Comment and Analysis @nicholaspwright
Arsenal's malfunctioning midfield is a bigger issue than their defence
Arsenal are without a win in nine games ahead of their Monday Night Football clash with West Ham at the London Stadium
Last Updated: 09/12/19 6:59pm
There was another round of criticism for Arsenal's backline after the 2-1 loss to Brighton last week. Sokratis and David Luiz were the primary targets, their poor performances a continuation of a fraught season. But it cannot be easy being an Arsenal centre-back these days.
Against Brighton - as against Norwich, Southampton and just about every opponent Arsenal have faced recently - they received next to nothing in the way of protection from the players in front of them. Unai Emery could not find a solution to Arsenal's midfield problem and it seems Freddie Ljungberg, his interim replacement, is finding it just as difficult.
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The issue can be seen in the huge expanses of space Arsenal so often leave open for their opponents to pour into. It can also be seen in the sheer quantity of shots they give up. Only Aston Villa and Norwich have faced more in the Premier League this season. On Thursday night, Brighton had 20 - seven more than they managed at home to Wolves on Sunday.
Arsenal are most vulnerable in the moments after they lose possession, when players are routinely caught upfield and their poor organisation and fragmented structure are exposed. This openness in transition is a dream for Arsenal's opponents and a nightmare for their own defenders.
Opta's advanced metrics highlight the issue even more strikingly than the shot numbers. According to their data, only West Ham allow their opponents to progress up the pitch at a faster pace than Arsenal. Only, West Ham, Aston Villa, Newcastle and Crystal Palace, meanwhile, allow their opponents to progress further up the pitch per passing sequence.
Direct speed against: The speed, in metres per second, at which a team's opponents move upfield during their passing sequences.
Progress against: The distance, in metres, that a team's opponents move upfield during their passing sequences.
How do you get at Arsenal, then? The answer is that you sit back and wait for them to give you the opportunity. Soon enough, the spaces will appear.
It's what happened in the build-up to Teemu Pukki's opener at Carrow Road last weekend, when Onel Hernandez robbed Joe Willock near the Norwich box before charging upfield unchallenged. The example that best sums it up, however, came in the passage of play which preceded Watford's equaliser in the 2-2 draw at Vicarage Road in September.
Arsenal were clinging on to their lead with only 11 minutes remaining that day, and yet they had six players stationed inside the Watford box when Lucas Torreira - ostensibly their holding midfielder - had a shot saved by Ben Foster. Watford immediately broke into the space behind them and, within 15 seconds, Luiz - exposed as he so often is - had conceded the decisive penalty.
Luiz and Sokratis cannot be exempt from blame, of course. But it is telling that Arsenal's top two outfield players for individual errors leading to oppositions shots since the start of last season - the Gunners have made more than any other Premier League side in that time - are central midfielders Matteo Guendouzi and Granit Xhaka.
If there is a glimmer of encouragement to be taken from Ljungberg's first two games in charge, it is that he has at least acknowledged the seriousness of the issue. "If we play a transition game like we did, we won't win any games," he said after the draw with Norwich, only for Brighton to prove his point a few days later. "We'll keep on working on it," he added.
Ljungberg will hope that more time on the training pitch will allow him to resolve the problems, to implement the kind of positional organisation that proved beyond his predecessor, but the worry is that right now he simply does not have the tools required to make it happen.
Xhaka is at the heart of the issue. His ball-playing abilities are valuable at the base of this Arsenal side's midfield, as shown by the fact he has been a consistent starter under Wenger, Emery and now Ljungberg. But his errors are problematic and so too is his lack of speed and mobility.
His physical limitations mean he is not suited to the kind of counter-pressing strategy used by other sides to snuff out counter-attacks. They also mean he struggles to keep up with pacey attackers breaking forward in front of him. But he is not helped by the fact the players stationed around him lack the tactical discipline to provide adequate support.
Torreira has impressed in patches since his £26m move from Sampdoria last year, but that 2-2 draw against Watford in September was not the only game in which he has been caught out of position. Emery eventually opted to use him further forward instead, but Torreira has admitted himself he has struggled to adapt to the speed of the Premier League.
Guendouzi and Willock, meanwhile, are exciting but raw and - like Torreira - prone to positional lapses. Dani Ceballos' return from injury may at least help Arsenal achieve greater control of the ball in midfield, but he is not a defensively-minded player either. Beyond him, Arsenal have few options.
Arsenal's defence is there to be got at and the issues are compounded by a forward line which offers little in the way of defensive support either.
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Mesut Ozil have played either side of Alexandre Lacazette in Arsenal's last five Premier League games. While they offer plenty of attacking threat, however, it is also fair to say they are not naturally inclined towards the defensive aspects of the game.
It adds to the disconnect across the team.
Emery addressed the issue in detail during his first sit-down interview in Spanish with Sky Sports back in January, when he spoke about his attempts to find "defensive balance" in the side. But by the time he was sacked 11 months later, the situation had become even worse.
The next permanent manager - be it Ljungberg or someone else - will inherit the same problem. The commonly-held belief is that Arsenal's defensive problems would be resolved if only they could upgrade the players at the heart of their backline. The truth, though, is that until they can sort out their malfunctioning midfield, the issues are likely to continue.
Watch West Ham vs Arsenal live on Sky Sports Premier League HD from 7pm on Monday Night Football; kick-off 8pm