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What’s wrong with Arsenal? Arteta’s path forward on a red-hot seat

Robbie Mustoe and Danny Higginbotham recap Saturday's Premier League action, as Liverpool demolished Crystal Palace and Everton condemned Arsenal to another defeat.

Arsenal has been bad.

Yes, mostly on a relative scale, and no, not relegation bad, as much as some headlines want to get you clicking thinking but the Gunners have been far off their standards.

We’re talking as close to the bottom three as 12th, the same proximity to 20th as third.

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Arsenal will be fortunate to finish above midtable without serious adaptation.

Should those changes include removing the raven-haired manager who arrived with so much promise and delivered an FA Cup? Oddsmakers see it as quite possible following the latest loss, a 2-1 setback to Everton that left Arteta pleading for “fighters, not victims.”

Boxing Day will mark the one-year anniversary of Mikel Arteta’s first match in charge of the Gunners. What can he do to give himself hope of finishing a second year?

Luck, formation and game state

Has Arsenal been lucky or unlucky?

Which formation has been best and how has Arteta set up his teams before the coronavirus pauses, in Project Restart, and to start 2020-21?

Are the Gunners better more often than not at any stage of a game?

Expected goals (xG) fortune

Arteta will have surely raised the ire of several Gooners when he cited luck as a reason his men have struggled of late.

“We reacted really well after conceding,” Arteta said after the 2-1 loss at Everton. “We created enough chances, hit a post, and luck is just against us at the moment. We lost against Burnley without conceding a shot on target.”

Going back to xG, Arsenal has been better than its opponent in its last three losses (Spurs, Burnley, Everton). On the season, though, their in-game xG record would be 6W-1D-7L and two of the wins would’ve come with less than 1 xG (which obviously is not a goal).

In open play, xG also says Arsenal have produced 11.64 goals for and scored just eight, while conceding 16 goals when xGA is over 17.

Arsenal 2020-21 season so far (xG in parenthesis)
Result better than xG performanceResult worse than xG performance

Matchday 1 - at Fulham W 3-0 (W 2.16-0.13)
Matchday 2 - v West Ham W 2-1 (L 1.33-2.06)
Matchday 3 - at Liverpool L 1-3 (L 1.18-2.74)
Matchday 4 - v Sheffield United W 2-1 (W 0.67-0.14)
Matchday 5 - at Man City L 0-1 (L 0.84-1.43)
Matchday 6 - v Leicester City L 0-1 (D 0.74-0.74)
Matchday 7 - at Man United W 1-0 (W 1.00-0.39)
Matchday 8 - v Aston Villa L 0-3 (L 1.39-1.99)
Matchday 9 - at Leeds D 0-0 (L 0.71-1.96)
Matchday 10 - v Wolves L 1-2 (L 1.12-2.01)
Matchday 11 - at Spurs L 0-2 (W 0.60-0.39)
Matchday 12 - v Burnley L 0-1 (W 1.85-0.82)
Matchday 13 - v Southampton D 1-1 (L 0.66-1.11)
Matchday 14 - at Everton L 1-2 (W 1.25-0.66)

Twice Arsenal has drawn in a match its performance did not merit a point and once it won while being outperformed by the opponent (West Ham).

But what could encourage Arteta over the past month -- which is perhaps not coincidentally when he’s been talking about luck -- is that his team has deserved something from three of four losses. The derby could’ve well been 0-0 or 1-1 while the Burnley loss is especially unlucky.

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LONDON, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 06: Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg of Tottenham Hotspur and Thomas Partey of Arsenal during the Premier League match between Tottenham Hotspur and Arsenal at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium on December 06, 2020 in London, England. (Photo by Tottenham Hotspur FC/Tottenham Hotspur FC via Getty Images)

Tottenham Hotspur FC via Getty I


Versatility is key and match-ups important, but Mikel Arteta’s lineups have been all over the place. That’s pretty bonkers considering how managers have been lamenting the lack of training time to implement new ideas. It hasn’t scared Arteta.

Adjustments happen all the time inside of a game and formation shifts are common, so it’s difficult to track but let’s begin here. here is how Arteta had started the Gunners this season.

Here’s how Arteta started after taking over the club in 2019 through the end of Project Restart.

4-3-3: thrice
4-2-3-1: 15 times
3-4-3: nine times
5-4-1: once (FA Cup Final)

Notably, Arteta deployed that 4-2-3-1 in 14 of 15 matches upon his hiring, and he switched to the 3-4-3 for nine-straight games after playing the 4-3-3 for the first two of Project Restart.

That’s consistent and helpful.

Maybe Arteta believed his charges would fare a lot better in Year 2, with healthy pieces combining with new to adapt to new ideas.

Because this, this, is a lot less consistent (via Understat). And what good can come from seven minutes n a 5-4-1? Hashtag Tinkerman.


Can we learn anything definitive from given the small number of minutes? Probably not a ton given how few minutes the Gunners have been deployed in most of the formations.

Looking at the top three, though, you can that Arsenal is being out-attempted in all three.

We all have our preferences for formation and this isn’t to suppose any formation as superior to the other, rather that perhaps Arteta has put the cart ahead of the horse.

In-game performance

Given all the changes, how is Arsenal playing over the course of 90 minutes?

Here’s a bit of good news. The Gunners have been better once Mikel Arteta can talk to them inside of a match (Stats again via Understat).

