Arsenal’s devastating finish to last season left the club in a troubling state. Enter Josh Kronke, Edu Gaspar, and a full sale of backroom changes. The club now looks towards a new era that includes trophies and champions league football on a consistent basis.
Unai Emery will once again take the helm this time under enormous pressure. Following an unexpectedly successful transfer window. During this season preview, we will see how Emery will look to put the pieces together and steer the ship in the right direction.
Strength in attack
Not nicknamed the Gunners for nothing. Arsenal historically has been a fearsome force in the opposition third. Under Arsene Wenger in the 17/18 season, Arsenal’s xG was 73.1. Under Unai Emery last season Arsenal’s xG dropped to a 63.2.
Despite this Arsenal still scored the third-most goals in the league. Only behind the likes of the champions of Europe Liverpool and champions of England Manchester City. Forward Aubameyang also finished as the division’s top marksmen.
At Arsenal’s peak last season, they would easily progress the ball forwards when settled into possession. Creating overloads in wide areas through fluid ball movement. Exploiting the half-spaces with dynamic passing sequences through the inside channels.
Exploring Arsenal’s attacking data of last season you can see a heavy focus through wide play. Only 24% of Arsenal’s attacking play came through the middle with 42% coming down the left flank.
Continuing three of the top four chance creators were Sead Kolasinac, Mkhitaryan and Iwobi. All players who operate in wide positions. An interesting piece of data is that Arsenal’s entry into the penalty box through crosses increased to 27% from 24%. With a focus more on creating chances through crosses, it could be expected to have a drop-off in xG. Attacking from wide areas has been one ideology seemingly set in stone and can be expected to play a large part in this season’s tactics.
Manager Unai Emery wanted to play formations with wingers last season however lacked the quality in personnel or was forced not to because of injuries. Arsenal looked to solve this issue in the summer transfer window.
A massive addition to Arsenal’s attacking force has been the clubs new record signing Nicolas Pepe. Since the departure of Alexis Sanchez. The squad has lacked a dynamic wide player who strikes fear into the opposition by offering a direct goal threat. Pepe at Lille last season scored 22 goals and provided 11 assists.
Above is a statistical comparison of Pepe and Arsenal’s other wide options. As you can see, his quality is an undeniable upgrade and will allow Arsenal to be more dangerous in the wide areas.
Lille last season had the second-highest xG in Ligue 1. Doing this while only averaging the sixth most possession in France. Pepe attacks best while in transition. Meanwhile, Arsenal historically has been a possession-based side and even averaged the fifth most in the league last season.
Pepe can help Emery’s move toward a more transition based attack. Especially in games against the top six. Arsenal can once again expect to be one of the league’s fiercest forces in the opposition box and Pepe can only add to an already lethal attack.
Why Arsenal’s defense will be better
Arsenal had the 10th worst xGA (expected goals against) at 57.30. Also conceding a shocking 51 goals. To put this into perspective Wolves had 42.69. A newly-promoted side put up better defensive data than one of England’s finest clubs.
Arsenal in-contrast to the Wenger era looked to defend as one unit. Shifting towards the ball side together. Maintaining compactness between the lines forcing opponents to play around rather than through them.
So what went wrong? Most would point to a lack of quality in defensive positions. Arsenal also suffered significant injuries across the season to defenders. Center back Shkodran Mustafi committed two fouls for penalties and one error directly leading to a goal. But it can’t all be down to one individual.
Arsenal as a team were not up to par out of possession. Failed offside traps were a very common theme and lapses of concentration in a defensive shape. The switch to the 3-4-1-2 formation created to much space for opponents to play through that Arsenal players couldn’t manage to cover. Specifically in the midfield.
In defensive transition, defenders would try and make up for the space between the midfielders and defenders. This would have them caught out and immediately open up space for the opposition.
Emery during the preseason and toward the backend of last season has showcased potential solutions. One we saw most recently in a preseason game vs. Barcelona. Emery deployed a deep block in a 4-4-2. This cut out the potential of failed offside traps and being caught in transition. Arsenal looked to be the team that would attack in transition. However, Arsenal would concede a losing goal from a long ball while playing a high line.
The defence can only get better for Unai Emery’s army. Being worse than newly-promoted sides is somewhere Arsenal can only go up from. Unai Emery can look to expand and improve on the ideas of last season with the players having more experience with him. The returns of Hector Bellerin and Rob Holding will certainly be huge boosts. The signings of Tierney and David Luiz can look to add depth and new life into the backline.
There are many ways Arsenal could approach their season given the multitude of options in attack. Unai Emery’s favoured shapes have been on display throughout the preseason. Most will look toward the 4-2-3-1.
A common theme of last season was fitting Lacazette and Aubameyang into the same lineups. The 4-2-3-1 could see Aubameyang feature as a wide player as we saw during preseason and on occasion during last season. Although Aubameyang last season proved to be Arsenal’s best goal scorer.
Although Aubameyang last season proved to be Arsenal’s best goal scorer. Aubameyang scored 22 league goals and had a scoring frequency of 124 minutes. Aubameyang would be tied at the top of the Premier League’s scoring charts. In comparison, Lacazette’s frequency was 193 minutes. Aubameyang’s xG was a .80 and Lacazette’s was a .71.
If the goals don’t come from Lacazette in the mains striker role he could potentially be moved to a false nine role. This would see him offer his great on the ball abilities while maintaining his goal threat and relationship with Aubameyang in the team.
This could also see Alex Iwobi return to the lineup he was in the top three of minutes played in the league last season. Offering a hardworking press off the ball and solid chance creation from wide areas.
Away games were a struggle for Arsenal last season. Arsenal lost eight away games. New signing Dani Ceballos could play a significant role in these games. His dynamic skill set of a highbred 8 and 10 could see him used in a similar way Ramsey was used. Man marking midfielders during opposition buildup phases and leading the press.
This could also allow for Torreria or Guendouzi to come into the lineup alongside Xhaka. Creating a double-pivot of two defensive-minded midfielders to provide cover in-transition and out of possession.
After finishing a win away from Champions League football with one of the worst defences in the league can only be seen as a good thing. Off the pitch strides were made to improve the team and a new mood has been set around the Emirates.
Unai Emery will be put in a serious hot-seat after not making the Champions League last season and now being fully backed by the newly instated transfer committee. Arsenal’s defensive play will most likely be the deciding factor but even slight improvements could go a long way for the North London club this season in securing a return to Europe’s biggest stage weather through the Europa League or Premier League.
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