Are Arsenal Getting Worse?

The North London Derby between Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspurs took place last weekend, and although it produced an exciting 2-2 draw, the game provided more questions than answers. The main question is, have Arsenal gotten worse this season?

The North London Derby

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Last season Arsenal pushed Manchester City for the title for over 30 gameweeks. This season, the arrival of stars such as midfield enforcer Declan Rice, goalkeeper David Raya and versatile Kai Havertz were supposed to help spur Arsenal on further. This has not been the case as of yet. During the game against Tottenham, Rice was forced off with an injury at half-time, Havertz’s impact off the bench was minimal, and whilst Raya made one outstanding save he didn’t contribute much to Arsenal’s gameplan.

Coach Mikel Arteta set Arsenal up well initially, and the home side enjoyed early success through aggressive pressing and wide overloads. However, despite consistent high turnovers and dangerous overloads, particularly with Bukayo Saka and Ben White down the right-hand side, Arsenal only managed to score via a deflected own-goal and a penalty. 

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Furthermore, the goals conceded were down to individual errors, in particular, Jorginho, who was cheaply robbed of possession in his own defensive third. Nevertheless, Arsenal were far from terrible in this game, and if it weren’t for individual errors, and the unfortunate substitution of Rice, would likely have won the game. However, Arteta’s side hardly looked like title contenders, particularly in the second half, and this has been a trend this season.

The 2023 Season Thus Far for The Gunners

Arsenal are currently fifth in the league only four points off first—hardly a bad start. However, a deeper dive makes for a more concerning outlook. The season began with nervy wins against Nottingham Forest and Crystal Palace, two games in which there were long periods where Arsenal looked the weaker side. This was followed by a draw against Fulham, during which Fulham successfully targeted the space created by Arsenal’s tactical shape.

The tactical shape in question was part of Arteta’s newfangled approach, which included defensive midfielder Thomas Partey playing as an inverted right-back. This was abandoned for the games against Everton and Manchester United, with Arteta returning to the tried and trusted Oleksandr Zinchenko as an inverted left-back. In summary, Arsenal have tried and failed to change their approach to midfield overloads, however, this is not the extent of their issues. 

Teething Problems

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For example, new recruit Kai Havertz has captured attention for all the wrong reasons this season. Formally a striker or else attacking midfielder, he has largely debuted as an auxiliary central midfielder this season and has looked lethargic and low in confidence. As well, Declan Rice, for all his defensive qualities, hasn’t yet improved Arsenal’s midfield and he has often looked uncomfortable playing in a largely possession-heavy side in Arsenal.

Rice has replaced Granit Xhaka this season, however, Xhaka often played as an auxiliary midfielder alongside Martin Ødegaard, and this was supplemented by Zinchenko and Partey as the deeper midfielders. This season, Rice has largely been deployed as the sole defensive midfielder at times having previously played in a double pivot. Grouped in with an off-form Havertz, Arsenal’s new-look midfield of Rice, Havertz and Ødegaard are still learning how to click. 

Underlying Issues Related to Goalscoring

Finally, an examination of the underlying statistics also does not suggest Arsenal are at their title-contending best. Arsenal currently rank eleventh in the league for non-penalty expected goals, despite being ranked third for touches in the opposing penalty area. This not only suggests their attack is underperforming but also provides statistical reasoning behind the lack of ‘true goals’, for lack of a better term, in the game against Tottenham.

Arsenal spent a lot of money during the transfer window, however, questions were raised over the sale of striker Folarin Balogun, despite Arsenal’s continual lack of a number nine. The decision to sign a second top-class keeper also raised eyebrows, particularly given Arsenal’s lack of depth in the striker position and defensive areas.

The Season Ahead

It should be reiterated that Arsenal are hardly a bad side, nor are they severely underperforming. However, the side has largely failed to impress and has often looked both tactically fragile and toothless in comparison to last season’s side. The incorporation of new players is taking time, and Arteta may be at fault for overthinking games at times, not dissimilar to his mentor and Manchester City coach Pep Guardiola.

To remain at the top a side must always be evolving and growing, and this iteration of Arsenal is still in this teething process. Importantly the season is still young, however, if Arsenal wish to challenge for the league title once more this season, these growing pains may need to be sorted sooner rather than later.

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