Arteta knows full well that half of the players who have passed, passed, crossed, flushed and rehearsed for long stretches of the North London Derby have no place in a functional and progressive Arsenal squad. But it’s his job to make the most of the resources available and, since the summer’s tactical triumphs at Wembley, he has failed. Arsenal need a win over Burnley on Sunday, and preferably a few pushes of progress beyond, to breathe something that feels like fresh life into their season and it’s hard to see how the repeat of their recent approaching weeks will pay off.
Arsenal delivered 44 crosses against Spurs, including 32 in open play. To be clear, there is nothing wrong with this as long as the purpose is obvious. Two of them even produced decent chances, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang heading on a delivery from Kieran Tierney who deserved better and the effort from Alexandre Lacazette requiring a scrambled stop from Hugo Lloris. Otherwise, it was little more than the practice of headmongering, slashing and hacking for national defense; if Arteta truly believed it was the right approach against the tightest back line in the Premier League, the evidence indicates he was wrong.
“If we generate this every week, we will win football games for sure,” Arteta said. Perhaps he is hopeful that Burnley center-backs James Tarkowski and Ben Mee don’t train, as they only faced 19 crosses when Everton visited Turf Moor on Saturday. Arteta gambled heavily on the odds last week, saying following frustrations on a similar night against Wolves that “pure math” suggested the goals would start to sink if Arsenal continued to pack the box.
Can Arsenal’s current resources drive the numbers up? Aubameyang’s only three goals since arriving in 2018 have been scored with his header, although he has had a slightly better record on that front with Borussia Dortmund. He’s hardly a safe bet for attacking wide balls and it’s hard to see who else fits that medium. Even taking into account Arteta’s reminder that crosses can be drilled, not just smoothed out, the strokes in the box that might tap them don’t come. Arsenal’s central midfielders have yet to score a Premier League goal this season.
The answer is, of course, to settle on an approach that favors other means of creativity. Arteta chose Lacazette in a variation of the No.10 position at Spurs and, although unintentionally, it felt like a cry for help. Lacazette was unleashed from that spot on a night of freewheeling football against an inadequate Rapid Vienne on Thursday. His bonding play in the deep areas was generally better than he’s been credited with, so the idea wasn’t out of the ordinary; he worked hard at Tottenham and showed enough courage to suggest that a grim series of personal forms could still be overcome.
In practice, however, Lacazette hid from nothing and received little change from the excellent Pierre-Emile Højbjerg. He’s not skillful, thoughtful, or flexible enough to be a top running back and those aren’t criticisms. Lacazette was simply a square peg in a round hole and had the effect of showing exactly where Arteta’s biggest problems lie: Arsenal have a passable amount of quality in wide areas but sorely lacking the player who changes the complexion of a game from inside the field. There were suggestions that Willian could make an impact in this position, but he was widely preferred and showed little to suggest that at 32 he was worth an expensive three-year contract.
Arteta will be looking to roll and manage more efficiently in January with the goal of turning an oil tanker into glacial movement as he wishes. It will be a test for a relatively inexperienced management team that includes Arteta, CTO Edu and General Manager Vinai Venkatesham. They squeezed the money for Thomas Partey from the Kroenkes in September, but a combination of speed, expertise and sound decision-making will be needed to navigate a window that Arteta admits will be “unpredictable.”
Giving Arteta the benefit of the doubt, one might assume that he is far from blind to Arsenal’s shortcomings, but has been out of the beam in choosing ways to correct them. There comes a time, though not yet there, when it wears off: Arsenal can’t just be a club squeezing through transfer windows in hopes of a silver bullet that won’t never really materializes. It is time for a clear strategy to emerge and no weight possession statistics, nor any post-game explanation, offer the persuasion that one was evident on Sunday.
If Arsenal can’t find a way to cross, or even get around Burnley on Sunday, their worst start to the season in 39 years will deteriorate further. “We’re letting the fans down,” center-back Rob Holding said of the statistic. Arteta must find a formula that lifts the cloud and lightens the stodge before the panic buttons start flashing.