First half -- 5-12
Minutes 1-15: 1-1 (xG 2.77-1.61)
Minutes 16-30: 3-6 (xG 3.01-5.87)
Minurtes 31-45: 1-5 (xG 2.36-3.50)

Second half -- 7-6
Minutes 46-60: 4-0 (xG 3.63-1.98)
Minutes 61-75: 2-3 (xG 2.06-4.13)
Minutes 76+: 1-3 (xG 2.23-2.98)

Here’s more over-simplification: Arsenal has come out of the gates with decent motivation and game plan, but hasn’t produced an opener. They then fall apart until halftime, when Arteta reorganizes them only to fall apart again before producing desperate final quarter-hours.



Arsenal’s Spanish manager Mikel Arteta (C) emrbaces Arsenal’s Scottish defender Kieran Tierney (L) and Arsenal’s Spanish defender Hector Bellerin (R) at the end of the English Premier League football match between Manchester United and Arsenal at Old Trafford in Manchester, north west England, on November 1, 2020. (Photo by Paul ELLIS / POOL / AFP) / RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE. No use with unauthorized audio, video, data, fixture lists, club/league logos or ‘live’ services. Online in-match use limited to 120 images. An additional 40 images may be used in extra time. No video emulation. Social media in-match use limited to 120 images. An additional 40 images may be used in extra time. No use in betting publications, games or single club/league/player publications. / (Photo by PAUL ELLIS/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

POOL/AFP via Getty Images


The Gunners have struggled for any number of reasons but a slumping Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang isn’t helping anyone.

Neither is the availability of Thomas Partey, one of if not the most important moves of the transfer window for any traditional contender (Ruben Dias now and Thiago Alcantara later would and will like a word, respectively).

And let’s start here: We’re mostly going to talk about attackers below, because the defense has not been the problem or at least a main one. Arsenal has allowed less goals than Liverpool, Chelsea, Everton, and Southampton, less shots than Leicester City, Tottenham, and Man United, and less expected goals than all but four teams in the entire Premier League.

Thomas Partey

Arsenal is yet to collect many results with big signing Thomas Partey in the lineup, but there’s little debate the Ghanaian’s absence has loomed large.

Partey has only gone more than 45 minutes thrice, wins against Rapid Vienna and Manchester United but a loss to Leicester City. Arsenal only conceded two goals in those three matches.

Obviously he has the glaring error of not going down while injured in the run-up to Spurs’ second goal in the 2-0 North London Derby loss, but if there’s any area that’s unfair to Arteta it’s failing to note that the manager has been without his top signing for most of this silly season.

Alexandre Lacazette

Arsenal’s best player in terms of expected goals has been a man who can’t get on the pitch.

Alexandre Lacazette is the first player to appear on the Premier League’s xG+xA/90 minutes list, coming in 28th of players to have played more than 500 minutes this season with 0.54 per game. 0.46 of that is xG, and Lacazette is 14th in the PL on that list. Bukayo Saka is the only Gunner in the Top 50 for xG.

Lacazette hasn’t scored in the Premier League since tallying in each of Arsenal’s first three outings, but was handed five starts.

Pierre Emerick Aubameyang

The 31-year-old has often been shut down, whether put out wide or played centrally, and Arteta’s biggest failure has been the Gabonese man’s failure to produce goals or assists.

Aubameyang has three goals and one assist despite being used almost exclusively in the Premier League (He has two goals in 119 combined minutes between the Community Shield and Europa League).

That’s a far cry from his incredible first two-and-a-half seasons at Arsenal, where he scored 70 goals and chipped in 15 assists.

What’s wrong? Plenty but we’re not far removed from his wonderful 2019-20 season, are we? Expect better when he’s back on the pitch.

Mesut Ozil

Arteta has deemed the German playmaker surplus to requirements, as they say, but it’s probably worth noting that the headline-making Ozil wasn’t terrible last season.

Ozil averaged 2.1 key passes per game over his 18 matches last season before not making an appearance during Project Restart. Nicolas Pepe (1.3) and Dani Ceballos (1.2) were second and third in passes leading to a shot.

This season? Willian leads the team with 1.3 and Kieran Tierney, Bukayo Saka, Ceballos, and Aubameyang are between 1 and 1.1 per game.

During Arteta’s tenure, Ozil had a goal and an assist in 10-straight starts as the Gunners went 4W-5D-1L including a win over Manchester United plus a draw with and loss to Chelsea.

Nicolas Pepe

If Arteta isn’t going to use Ozil -- and that argument is still easy to understand -- then not using dynamic but inconsistent Pepe is baffling.

The red card was stupid. The dynamism isn’t.

Final thoughts

Is there enough here to believe Arteta can snap Arsenal out of its funk? There’s something here, sure, but you wouldn’t get high odds from a bookmaker.

Moreover, if Arteta wasn’t, well, Arteta, would he have been canned by now? Is he breathing off of FA Cup fumes? Would Unai Emery or most managers not named Arsene Wenger have lasted this long?

If you’re a director looking at the big picture, you probably remember the FA Cup well and recognize the import and expectations of acquiring Partey from Atletico Madrid.

The red cards don’t help, nor do stories of locker room cliques, but those are also part and parcel when it comes to struggling clubs.

If you’re Arteta, your best bet is to go back to a formation that your players best understand for Tuesday’s League Cup quarterfinal versus Man City and Saturday’s PL visit from Chelsea.

And it’s probably best to ride that into Brighton and West Brom before Newcastle arrives for the FA Cup. With Palace and Newcastle then visiting the Emirates in the league, this should be all about manufacturing something from City and Chelsea, both perhaps without Aubameyang, and then finding footing against five bottom-half sides across two competitions.

Good luck.

Follow @NicholasMendola