Not enough shots and not enough pressing: How far are Arsenal from what Mikel Arteta wants them to be?

Gunners haven’t yet lived up to the promise shown last season in the current campaign but there are reasons behind that

Miguel Delaney
Chief Football Writer
Friday 30 October 2020 09:55
Comments
Thomas Partey trains with the Arsenal squad

It was a moment that summed up one of the issues at Arsenal right now, and reflected a wider split in the Premier League.

As Mikel Arteta’s attackers suddenly broke, Willian’s natural instinct was to go with it, and explode forward. He is a player, after all, whose best moments have come from surges. Arsenal are a team, though, who don’t currently play like that. The Brazilian found himself having to check himself, and stay within his zone.

It was so much more controlled, and constrained. That’s probably the fairest description of Arteta’s football right now. Some have called it boring.

Either way, it certainly feels true to say that Arsenal haven’t really taken the next step from moments like the goals in last season’s FA Cup semi-final, the FA Cup win itself, or even the flowing play of the opening-day win over Fulham.

They haven’t yet lived up to expectation. It is likely to mean this Sunday’s match at Old Trafford won’t live up to expectation either.

The build-up has naturally been filled with all the famous images of raucous Manchester United-Arsenal games of the past but they bear about as much relevance to this as the 1979 FA Cup final. It’s another world.

This is set to be a cagy game, and that is because of Arteta rather than Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. While the Norwegian has often been cast as a counter-attacking manager, Arsenal’s recent stats are much more negative.

One is striking because of, well, the lack of striking.

Only Crystal Palace, Newcastle United and West Brom have had fewer shots than Arsenal so far this season. Arteta’s side have meanwhile had only one more shot on target than Brighton.

While it might be argued that this is one of those quirks that comes from a team learning a new system and looking to work the ball around the box but not yet being fully in tune, other figures indicate otherwise.

Arsenal are 17th in the league according to Opta’s ‘Passes Allowed Per Defensive Action’ - a stat that basically shows which clubs press a lot and which don’t. Again, only West Ham United, Newcastle and West Brom are behind them in that regard. Manchester United are fourth, behind Liverpool, Brighton and Leeds United.

While it is entirely predictable that a Marcelo Bielsa side are top of that, it is surprising Arsenal are so low given Arteta’s stated ideals, and the fact he is supposed to be part of that lineage: a disciple of Pep Guardiola, who in turn is a disciple of Bielsa.

The reality is you wouldn’t see the Manchester City manager play in such a withdrawn way, or with an approach that produces such numbers.

Arteta’s Arsenal have appeared cautious so far this season

The response from many around Arsenal is that you wouldn’t see Guardiola with a squad so limited. Many insist this is part of the rationale.

There is admittedly a wider context to what Arteta is trying, which ties into one of the defining themes of the Premier League season so far. Arsenal are yet another side struggling for balance between defence and attack, trying to find an equilibrium in a campaign that has been so off-kilter.

The Basque has just decided to lean towards the back, rather than the front.

If this seems to go against his principles, many around the club say it is about putting in the foundation for them, and increase a deeper confidence among the squad.

“Confidence”, after all, is a word that Arteta uses a lot. He feels it first comes from solidity.

The danger with Arsenal’s disparate talents up front is they can’t yet execute the approach he wants, which would just leave them exposed if he emphasised the attack.

The frustratingly talented Nicolas Pepe is almost a case in point, since the feeling is he isn’t yet “plugging in” to what Arteta wants. He is just one of a few.

Most damagingly, opposition defences have learned to try and shuttle Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang out to areas where he can’t do the same level of damage, greatly subduing a lot of Arsenal’s attacking threat. They thereby become dependent on wide attackers who know exactly when to cut in.

This is also where Arteta’s wider approach is so relevant, and Willian’s recent comments so pointed.

“The positional game doesn’t mean that you have no freedom on the pitch,” the Brazilian said this week. “You have the freedom to move, but many times you have to respect the position, what the coach asks, the instructions, understanding that it’ll be better for the team. It may happen you don’t touch the ball and get frustrated, but Mikel always says ‘wait, the ball will arrive’. I’ve been learning a lot.”

That is what it is ultimately about: learning.

The ideal is that players eventually know their position and role so well that they execute it instinctively, performing at a pace that opposition sides can’t live with.

In that sense, the principles are probably closer to Mauricio Pochettino’s interpretation of the approach than Guardiola’s.

It just isn’t yet ingrained in this squad. Until Arteta has that deeper understanding - and, possibly, more players capable of executing it - he will lean towards underlaying the team with solidity.

It is a more cautious approach and means that, rather than fully convincing displays, Arsenal are likely for some time to be a team of moments.

This weekend get a £10 free bet with Betfair, when you bet £10 on a Same Game Multi on the Premier League. Terms: Min £10 Same Game Multi bet on any EPL match this Fri - Sun. Free bet valid for 72 hours, awarded at bet settlement. Excludes cashed out bets. T&Cs apply.

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Please enter a valid email
Please enter a valid email
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Please enter your first name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
Please enter your last name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
You must be over 18 years old to register
You must be over 18 years old to register
Opt-out-policy
You can opt-out at any time by signing in to your account to manage your preferences. Each email has a link to unsubscribe.

By clicking ‘Create my account’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

Comments

Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in