On the surface Arsenal waters are calm. While the team left it until late, they ultimately managed to put a couple in the net and defeat Watford 2-0. Usually beating Watford would not be a notable achievement but given that Tottenham weren't able to pull it off, and that the Hornets started the day above Arsenal in the table, and the accomplishment becomes a little more impressive. The win was also Unai Emery’s fifth straight, after two opening defeats. Things seem to be looking up. Look a little deeper, however, and there’s deep cause for concern for the Gunners.
Let’s start by looking under the hood of that comfortable 2-0 win.
Well, that’s not great. The teams were mostly even until Watford took control of the match in the 67th minute with a flurry of activity. Arsenal managed to weather the storm, and then go ahead thanks to an own goal. But, what this clearly shows is that rather than Arsenal dominating the game and then finally pushing one past Watford, this match was a case of Arsenal hanging on, and then getting a fortunate bounce at the right time.
Other than the result, there wasn’t a lot for Arsenal to walk away from this match hanging their hat on. It wasn’t just the expected goal total of 1.95 to 1.34, but more prosaic measures as well. They were out shot 14-9. Arsenal managed just two shots on target to Watford’s five. Arsenal, as expected, dominated possession, completing 468 passes out of 591 attempted to Watford’s 232 out of 345. But those possession numbers are perfectly within acceptable ranges for Watford’s press and counter approach. And given the shot numbers, it’s clear the game was played stylistically in the manner Watford preferred. Even if Arsenal ended up sneaking out a win.
Now, individual games are not dispositive and there are always mitigating factors. Alexandre Lacazette was denied a penalty early on that could have changed the course of the game. If Arsenal was playing from ahead then maybe everything looks different. And it’s only one game, and one at the end of a winning streak at that. Maybe a broader look would mitigate the concerns raised by Watford.
Except that the broader look turns up lots of concerns for this Arsenal side. Arsenal are conceding an eye popping 1.50 expected goals per match. The only five teams with worse defensive numbers than Emery’s team are Brighton, Burnley, Fulham, Huddersfield, and West Ham. That’s bad for any Premier League side, let alone one that expects to challenge for the top four places. Their shot numbers are marginally better. They give up 14.14 per game, which is eight worst in the league. That puts that at 0.11 xG per shot conceded, the fourth worst total in the league. A defense that doesn’t suppress shots, and also allows good shots is not a good defense.
These problems aren’t new, of course. They’re the same problems that Arsenal had coming into the season, and ones that new manager Emery was tasked with fixing. He certainly hasn’t been able to yet. The team seems set on trying to play a highline, squeezing up the field and taking away opponents space.
The problem is, just like last season, this defensive approach simply isn’t working. Arsenal’s defensive and midfield personnel aren’t good enough to make the system work. The left side in particular is a major problem. Granit Xhaka is not nearly rangy enough in midfield, and his poor defensive instincts amplify his lack of mobility. Nacho Monreal has aged past the ability where he can comfortably defend in space. The motley crew of Arsenal center backs don't do enough to pick up the slack when faced with that much swiss cheese in front of them. And while Lucas Torreira may yet become a good defensive midfield linchpin, there’s only so much any mortal not named N’Golo Kante can do.
Faced with those defensive deficiencies, Arsenal would need to be an intergalactic level attacking juggernaut for the team to compete at a high level. They aren’t. They’re good, but not good enough given the handicap they’ve been saddled with. They’re averaging 1.41 expected goals per match, which is sixth in the league, just a shade behind Bournemouth for fifth. They don’t actually take a ton of shots, only 13 per match, but they do take efficient ones.
The good news for Arsenal is that despite the problems, they’ve won five in a row and 15 points puts them just about where they need to be, even on points with Tottenham for fourth place. Arsenal’s results have kept them in the mix, but if something doesn’t change, then those results won’t keep coming.
How can Arsenal fix themselves? The obvious answer is by upgrading their personnel at the back, but that can’t happen until January at the earliest, and more realistically next summer. Until then, the team needs to figure out how to change their game to give the back half of the field some help. One obvious possibility is simply dumping Granit Xhaka in favor of a more defensive option. But, it’s unclear if Arsenal have such an option available. Matteo Guendouzi is the obvious choice but at 19, his defending is very active, but not positionally sound. It’s not immediately clear he’d make the defense better.
Another option is playing more conservatively in attack. This is probably the path that can pay the most immediate dividends. When Arsenal attack they are extremely aggressive. Not only are they functionally playing with two strikers now that Pierre Emerick-Aubameyang and Lacazette are both starting, but they are also using the very aggressive movement of Aaron Ramsey and choosing to get both fullbacks involved to provide width. All of that thrust is then conducted by Mesut Ozil.
A slightly more conservative approach, making sure Monreal doesn’t overextend his ability to recover, and playing an actual winger on the left to protect him might help stabilize things. Or, rather than play Ramsey at the 10, play a truer stay at home midfielder, to be part of a central three, adding an extra body to clog the field, and trusting the top notch attacking talent to get it done anyway (and since Ramsey’s contract is running down, preparing for life without him makes even more sense).
Right now, Arsenal’s possession is predicated on scoring. They want to have the ball to use it to score goals. Then, if and when they’re ahead, they are happy to try and defend without the ball. It doesn’t go well. Instead, this team should be looking to be more conservative in possession. Keep the ball, maintain a more conservative shape in possession, use all those passers to kill off games by running teams ragged. Be boring.
The last lingering problem there is that a high dose of defensive possession means having a goalkeeper who can play the ball with his feet. Keeping the ball means when it goes back to the keeper it comes back out again as a pass, not as a 50/50 proposition. This was obviously not Petr Cech’s game. But, Cech went off injured against Watford. It’s now Bernd Leno’s time. He’s supposed to be more proficient with the ball. He better be, Arsenal’s season may depend on it.
Right now, despite the results they’ve managed to pull off, Arsenal simply aren’t working. They need to change what they’re doing if they’re going to make a real run at qualifying for the Champions League this season. They’ve still got time left to make that happen. But each passing week with the same old not good enough defence makes it less likely that the change will ever come. If it doesn’t happen soon, it probably won’t happen at all.
Header image courtesy of the Press Association