For football fans, there aren’t many things worse than the international break. The Nations’ League, brought in to help spice up international fixtures and make them more competitive in the run up to international tournaments, has now become the vehicle for glorified friendlies, and fans are as apathetic towards the prospect as ever.
However, if you’re an Arsenal fan, the two week wait for Premier League football has become extra tortuous following this weekend’s 3-0 home defeat to Aston Villa. Not only do Arsenal fans have to sit mired in the embarrassment of that drubbing, but they also have to look forward to playing Leeds away from home after the break. When it rains, it pours.
Arteta remarked in his post-match interview on Sunday that if he could, he would play again tomorrow in order to rectify his team’s abject performance. But perhaps it’s a good thing that Arteta has to wait for his next Arsenal game like the rest of us. Maybe it will give him some time to consider his options more thoroughly. Here, then, are the four things Mikel Arteta should be thinking hardest about during the international break.
Should Aubameyang continue on the left?
Aubameyang’s performances on the left wing during the latter part of last season were eye-catching to say the least. He scored two goals in each of the FA Cup semi-final and final on en route to Arsenal lifting the trophy for a record-extending 14th time, and his positioning on the flank seemed to be a key part of a system that fans had no reason to complain about.
This season has been another story. According to The xG Philosophy on Twitter, Aubameyang’s expected goals (xG) in the league this season, excluding penalties, totals 0.58. This means that, from all the chances Aubameyang has been presented with this season, he would have been expected to come away with less than one goal. Aubameyang’s ability is undoubted, and his physicality and mentality don’t appear to be in decline. What this stat rather shows is that he hasn’t been receiving nearly enough service to continue to perform as Arsenal’s main goal scoring threat.
Arteta’s use of his captain on the left flank worked well at first because it provided another industrious body to add to defensive phases of play, in a period where Arteta’s number one priority was steadying a rocky ship. Aubameyang’s position has been a symptom of Arteta trying to add stability to a team that leaked goals when he took over, and which has been known to be soft for years.
But if Aubameyang’s chances have dried up, which they seem like they have, and Arsenal are losing games anyway, does that mean it’s time to put him back through the middle again? It seems like teams have worked out how to isolate Aubameyang when he plays on the left. He gets left on his own, and because he’s not a natural winger he doesn’t have the tools to create chances for himself when that happens. Aubameyang is best when he has the freedom to move as he sees fit – a quick burst to get on the end of a good pass for an instinctive finish. Playing him on the left was necessary for a while, but it might be time Arteta reconsidered.
Should Arteta relinquish his hold on the reigns?
This brings to mind another of Arteta’s problems. Right now, his tactical rigidity is stifling his team. Without crowd noise, it is not uncommon these days to hear Arteta shouting throughout an entire Arsenal game. Often this takes the form of encouragement to his players, but it also takes the form of tactical instructions, and specific mandates about exactly where his players should be and what they should be doing. This is symptomatic of Arteta’s management style. An advocate of positional play, Arteta is details-oriented and meticulous, much like Pep Guardiola, and he wants his players to be well drilled in just about every action on the pitch, so that when the time comes, his players know exactly where to be and exactly what to do in order to give them an advantage in any situation.
But is this the right approach for the personnel Arteta has at his disposal, and does it make sense considering how predictable Arsenal have become going forward? It is now over a month since Arsenal scored a league goal from open play. They beat Manchester United with a penalty at Old Trafford, but before that, they suffered back to back 1-0 defeats against Manchester City and Leicester. Arteta’s efforts to drill patterns of play into his team have been fruitful, and the improvement in their defensive play has been marked. But it is exactly this commitment to the details and to routine that is making Arsenal look so predictable, and it might be time for Arteta to introduce a little bit of flair into the side in order to offset that. Which brings us to the question of…
Should Willock and Pepe be starting?
It’s no coincidence that Arsenal have scored nine goals in the three Europa League games in which Joe Willock and Nicholas Pepe have been involved. For Willock’s part, his drive, energy and ambition to operate high up the pitch mean that he has looked like a stand-out performer from midfield during Arsenal’s European campaign. Meanwhile, Pepe’s goal and assist contribution has been impressive, and he has even made an impact in the Premier League when he’s had the chance – making the difference off the bench in Arsenal’s win against Sheffield United. If Arsenal continue attacking as they have been, then teams are going to keep taking advantage, isolating Arsenal’s best players and capitalising on their rigidity. If Arteta wants an easy way to inject creativity into the side and give his team a good chance of scoring more goals, then he might not have to look much further than Willock and Pepe.
Author: Ben Kitto
Photo Credit: Chensiyuan 2018