Ian Wright. Dennis Bergkamp. Thierry Henry. Robin van Persie. Alexis Sanchez. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. Never in Premier League history have Arsenal been lacking great attackers but they certainly are sorely lacking an attack.
Not since the opening day of the season, when they carved open a feeble Fulham side, have the Gunners attacked with any swagger and time after time it has cost them points.
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When Mikel Arteta took over as coach after Unai Emery’s shambolic reign last December, his first port of call was to shore up the defence he inherited. And he has largely done so.
When Arsenal have come across teams comfortably better than them, they look far more organised and capable of nicking results by sitting deep, defending with commitment and using the pace of the likes of Aubameyang, Nicolas Pepe and Bukayo Saka to hit teams on the counter.
It was a formula that allowed them to bundle their way through the worst season they have suffered in a generation with some promise for the future and even claim the FA Cup. It bought Arteta considerable credit.
But, after a summer transfer window in which the north Londoners were able to strengthen their team, it was largely hoped that the handbrake – to borrow a phrase from Arsene Wenger – would come off and Arsenal would be able to unleash their considerable attacking talents on opponents, with Arteta putting what he learned from the Frenchman and Pep Guardiola to good use.
It simply hasn’t happened. Arsenal have limped past a West Ham team who, at the time of their visit to the Emirates, were making an appalling start to the season, with many players in mutiny, and Sheffield United, who have since gone on to win a solitary point from their first nine games and look destined for drop.
But while they were previously able to dig themselves out of trouble, the last two months of Premier League engagements have been woeful, with the Gunners now just four minutes from going a full eight hours without a goal from open play. Their win at Manchester United, courtesy of an Aubameyang penalty, an oasis in a desert of drab football.
More worryingly still, the defensive stability which had been the bright spot of the Arteta era, is vanishing fast. Prior to the November international break, the Gunners suffered a humiliating, and completely deserved 3-0 loss to Aston Villa, in which they were carved open at will by the likes of Jack Grealish and Ollie Watkins.
And on Sunday, they were comprehensively outplayed by Leeds United, who can count themselves highly unlucky to have been held to a 0-0 draw after hitting the woodwork three times and having a total of 25 shots. It was a clean sheet with an asterisk.
Arsenal’s run has been characterised by ponderous passing in midfield. When teams sit in, they seem unable to find a way to break them down, passing sideways and barely attempting, let alone looking capable of, creating any chances. When teams look to get at them, they are easily overwhelmed, outmuscled and outclassed by hungrier opponents.
The stats make for woeful reading. Arsenal have mustered nine goals in their first nine games, their worst tally since 1986-87. They have just nine points, the lowest since 1994-95.
Even after a more cautious approach was adopted last season, they had Aubameyang to rescue them. The stout defensive performances against Manchester City and Chelsea in the FA Cup would have been worthless without the Gabonese forward, who scored twice in each match.
But this term he is an ever-more peripheral figure. Stranded on the left flank for much of the season, Arsenal’s best chances seem to be falling to Alex Lacazette, himself in a woeful run of form himself in front of goal.
So where will Arsenal’s creativity come from? Pepe continues to be frustratingly inconsistent. He can run at defenders with menace and look a constant threat one week, then look like a lost child the next. Handed a chance to stake his claim for a regular starting spot at Elland Road on Sunday, he was on the fringes of the encounter prior to getting a red card for head-butting an opponent.
Willian looks like an ever-more baffling signing. The veteran Brazilian ran the show as Arsenal ran riot at Fulham but has become ever-more ineffectual since. Too much of the creative burden is falling on the young shoulders of Saka, who is in his first full season as a first-team regular.
Arteta’s decision to freeze out Mesut Ozil is becoming more foolhardy by the minute. The German may not be the force he once was, as his diminishing goal and assist stats prove, but he remains Arsenal’s best hope of linking midfield with attack and picking out Aubameyang’s runs.
In matches where the onus is on sitting tight and keeping defensive shape, Ozil is unlikely to be effective. But, against teams with no intention of dominating play against Arsenal, it is hard to justify not including him, at least from the bench. How different October’s loss to Leicester could have been if there had been a bona fide playmaker in Arsenal’s ranks when they dominated the first half, rather than three defensive-minded midfielders intent on passing sideways.
All is not lost for Arsenal. This is still an early stage of the season. It is inconceivable that Aubameyang’s poor form will continue and a good run of results could well see them climb up the table. After all, it is not long ago that Tottenham dropped five points from their first two home games with a seemingly-blunt front line and now they sit top of the tree, with Harry Kane and Son Heung-min tearing apart all before them.
But unless Arteta puts more of an emphasis on attack, these disappointing results will continue. The cautious route is not just being taken against the Liverpools and Man Citys of this world, but against teams they could bury with a fast start. The promise of last season’s FA Cup campaign will soon be a distant memory as Arsenal trundle through another bleak winter.
Arsenal may have been the epitome of unfettered attack under Wenger but the football on display under Arteta harks back to the George Graham era. While it may be unflattering to compare the Spaniard to such a defensive manager, he can look at the teams fielded back then – midfield runners and stout defenders may have dominated the XI, but Graham still had Paul Merson and Anders Limpar to unleash Ian Wright’s goalscoring ability.
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