On paper, Arsenal boast a whole wealth of attacking options within their squad, yet curiously they have struggled for form in front of goal in the league so far this season. While it may be simplistic to point towards profligate finishing in front of goal, is the root cause of the problem to do with the supply line further back?
The side bounced back from their recent back-to-back defeats to Norwich and Schalke in quite spectacular fashion, winning 7-5 against Reading in the Capital One Cup after a lacklustre and somewhat fortuitous win over ten-man QPR at home the game before.
Assistant manager Steve Bould said in the aftermath of the team’s defeat to the German club: “We lack a bit of confidence for whatever reason. We looked jaded. Coming off the international break we haven’t performed. With the ball, we lack a bit of a confidence. We normally create chances and we are not, so we need to correct that. I’m sure we will perform a damn sight better next time.”
Meanwhile, manager Arsene Wenger echoed his assistant’s thought at the club’s AGM last week, offering: “At West Ham, we looked outstanding going forwards, dynamic and then suddenly had two flat performances. It is difficult to explain. We have hit the wall a little bit in the last two games, and just did not find our rhythm. But we have to just focus again on the quality of our game, the way we want to play, and not concede too much against who we play. With the quality (we have), the results will come back.”
Trying to take anything away from the truly bonkers game we were treated to at The Madejski Stadium is difficult, given the sheer amount of defensive howlers on show, yet they looked a totally different outfit going forward than the one which faced off against QPR, where they were often ponderous and kept banging their heads against that ‘wall’ Wenger talked about. So why exactly have they gone off the boil, in the league at least?
In their nine league games so far this term, Arsenal have scored 14 goals and drawn a blank in three games, a third of their fixtures so far, against Stoke, Sunderland and Norwich and six of those goals came in one game against Southampton. By contrast, their rivals for a top four spot, Tottenham, have scored in every single game so far, while Everton, Manchester City, Manchester United and Chelsea have all looked far more dangerous going forward and on a more consistent basis.
The form of Spaniard Santi Cazorla, instrumental in the team’s best play this term since joining in the summer, would appear to be a large part of that and he hasn’t looked quite the same player since the international break. The knock-on effect that this has had was surely felt in the defeats to Norwich and Schalke where the side mustered just four shots on target in total.
Attributing this blip in form to the loss of Robin van Persie is a substantive point, but at the same time a rather simplistic one. Any side will miss the presence of a world-class striker who scores so heavily and awards won’t be handed out to those making this extremely obvious observation, but Arsenal do lack a consistent focal point at the moment to their attacks.
Gervinho is frustratingly inconsistent, Olivier Giroud has struggled for form since his summer move from Montpellier and Lukas Podolski, while he has enjoyed a steady start will always struggle to fill the van Persie-shaped hole in the side. Replacing 30 goals, particularly in Giroud’s and Podolski’s first seasons in a new league, was always going to be a tough ask, but given his success in a central role last term for Koln, it’s something of a surprise that the Germany international hasn’t at least been given an opportunity to audition for the long striker role so far.
Another loss is Alex Song; the part-time holding midfielder with a positional awareness almost bordering on the wilfully negligent. However, he still managed to carve out a reputation for himself as creator-in-chief in Jack Wilshere’s absence last season, setting up 11 league goals, seven of which van Persie was the welcome recipient of. It’s partnerships like this, and the one the Dutchman shared with Theo Walcott last year, which have been missed all over the pitch.
The rate of turnover was best exemplified by Wilshere’s quote after his first game in 542 days against Mark Hughes’ side: “Last time I played it was with [Cesc] Fabregas and [Samir] Nasri – now it’s with Arteta and [Santi] Cazorla. It’s like a new team and it’s a new me.” Arsenal are still finding their feet, particularly in attacking areas and they’ve missed the 20-year-old technician hugely, while the result of Song’s sale has seen Arteta occupy an altogether deeper, more reserved role this season in front of the back four.
Arsenal’s lack of threat from set-pieces also appears to be costing them dearly and they’ve scored just twice in this way so far this campaign, while their top four rivals Manchester City (7), Manchester United (8), Chelsea (7) and Everton (6) have all made much more of an impact in that respect.
When it comes to shooting accuracy, Arsenal hover around the respectable 33% mark, comparable with City’s 36%, Chelsea’s 38% and Tottenham’s 35%, yet United stand out as particularly clinical with van Persie leading the line on 41% and that surely cannot be a coincidence.
While it may be a stupendously basic point to make, Arsenal are still feeling the effects of van Persie’s departure, not only in terms of finishing off attacks, but in creating them, with the Dutchman having set up the superb total of 10 league goals himself last term. With partnerships still developing all over the pitch and injuries playing a part in stopping Wilshere and Abou Diaby being as influential as Wenger would like, then it’s no surprise that they are struggling in front of goal.
The cup win against Reading was like a release of pent-up frustration in a game devoid of consequence, with both teams playing with a reckless attacking spirit, but it will be interesting to see which Arsenal turns up for their game against United at Old Trafford this weekend and whether a van Persie-less side can buck their recent trend in terms of a failure to perform under pressure in front of goal. Patience is required and they will get better as the season progresses but the rot must be stopped and the quicker that the much-talked about ‘wall’ is broken through for good and on a consistent basis, the better their chances of finishing in the top four will be.
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