Arsenal’s unbeaten start to the Premier League season came to an end at Newcastle on Saturday, with the post-match discussion dominated by VAR, fuelled by Mikel Arteta’s comments and the club’s subsequent statement on Sunday.
While most would agree that Newcastle’s goal could have been disallowed, the 1-0 defeat at St James’ Park was the latest fixture in which Arsenal had lacked a cutting edge in front of goal, mustering just a solitary shot on target, ending up with an xG figure of 0.62.
So are the Gunners struggling in front of goal on a more macro-level and if so why?
Injuries continue to hamper Arsenal’s progress
Right now, ahead of Wednesday’s clash with Sevilla, the Gunners are without long-term absentees Jurriën Timber and Thomas Partey as well as, more pertinently to this discussion, Emile Smith Rowe, Martin Ødegaard and Gabriel Jesus.
Smith Rowe ended his 530-day wait for a Premier League start against Sheffield United, but suffered an ankle injury which’ll keep him out for around six weeks, another in a long line of set-backs for him.
Meanwhile, Ødegaard’s absence from the matchday squad at St James’ came as a big surprise.
He’d been on the bench for the previous two games, continuing to nurse an injury, but did not travel to Tyneside due to an unrelated issue, struck in the head by a stray ball in training on Friday, suffering a concussion that’ll also see him miss the matches against Sevilla and Burnley.
Lastly, Jesus continues to only be intermittently available, featuring for 625 minutes so far this season, which is only 40% of Arsenal’s total.
He, Gabriel Martinelli and Bukayo Saka, the first-choice front three, have been on the field together for only 163 minutes, their only starts as a trio coming at Stamford Bridge and the Ramón Sánchez Pizjuán three days later.
In the absence of the first-choice players, Fábio Vieira and Eddie Nketiah have, in moments, come to the fore this season, although the same cannot yet be said of Kai Havertz, who’ll get more chances this week.
Analysing Arsenal’s attacking numbers
On the face of it, Arsenal don’t particularly have a major issue in front of goal, with Saturday’s defeat the first time in 17 matches across all competition in which they’ve failed to score.
However, their 23 goals after 11 Premier League matches is the joint-lowest in the top seven, alongside Spurs, with a whopping 39% of these coming in the emphatic victories over Bournemouth and Sheffield United.
The Gunners have had 152 shots in the league so far, a figure bettered by eight teams, including Everton and Brentford, also ranking ninth for shots on target with 49.
They’ve also been awarded six penalties so far, scoring them all, which is at least two more than anyone else.
Thus, it’s worth analysing Arsenal’s non-penalty xG figure of 14.7, which ranks 11th in the division.
Last season, their non-penalty xG per 90 minutes figure was 1.82, with this dropping substantially to 1.34, albeit after a much smaller sample size.
So why might this be the case?
Given how impressive the Gunners were last season, teams are defending deeper against them, limiting transition opportunities in which Martinelli and Saka thrive.
Given that, set-pieces become all the more important, something Mikel Arteta himself has spoken about, with his team scoring 15 times from dead-ball situations last season, a figure only bettered by Liverpool, Manchester City and specialists in this regard Brentford.
So far this time round, the gluttony of spot-kicks aside, they’ve continued at a similar rate, enjoying five set-piece goals: Rice vs Man United, Trossard at Everton, Ben White at Bournemouth and both Nketiah and Tomiyasu vs Sheffield United.
Against Newcastle however, this felt like the Gunners’ most-likely route to goal but, after coming on, Trossard took a number of corners, all of which lacked quality, much to the annoyance of Nicolas Jover on the sidelines.
On a different note, last season, Arsenal broke the deadlock inside the first 20 minutes on 16 separate occasions, thereby changing the game-state, opening the game up and forcing the opponents to be more attack-minded.
So far this season, only at Bournemouth have they scored inside the first 25 minutes in the league, with 16 of their 23 goals (69.57%) coming after the interval.
Has Mikel Arteta purposefully made Arsenal more defensive?
On top of that, the main reason for Arsenal’s downturn in goals appears to be a change in approach from Mikel Arteta.
Last season’s title bid was built upon a foundation of chaos, with 17 of Arsenal’s matches seeing both teams score four or more goals, a ridiculously high proportion.
Back to the advanced metrics; the Gunners xG against per 90 last season was 1.11, significantly higher than Manchester City’s 0.84.
Now, that 1.11 has fallen significantly to 0.81, much closer to the leaders in this ranking, also Man City, who stand at 0.74.
Arsenal rank second for goals conceded (9), first for shots on target faced (21) and joint-first for non-penalty xG faced (8.1).
This makes it clear that Arteta has prioritised defensive solidity and control, learning from April and May’s madcap conclusion to the last campaign.
At the weekend, he deployed a back four of centre-backs, with Takehiro Tomiyasu chosen over Oleksandr Zinchenko at centre-back, while William Saliba and Declan Rice were both absolutely immense.
Jurriën Timber, a right-footed centre-back who arrived in the summer, made both of his appearances at left-back, before suffering a heartbreaking ACL injury against Nottingham Forest in August.
Arteta has infamously also changed goalkeeper, attempting to move away from the chaos and focus on clean sheets, epitomised by how much he enjoyed the 1-0 victory at Selhurst Park in the interview embedded above.
The win over Man City, which appears to be the blue-print for big games, was cagey and low on chances, with both teams producing a combined xG figure of 1.07
That’s one of four 1-0 victories that Gunners have enjoyed but, right now, they’ve not quite found the balance yet, with supporters hoping this’ll come with time.
With a gentler set of fixtures coming up, ahead of facing Aston Villa (A), Brighton (H) and Liverpool (A) in the run up to Christmas, now is the time for Arsenal to rediscover their scoring touch.