If you watched the second leg of the Europa League semi-final between Atletico Madrid and Arsenal, you’ll have likely picked up on something peculiar about the English side. A trend has been present throughout the season, and it was abundantly clear on Thursday. For whatever reason, it seems that Arsenal’s greatest fear is shooting the ball.
In a game where the Gunners needed at least one goal, they still only managed a single shot on target, which came from outside-the-box courtesy of Xhaka. The club took 7 total shots, which might be considered a respectable amount when facing a defensive team like Atleti. However, Arsenal had their fair share of attacking movement, passing the ball 212 times in the final third. Using a ratio of shots/final 3rd passes, that comes out to a score of 3.30% (3.30 shots per 100 final 3rd passes).
Comparing this percentage to Arsenal’s previous 4 matches, as well as each of the top 5 Premier League sides’ previous 5 games, this was the lowest mark of any of those 30 matches. The leader of the pack, unsurprisingly, is Manchester City with an average in those 5 matches of 9.17 shots per 100 final 3rd passes, or 9.17%. Going down the list, Liverpool is second with 8.87%, Chelsea is third with 8.40%, United is fourth with 7.13%, followed by Spurs with 6.76%, and lastly, Arsenal with 6.63%.
Made famous by Arsene Wenger, and appropriately named “Wengerball,” Arsenal’s tika-taka style of play dazzled opponents throughout the early years of the 21st century. When Wengerball works, it can be considered a form of modern art. Easily the most famous goal highlighting this style of play came in 2013 against Norwich at the Emirates Stadium. 9 passes in 17 seconds, from one end of the field to the other, resulted in Wilshere getting behind a perplexed Norwich defence and dinking the ball into the bottom corner.
But, when Wengerball doesn’t work, you get results like they did Thursday. When you become accustomed to looking ahead for the next teammate to pass to, an unintentional consequence is forgoing a good shot on goal. Ozil, Bellerin, Wilshere, and more, have all succumbed to the temptation of a better shot on goal from a teammate, despite having a decent look at goal.
Initially, it’s not a bad thing to be selfless in possession, but it can get to a point where you’re deep enough in the opponents’ box that it’s better to pop off a shot at least in hopes of an easy rebound goal, rather than risk trying to thread a pass through multiple defenders’ legs. This issue gets compounded by Arsenal’s slow approach to attack. When you’re not a strong counterattacking side, you’re dealing with more well-positioned defenders in the box, unlike quick teams like Liverpool and Man City.
Whoever becomes Arsenal’s next manager, I have no doubt that they will take one of two approaches to fixing this problem. He can either go the route of Man City by fostering an attacking environment with constant off the ball runs and movement, or he can highlight the speed of players like Aubameyang through counterattacking play.
I don’t want Arsenal to lose their identity, but I’m optimistic that the next manager can bring the next evolution of play to the club. As the famous quote from The IT Crowd goes, “Fing about Arsenal is, they always try an’ walk it in.”