In an exclusive interview with Sky Sports, Mikel Arteta addresses Arsenal's creativity conundrum and explains why he's confident of strengthening his squad this summer. Watch Arsenal vs Watford on Sky Sports Premier League from 3pm on Sunday; Kick-off 4pm
Thursday 16 June 2022 17:33, UK
When Arsenal traipsed off the pitch, deflated and defeated, after the final whistle at Villa Park on Tuesday evening, they did so as the first side to have failed to register a shot on target against Aston Villa all season.
It is a statistic which brings their creative shortcomings into sharp focus.
The victories over Liverpool and Manchester City prior to that game showed their progress under Mikel Arteta. Rarely in recent memory have Arsenal defended so resolutely. Rarely have they taken their chances so clinically. But when it comes to breaking down the teams below them, the teams they are expected to beat, there is much room for improvement.
A lack of creativity has been an issue throughout the campaign and is a major factor in why they are facing their lowest finish in a quarter of a century. In the Premier League this season, Arsenal rank 16th for shots, below relegated Norwich. The expected goals data puts them only three places higher, sandwiched between Watford and Brighton.
The issues are most apparent in games such as Tuesday's, when the opponent is set up to sit back and absorb pressure. Jurgen Klopp described playing against a low block as "the biggest challenge for any football team in the world" in an interview with Sky Sports earlier this season and it's one which Arteta knows just as well.
"I have experienced that for four years at Manchester City, working out the best ways to break that down," says Arteta, speaking exclusively to Sky Sports ahead of Arsenal's final Premier League game of the season against Watford on Sunday. "It is one of the challenges we are facing and one of the areas where we have to improve, for sure."
That improvement requires patience, according to Arteta. And while it would certainly help him to have players of the calibre of Kevin De Bruyne, David Silva and the rest at his disposal at Arsenal, it is also a question of shape, of collective understanding, and of forensic attention to detail.
"Sometimes it is down to individual quality, but the whole structure is probably even more important in order to be a threat in the spaces that you want to attack," says Arteta. "How consistent you are in maintaining those attacks also depends on the structure behind the ball.
"Everything is linked together and the players have to understand that.
"It takes time because in small spaces, every detail, every touch, every movement is critical. And sometimes it's not just about giving the ball to somebody, it's about when. Do I do it now? Or do I do it one second later? A difference of 30 millimetres on a pass can change everything.
"Against Villa, we were much better in the first and second phase of our build-up. Villa were trying to press high in certain moments, but then they decided not to, to go back, because they weren't being efficient in that. So, okay, we did better in that part, but now we need to improve the next part."
Given Arsenal's struggles in that department, it is perhaps understandable some supporters have questioned the continued absence of Mesut Ozil, who still ranks top at the club for chances created this season despite not playing a single minute since the restart.
"I know what Mesut brings," says Arteta. "You only have to check his stats and look at what he's able to do in those tight areas without any space…" But his voice trails off. "That's all I can say," he adds.
Arteta is unwilling to elaborate but it does not take much detective work to figure out that Ozil, like Matteo Guendouzi, has fallen foul of the manager's "non-negotiables". To bring him back into the side now would be to abandon his principles. And besides, Ozil is just one of many creative talents now unavailable to him.
"Look at the players that we had in the past at this club in those positions," says Arteta. "You go back to (Santi) Cazorla, to (Tomas) Rosicky, to (Andrey) Arshavin when he played there, to (Aaron) Ramsey when he played there, to (Henrikh) Mkhitaryan when he came in. Even Jack Wilshere used to play in those pockets all the time.
"That is a lot of players who are now not here. We have to renew that cycle, because if not, those kind of players won't be there for us anymore.
"They are a big part of what any squad needs."
Is it an option to push Dani Ceballos further forward? The 23-year-old, on loan from Real Madrid, has been outstanding at the base of Arsenal's midfield recently but prefers to operate in a more advanced role, where he can use his technical qualities to impact games in the final third.
"Dani is someone who has the ability to play further up, for sure," says Arteta. "But with the needs that we have at the moment and the way that he helps us join the lines together, to make us more stable with the ball, we have to use him there."
