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Will Arsenal Turn it Around?
Where they’ve made progress, and where they still need some help.
Have Mikel Arteta’s Arsenal actually turned a corner?
Obviously they’ve won four of the last five league games, so there are those of you screaming “no shit, sherlock” at me right now. And yes, that is quite good. While beating Newcastle, West Brom and Brighton might not really shock anyone, these are exactly the kinds of wins the Gunners weren’t picking up previously. And under the hood, the numbers look good, too. Even when results looked good, the data has been very sceptical of Arteta. Until now?
Especially in this five game spurt, Arsenal have played well. They’ve generated 9.9 expected goals and conceded 4.7. That’s good! For the first time in what feels like forever, Arsenal have finally been taking a good volume of shots, at 15.6 per game during this mini-run. It’s a very small sample size, and it’s surely not going to stay this good, but it’s a big positive.
Let’s take it as true that these improvements are real, but there’s a lot more work to be done. What do they have to work with now?
All stats are from Football Reference using data from StatsBomb unless otherwise stated.
Bernd Leno has been one of the few consistent positives of the post-Arsene Wenger era, so we don’t need to think about the goalkeeper too much. Maty Ryan has arrived, but he’s probably not getting off the bench too often. That’s sorted, so we can move on. In front of him, the recent shift has been to a back four, but it tends to become a three in possession anyway, through one way or another. Against Newcastle, the moment they kicked off they immediately had Kieran Tierney push up to leave three defenders back.
But then, within two minutes, they switched it up. This time, Cedric Soares went forward as well, and Granit Xhaka dropped in as a left sided centre back.
Arsenal are deliberately fluid about these patterns, looking to have players interchange as they shift between four and three man defences in and out of possession. It’s a big part of their buildup play, and something Arteta shares with Pep Guardiola, but also creates obvious squad profile issues. Sokratis Papastathopoulos just had his contract terminated, and one wonders if part of the issue is his usefulness in this kind of fluid ball-playing role.
It’s looked like Arteta’s preferred centre back partnership is Rob Holding and Gabriel Magalhaes, with David Luiz filling in recently for the latter and Pablo Mari as fourth choice. This isn’t exactly an incredible group anyway, but with Luiz’ contract expiring in the summer, they should obviously be signing someone who can defend ably while also interchanging positions and showing comfort on the ball. It’s a hard position to find top players for, though, and for the first time in a while, Arsenal perhaps should wait another year if they can’t find a centre back they really like on the market this summer.
Full back is probably the role that changes most with the system switch, but it’s one that isn’t too much of an issue for Arsenal. Hector Bellerin might not ever become the player many hoped he would become, but he’s still solid enough with limitations. Kieran Tierney meanwhile has been outstanding when fit, but those niggles have existed throughout his career. Fortunately Arsenal do have options. Bukayo Saka has been pushed higher up the pitch, but could fill in at left back whenever, and the same can be said of Ainsley Maitland-Niles on the opposite side.
It’s midfield where we might be seeing the most positive turnaround. Thomas Partey is finally fit and really looks the part, but in a different way than many were perhaps expecting. He’s Arsenal’s second most active player for tackles and interceptions per 90, so that side of his game is as we’d want to see. But it’s when he has the ball at this feet where things get interesting. He leads the team in both progressive passes and progressive carries. Partey does his best football as the more advanced player in a double pivot, moving the ball forward through the centre of the pitch and linking things together. Arsenal fans maybe didn’t think they were getting a better Dani Ceballos in Partey, but that’s what he does, and he’s damn good at it. Granit Xhaka next to him might not be everyone’s favourite player, but it’s a really well balanced partnership, all things considered.
Probably the most divisive tactical choice Arteta has made at Arsenal has been to consistently use Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang from the left flank, most often but not always with Alexandre Lacazette as the centre forward. The idea has always been clear: Aubameyang comes inside from the left flank and gets to arrive in an open pocket of space to put away tap ins. That’s exactly what you want him doing. But it’s often felt overthought, seeming like an elaborate rube goldberg machine to overengineer the solution when there’s the more obvious way of just playing him as the striker.
Part of the problem has been how little Arsenal create. It’s all well and good having Aubameyang come inside to be available for good chances, but if you never work those situations, it’s a waste of everyone’s time. Arteta had so little creativity in his attack that it seemed almost impossible to to this, but there have been signs of improvement. Emile Smith-Rowe has looked bright in his small amount of minutes, offering much more fluidity in the final third. A combination of Saka, Smith-Rowe and Aubameyang behind Lacazette is closer to the right blend than we’ve seen previously.
At least in the short term, Arsenal look like getting exactly the profile of player they need with Martin Odegaard. Well, thanks to the graph that Jose Perez produced, let’s just say he moves the ball into dangerous areas a lot. Messi always breaks these La Liga charts, but we’re talking about one of the most effective ball progressors in Spain last year. Odegaard is only a short term loan, and if this spell goes well, bringing him back next season should be a financial top priority. He’s the exact profile the team lacks.
Add in Odegaard and Arsenal’s team looks... coherent? It makes sense? This is probably the first time in a little while that I’ve looked at Arsenal as a side where progress might be happening. It’s not a case of turning things on and off, but there might, finally, be reasons for optimism at the Emirates.