At the time of writing, Arsenal’s 19/20 season is going down as one of their worst seasons in over two decades with their lowest finish in the Premier League looks to be a reality. Which begs the question on every Arsenal fan’s mind.
How did Arsenal become this rubbish?
There can be many factors contributing to the club’s steep decline in recent years. This can range from the lack of investment when the team were on the up to poor handling of contracts from the previous executive. We’ll put that to one side and focus on the on pitch issues that are causing Arsenal to be as poor as they currently are, namely The Midfield.
Arsenal’s ‘Invincible’ Midfield
During the club’s more successful periods, Arsene Wenger relied on a combination of technique and physicality with Patrick Vieira and Gilberto Silva forming a formidable partnership in the middle of the park. One would screen and the other would be tasked with impacting both ends of the pitch.
It made Arsenal difficult to play against while at the same time, gave them the technical advantage to find their forwards in Freddie Ljungberg, Dennis Bergkamp, Robert Pires and ofcourse Thierry Henry in dangerous positions. The midfield was fluid, no player was tasked to just one confined space and the responsibilities across the middle of the park were shared.
It ended with the Gunners being crowned Invincibles, becoming the first team in English football to win a league title without losing a single game. A record that is still held by the North London club 16 years later. Although the defenders played their part, It was the midfield which formed the base for Arsenal to play both sides of the game: Creative and Dirty.
Midfield Dynamic Changed
Arsene Wenger felt that the next generation of Arsenal midfield would have to be nimble, creative and excel in technical quality. Which provided players like Cesc Fabregas, Samir Nasri, Tomas Rosicky, Jack Wilshere, Aaron Ramsey, Santi Cazorla and Mesut Ozil to take Arsenal into the new era. But in doing so, Arsenal lost their cutting edge in the dirty side of the game. This earned them the reputation of being ‘soft’ which in the opposition’s mind meant kick them off the pitch.
Which weirdly worked most of the time, and didn’t allow the Gunners to compete at the highest level.
Yet they were ever-present in the top 4 and consistently played in the Champions League regularly against the top sides, boasting great creative numbers and performances that Arsenal fans will fondly remember such as the win against AC Milan at the San Siro, with Cesc Fabregas shining.
What Went Wrong
The reason we mentioned the two past dynamics before, is to showcase what the current midfield lacks which the previous ones excelled at. Arsenal’s 19/20 midfield are unable to dominate games, nor are they able to control games easily. They have what we like to call fairytale midfielders.
These midfielders need the right system, the right environment, and the right opponents to contribute to anything that Arsenal do in the middle of the park. Below is a chart showcasing the number of key passes per 90 from the Arsenal midfielders (average is 0.94)
In contrast, Kevin de Bruyne has made 3.99 key passes per 90 while even Emi Buendia of now relegated Norwich City had 3.02 key passes per 90. This shows the lack of creativity that Arsenal’s midfield has with Mesut Ozil, who has slowly declined at Arsenal only able to muster around 2.26 key passes, the highest in the squad.
If we’re going by raw goals and assists numbers, it doesn’t make for pretty reading either. The table below showcases G/A for each midfielder in all competitions
So Arsenal’s midfield in the 19/20 season contributed to a total of 17 Goals and Assists in all competitions. This is a damning indictment of where Arsenal are as a club in terms of creativity. There was a time when the club used to hoard no.10s constantly, now they’ve started hoarding deep midfielders.
According to FBref, which defines GCA (Goal Creating-Actions) as actions that lead to goals such as dribbling, passes or drawing fouls here’s how every midfielder at the club ranks
Play Styles a Hinderance
Another major flaw that the midfield has even in deeper areas is, as we mentioned, their tendency to be fairytale players. Let’s take Xhaka for example, despite his improvement under new coach Mikel Arteta the Swiss international still has too many flaws in regards to how he plays which makes it difficult for us to see Mikel Arteta persisting with him long term.
Unless the ball isn’t passed to him at the perfect weight, angle, and speed he’s unable to control and release quick enough for Arsenal’s attackers to take advantage. By the time Xhaka has the ball on his favored left foot, he’s either being pressed into passing the ball pack or he passes towards the wide players with the opposition already prepared to press the forwards which forces them back.
Lucas Torreira himself is guilty of this, so far at Arsenal, he has been unable to show is an astute passing ability which he had been able to showcase with Sampdoria. Although his defensive numbers are impressive, he hasn’t been able to show any industry with his passes and his lack of athleticism means he’s found it tough covering the ground when defending large areas.
Matteo Guendouzi‘s habit of switching off at critical times combined with his attitude issues has pushed him further down the pecking order. Although he is one of the few midfielders in the squad who are capable of driving with the ball into the opposition half. But again, the young Frenchman isn’t astute enough in the final third to make that position his own and like Xhaka, takes too long to play the passes into forwards in dangerous areas.
With the introduction of the new modern attacking midfielders such as Kevin de Bruyne combined with Mesut Ozil’s obvious decline, the German has seen a steep decline in his game time and his output. According to Understat, from seasons 2014 to 2018 Mesut Ozil was a creative force to be reckoned with:
In the last two seasons, the German has fallen off a cliff, not creating nearly the same amount of chances while losing his pace, agility, and drive that he had in his prime.
Most Arsenal fans would look at the numbers and immediately want creative midfielders to fill in that gap. We feel a little different, from what we’ve seen of Arsenal this season, their deeper midfielders are just as big a problem as their creativity. Mikel Arteta has rightly identified Thomas Partey as a possible solution due to the Ghanaian ability to play not only multiple positions but dribble out of the press.
He would be able to do the same job that both Xhaka and Ceballos do, allowing the club to focus on the other two positions in midfield on attacking reinforcements. Replacing those deep midfielders with attack-minded options will help the club create and score more goals while someone of Thomas Partey’s mold would play these midfielders between lines and cover for the back 4.
Arsenal will have difficulty maneuvering through a COVID-19 affected transfer window. But if there’s one area that Mikel Arteta’s side needs to work on in the transfer market its the midfield.
Just improving that will help Arsenal mount a proper challenge for the top 4 spot next season and can help Arsenal be less rubbish than they currently are. It’s a damning indictment of a club of their statture to be where they are, and investment MUST be provided to help the club get back to competing for top honors again.