I am encouraged that we are on the same page, and that we are going to try to do our best to evolve the team
Arsenal hope to extend Ceballos's stay in north London and Arteta is confident the club's owners are prepared to free up funds for him to bring in other players too - despite the financial implications of the coronavirus crisis, and the fact Arsenal will miss out on Europa League revenue if they lose to Chelsea in next weekend's FA Cup final.
"I am encouraged that we are on the same page, and that we are going to try to do our best to evolve the team," he says.
"First of all the players we already have here, if there is anything extra to help them more and give them a better environment, and then, if we go into the market and we have to do things, to decide which ones to do and how quickly we can do them.
"We are completely ready for that, and I also have a really good understanding with [technical director] Edu. We have been working together very closely to put together a plan that we are convinced can be successful.
"But also, it's important to have all the information you need from the team that you have, from the players, from everything.
"That took some time as well."
Arteta nods in agreement when it's suggested creative players will be a priority for Arsenal in the summer ahead, but he also points out creativity need not necessarily come from the midfield.
"That is one of the areas we can improve, but also, how important those players are will depend on the way we are going to attack, because some different teams do it differently," he explains.
"Liverpool, for example, do it in a different way, without using the pockets in that manner, and they are still very effective. You see the assists created by their two full-backs compared to the No 10s that Manchester City have, for example. It's an equal number but a completely different style. So there are different ways to do it."
Much will depend on the system Arteta uses. The Spaniard switched to three at the back after Arsenal lost their first two games of the Premier League restart, sacrificing a midfielder for a defender in the interests of solidity. Does he intend to stick with it for the long-term?
"In order to build, you need to win, and we had to find a way to give a little bit more stability and be a little bit more unpredictable with what we wanted to do," says Arteta. "We found a different formation that I believed could suit us, and it did, in terms of results.
"We want to have versatility. We will be more difficult to control if we are able to master two or three different formations without driving the players crazy. Always with the same principles, but being able to change system, and to attack and defend in different ways."
Any new recruits will need to be able to adapt to those tactical demands, but what's most important to Arteta is they demonstrate the desired strength of character. Arsenal have surrendered more points from winning positions than any other Premier League side since his appointment and their mental frailties date back much further than that.
"For me, it's the number one question when we bring someone to the club," says Arteta.
"What is he like? How is he going to react in difficult moments? Is he a leader? Is he someone who is going to push his team-mates? Is he hungry for himself, or does he have collective ambitions? Is he someone who can be stable and consistent in the long-term?
"For me, those are always the first questions when we try to sign a player."
Arteta sees those collective ambitions in Arsenal's youngsters. His commitment to youth can be seen in the fact he has given the 18-year-old Bukayo Saka the No 7 shirt for next season. The newly-arrived William Saliba, another teenager, has been allocated the No 4 shirt.
Saka and Saliba are not the only ones Arteta intends to build around.
There is also Joe Willock, Eddie Nketiah, Reiss Nelson and, perhaps most interestingly, Emile Smith Rowe, a player who has shone on loan at Huddersfield Town in the second half of the season and who possesses precisely the creative attributes Arsenal's squad lacks.
Arteta smiles when his name is brought up.
"He's a player with very specific qualities to play in those pockets in that position as an attacking midfielder," he says.
"I am excited to work with him. I have been talking with him and I have followed him during his spell on loan. I think he's someone who can be pretty impressive.
"I'm pleased by what I've seen from him. He needed that exposure and he looks more mature now. I think he will be in a much better place when he comes back in pre-season.
"The young players want to be important, they want to take the important numbers, and I like that," Arteta adds with a chuckle. "It's a good step. and they can be important in the future, but it's up to them to decide that."
The emerging talent at Arsenal hints at better days to come. But Arteta is under no illusion the squad still requires considerable improvement. And while their season may yet end on an FA Cup-winning high at Wembley, the failure to finish in the Premier League's top seven emphasises the scale of the task ahead of the man in the dugout.
"I think it's a reality check," says Arteta. "The league table doesn't lie. We have to reflect on the reasons behind it and put it right as quickly as we can. Obviously, it's not the standard that this football club demands.
"We have to improve and we will."
Watch Arsenal vs Watford on Sky Sports Premier League HD from 3pm on Sunday; kick-off 4pm