Mesut Ozil axed from the squad and Dani Ceballos occupying a deeper role, the Gunners are lacking in options.
That is where Joe Willock could soon come in. The 21-year-old produced another sparkling display against Molde in the Europa League on Thursday, playing a key part in Arsenal’s first two goals before netting himself in the closing stages with a fine run and finish. It backed up his impressive display against Dundalk in the same competition when he scored and provided an assist for Nicolas Pepe.
Although he is yet to feature in the Premier League this season, these performances in the Europa League have provided a good idea of what Willock brings to Arsenal. Not only is he full of energy, but he also provides a genuine goal threat from midfield with his bursting runs into the box and finds good positions from which he can influence attacks. It is no wonder people have drawn comparisons to former midfielder Aaron Ramsey, who earned a reputation as a goal-scoring midfielder.
As well as being a goalscorer, Willock can create, too. Despite playing only 838 minutes in the Premier League last season, the midfielder created more chances on average (1.28) than any other Arsenal player, according to Sky Sports. Against teams who give Arsenal very little space in behind, such traits could prove to be crucial.
Extra Attacking Temptation for Arteta
Aston Villa are expected to produce a similar game plan at the Emirates on Sunday. But will Arteta be tempted to change things up and give Willock the chance to liven up Arsenal’s attacks?
“I just think at the moment the thing that is going against him is the shape,” former Arsenal defender Martin Keown told BT Sport. “They want to play two with Elneny and Partey in that midfield. Then Arsenal play with a five and it looks like those two look strong enough to control that midfield. If he (Arteta) wants a third player and he wants to change that system again then Willock has to come into his thinking. Whereas before that, no. But I think now he’s played his way into that mindset for the manager.
“If he wants to change that system again to play three midfielders he’s got to be one of the first on the list. Arteta is trying to build a new culture and what better way to do it than with young players through the academy who understand what it means to be an Arsenal player to come through the system. We have to be able to work out a pathway for him (Willock) to be able to get into that first team. If he has to go out on loan then fair enough but for now he’s not far away from getting it right.”
Arteta’s blueprint on Arsenal is now consistently showing on the pitch. He has made his side hard to beat through organisation, discipline and tireless work off the ball. But if Arsenal are to become a top side, they will have to find a way to break down stubborn teams. The form of Willock now offers Arteta the chance to do that.
“Keep doing what he’s doing consistently, and his chance will arrive,” said the Arsenal manager of Willock after the 4-1 win against Molde. That chance may be just around the corner.