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Soccer

Arsenal Has Fallen Off A Cliff, And There’s No Safety Net In Sight

Mikel Arteta, Manager of Arsenal reacts during the Premier League match between Tottenham Hotspur and Arsenal at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium on December 06, 2020
Glyn Kirk - Pool/Getty Images

It should come as no surprise when a poorly constructed roster with an inexperienced manager underperforms. But when it’s one of England’s lauded Big Six doing the bed-crapping—in this case 15th-placed Arsenal—it’s still worth a closer look.

Arsenal losing to league-leading Tottenham in the North London Derby this past weekend was no shock. What should raise eyebrows, though, is how thoroughly Arsenal has demonstrated that its current standing is no fluke. The problems on the red side of the capital have been brewing for a couple of seasons, and so far this campaign, the club has been in dire need of a savior that doesn’t appear to be on the way.

The biggest issue of the moment is that Arsenal’s attack, regardless of how beautifully their possession passing might be, is completely impotent. Against Tottenham, the Gunners had a whopping 70 percent possession. Yet they mustered only 11 shots, just two of them on target. On the other end, showing the importance of dead-eyed finishing, Tottenham converted its three shots on target into two goals, one each from its two star attackers.

It feels unfair to lay all the blame on one player—and the problems do go beyond him—but Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang was terrible, as he has been since signing a new contract this summer that will keep him in London until 2023. For the season, Aubameyang has just two goals and one assist in Premier League play. His shots have also dropped from 2.6 per game in his first two seasons in England to now just 1.8. The team has no hope of any real success if its star forward is producing so little.

While Aubameyang himself may be falling short in his performances, scoring is about more than just one player. And Arsenal does Auba no favors in the creativity department. This is in part because manager Mikel Arteta can’t seem to figure out how his team should play. On Sunday, he set the lads up in a 4-2-3-1, in which no one looked particularly comfortable. The lack of comfort too is no surprise, not when Arteta has flirted with multiple formations (4-3-3, 3-4-3) and individual roles (Auba centrally and on the left wing, Willian on both wings and through the middle, Bukayo Saka on both wings and as wing back and as central midfielder, etc.) without settling on a go-to setup. Experimentation can be good, but especially as a still-new coach in a condensed season without much time to implement ideas in training, varying gameplans as much as Arteta has runs the risk of not giving the players time to find their footing in any tactic or formation.

To his credit, Arteta took most of the blame for the Spurs loss, saying after that it was the gameplan he wanted, executed properly, that led to the defeat: “In terms of performance they did everything I asked them to do, absolutely everything. We played in a way that I believe we had to play this game.”

So, how does this get fixed? Short answer is that it can’t, at least not quickly enough to drive the Gunners into Champions League contention. The team is constructed in a way that allows it to flourish only if Aubameyang and his fellow attackers are creating and scoring; right now, neither is happening, as Aubameyang’s agent has (very unhelpfully) pointed out:

The Gunners are tied for last in the Premier League in chances created this season, and are now 16th in total shots. That simply won’t do. Worse still, there isn’t much hope for things to change significantly in the short or medium terms. The team lacks the talent to create and score at elite levels right now. You fix this by going out and signing better players. But the club also lacks the financial power to spend big on a slew of new signings, especially in light of how much money they’ve invested in older players like 31-year-old Aubameyang and 32-year-old Willian. What the club hoped would be two cornerstone signings are looking more and more like albatrosses that will make it harder for Arsenal to get back near the top of the league with them on the books.

Arsenal does have a whole lot of intriguing young, homegrown talent in its squad, and the Gunners’ future likely will depend on several of those players coming good. Plus, the defense has some studs in Gabriel and Kieran Tierney, the midfield looks pretty solid, and the team has shown a willingness to spend in recent years. So Arsenal’s forecast is not all rainclouds in perpetuity. Still, if optimistic Gooners thought Arteta, Aubameyang, and Willian meant sunshine right away, they have surely now realized that there are plenty of storms ahead.