David Luiz’s injury sunk Arsenal
Last night’s game against Leicester will have felt both familiar and alien to Arsenal fans. In one sense, it has hardly been surprising over the years to find Arsenal on the losing end of a tight fixture against tough opposition at the Emirates Stadium, and that is exactly what happened against Leicester, with a late Jamie Vardy goal sucker-punching the hosts. On the other hand, though, there is a growing sense – both during last night’s game and in recent months – that Arsenal are steadily becoming a team that is largely difficult to break down – a feeling that has been rare among fans, pundits and the opposition alike over the last decade.
Unfortunately, Arteta’s undoubtedly impressive work in instilling the basics of defensive discipline and steel into his Arsenal side has left the door open to a new, equally frustrating failing: they no longer look like a team capable of creating dangerous chances; of being a formidable threat to the opposition’s defence. When Arsenal slumped to their 1-0 defeat against Leicester last night, it wasn’t defensive shakiness that was to blame, it was a lack of creativity. And the creativity they did have came largely from a surprising source: centre-back David Luiz.
Despite the early indications that they might line up in a more orthodox 4-3-3, Arsenal played the majority of the game in the three at the back system that has become their usual. Gabriel and David Luiz started as the natural centre-backs in the middle and on the right respectively, while Granit Xhaka – whether being instructed to play there or simply dropping incredibly deep from midfield – slotted in on the left. Kieran Tierney and Bellerin were the wing-backs, Thomas Partey and Dani Ceballos were the midfield duo, and Aubameyang, Lacazette and Saka played up top. Of course, it was difficult to tell exactly what was happening during the game, given the amount of switching Arteta’s players do on the fly. Whichever formation they were in, the first half was promising from an Arsenal perspective, and David Luiz was one of the key figures.
During his 48 minutes, the Brazilian played nine long balls, with eight of those reaching their target. That’s a success rate of 88.8%. By comparison, Granit Xhaka’s eight successful long balls from ten attempted, and Gabriel’s two from nine, gives them a success rate of 80% and 22.2% respectively. Xhaka and Gabriel also both played the full 90 minutes, almost a whole half longer than Luiz.
But it was the target of Luiz’s passes that made them so dangerous. It was Luiz’s ball that found Hector Bellerin in the Leicester area in the first ten minutes, with the Spaniard unfortunate that a poor first touch meant he couldn’t finish from a very promising position. It was also two passes by David Luiz that allowed Kieran Tierney to produce two very dangerous crosses for Alexandre Lacazette, both of which were wasted by the Frenchman. With Leicester restricted to two speculative efforts from near the halfway line and not much else, the result was that Arsenal’s back line saw a lot of the ball in the first half, and David Luiz’s forward passing was a cut above his teammates’.
It was unfortunate that Luiz was forced off through injury, and the team missed his passing ability from then on. But that is a symptom of the wider problem that Arsenal face at the moment: a lack of creativity. When a centre-back is playing your most dangerous passes, something is not going quite according to plan. It must be said that Leicester executed their own gameplan to perfection, and the fact that they were so passive in the first half, only to grow into the game and sucker-punch Arsenal in the second, may have been an entirely deliberate and well worked strategy. But the fact remains that Arsenal had more than enough chances to edge in front in the first half, and an injury and a disallowed goal – no matter how unfairly – can’t be an excuse for profligacy or a lack of imagination after half-time. Arteta’s work on Arsenal’s defence has been exemplary, and there is no doubting his tactical acumen and his qualities as a coach. But, whether he adapts his style of play –using Liverpool’s aggressive full-backs or Sheffield United’s overlapping centre-backs as an example – or recalls his most technically gifted and creative player to his first team squad, Arteta must find a way to start adding the layers to the foundation he has built, and address the lack of creativity through the middle of the park. Otherwise Arsenal risk finding themselves in similar situations to last night a lot more often in the months to come.
Author: Ben Kitto
Photo: Amir Hosseini