Football Features

What’s going wrong with Arsenal this season?

By Muhammad Butt

Published: 12:48, 1 December 2020

“They still have enough to stay up I think, they’ll still be strong enough to stay in the division.”

Those were the words of Roy Keane after Arsenal’s 1-2 home defeat to Wolves left them 14th, equidistant between Spurs atop the table and Burnley in 18th. Eight points from glory, eight from misery. And Burnley have a game in-hand on them so they could be end up being just seven points off relegation if the Clarets draw or win (thus moving West Brom into the bottom three).

Of course, Keane’s jibe was a playful dig at a club he had so many battles with over the course of his career when both sides were at the very top of the game, but there is a material reality that has to be acknowledged here: Arsenal are 14th.

They’re not an illusory 14th thanks to a delayed start and games in-hand, like the two Manchester clubs. They don’t have the excuse that their late runs in Europe last season impacted the way they started this campaign. They’re 14th with more defeats (5) than wins (4) and a negative goal difference.

So, just what is wrong with Arsenal?

*Odds correct as of 12:45 on 01/12/2020. You have to be 18+ and GambleAware to sign up to SBK.

Well, to put it in very simple terms: they don’t score enough goals. In fact, they have just 10 all season in the Premier League, with only the bottom four clubs (who all have single-digit points totals) having scored less.

Gabriel’s recent goal against Wolves, his second of the campaign, made him Arsenal’s second-highest scorer in the league. Only Alexandre Lacazette has more, and he’s only got three goals. Only six players have scored in total.

Their lack of goals can be put down to their lack of shots. They’ve taken just 95 all season, which sees them placed 14th in the division. Similarly, they rank 16th for shots on target (32).

When you consider chances created (aka passes that end in shots) it gets even worse, as Arsenal have created just 65, which is 17th among all Premier League sides. So, they’re not having pot-shots and they’re not fashioning chances either. At least, not at a rate that a side which has Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang up-front should do.

But then the captain is the biggest part of the problem.

SBK percentage odds for Premier League top-four finish:

  • Man City: 90.09%
  • Liverpool: 89.29%
  • Chelsea: 68.97%
  • Spurs: 64.52%
  • Man Utd: 36.50%
  • Arsenal: 11.11%

Not in the “which position should he play?” kind of way (there are pros and cons of playing him both up-front and left-wing) but in the sense that Aubameyang simply isn’t scoring goals anymore.

The Gabon international has scored consistently since the moment he arrived in England. He bagged 10 in 13 appearances during his first half-season, then 22 in 36 in both his first and second full seasons (sharing the Golden Boot in the former). He only went more than three games without a goal once, and that was the first four games after the Premier League’s hiatus earlier this year.

He was such a dynamic presence for Arsenal last season, especially as they improbably won the FA Cup. The striker bagged a brace in the semi-final win over Manchester City and then struck twice against Chelsea in the final too. He even opened this season in the same kind of form, scoring a beauty to beat Liverpool in the Community Shield and then notching on the opening day against Fulham. All seemed to be well, so what changed?

Well, all summer the raging issue for Arsenal, almost more than any new signings, was whether Aubameyang would renew his contract with Arsenal or not. “Pierre sign the ting” became the meme, and who could argue with Arsenal’s desperation? Aubemeyang had been a proven quantity for the Gunners, was their captain and, despite his age, a key part of Mikel Arteta’s plans.

Then, three days after the opening day win against Fulham, Pierre did indeed sign the ting, committing his future to Arsenal. Since then, he has taken 15 shots, hitting the target 6 times and scoring just that lone penalty.

Looking at it per-90, since he signed the ting, Aubameyang has taken 1.67 shots per-90, hitting the target 0.67 times and scoring just 0.11 goals. Compare this to last season when he was taking 2.67 shots per-90, hitting the target 1.2 times (and scoring 0.63 goals).

It’s a notable and dramatic fall-off and the thing is, there’s little that has changed to cause it. Obviously, Arsenal are a side who struggle with creativity, but that was the case last season as well and Aubameyang still managed to get his shots off.

Looking at these images below showing his passes received and movements and you can see that things are roughly the same across both seasons, albeit Arsenal as a whole seem more committed to the 3-4-2-1 this season than last year, when they would play 4-2-3-1 too. He sees the ball in the same space and makes the same movements.

So, where have the shots gone?

Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s passes received and movements from 2019/20 (above)

Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s passes received and movements from 2020/21

Well, the brutal truth is the shots should have never been there in the first place.

In 2019/20, Arsenal created 299 chances in the Premier League. They had 406 shots, with 151 being on target resulting in 56 goals. Those numbers sound impressive but consider that this is over an entire season. In 2019/20, Arsenal ranked 15th for chances created, 15th for shots, 10th for shots on target and seventh for goals. So, the first two metrics were about the same as they are this season, but the last two — the two that result from the former — were much higher.

The word you’re looking for right now is unsustainable.

SBK percentage odds for a Premier League golden boot winner:

  1. Harry Kane: 17.24%
  2. Mohamed Salah: 16.95%
  3. Jamie Vardy: 12.82%
  4. Dominic Calvert-Lewin: 11.90%
  5. Timo Werner: 8.00%
  6. Sergio Aguero: 6.25%
  7. Sadio Mane: 2.50%
  8. Bruno Fernandes: 2.38%
  9. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang 2.27%
  10. Raheem Sterling: 2.00%

The problem with Arsenal is that they aren’t a creative side, but this has been the case for a long time, it’s just no one noticed until now because Aubameyang was donning his Black Panther mask and performing heroics; taking superb shots from average chances, or just creating his own shots, and finishing with unerring accuracy. And this lifted and inspired other Arsenal players to do the same.

So, Arsenal scored a bunch of goals and flew up the table, and drove to a huge FA Cup win. But now Aubameyang isn’t playing hero-ball anymore (why is anyone’s guess but signing a big fat new contract and having a secure future is bound to take the edge off) so Arsenal’s fundamentally uncreative style of play is bearing the fruit it has been growing for a long, long while.

Arteta clearly wants Arsenal to be a tougher defensive side than their usual reputation as a bunch of lightweights. And sure, 12 goals conceded in 2020/21 isn’t that bad; it’s the same as fourth-place Leicester and only six clubs have shipped less.

The issue is that by focusing on the team’s defensive solidity, he’s neglected to foster the sheer creativity needed to score in the Premier League. And because they’re not scoring goals, more and more pressure is being heaped onto their defence, which means they end up conceding (and losing) anyway, thus defeating the point of playing defensively in the first place!

It’s hard to see what Arteta could do to rectify this situati0n before January, but once the transfer and registration window opens, the first thing to do would probably be to bring the ceaselessly creative Mesut Ozil back into the fold. Or at least sell him and sign a creative playmaker that Arteta is happy to work with.

The potential for Arsenal to be great under Arteta is very clear, they just need to find and embrace creative playmakers who can carry the ball up the field and provide the likes of Aubameyang with chances. In short, they need to assemble around their captain like the Avengers did at the end of their battle with Thanos — rather than expecting him to consistently carry them to glory by himself.

Even superheroes need help sometimes!

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