Mikel Arteta solves Arsenal problems with Bukayo Saka, Kieran Tierney and Emile Smith Rowe

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One of legendary Liverpool manager Bill Shankly’s most famous pronouncements was that “football is a simple game, complicated by people who should know better.”

Over time, via Chinese whispers and various re-tellings from former players and staff, Shankly's quote has been adjusted to commonly declare that "football is a simple game, complicated by idiots."

Mikel Arteta is certainly no idiot. But for much of this season his Arsenal side have made the game look extremely difficult.

Rewind to Christmas day and Arteta’s men were smarting from a 4-1 thrashing against Manchester City in the Carabao Cup and without a league win since November 1. They had won just four of 14 Premier League matches, scoring only 12 times, and were in the lower reaches of the table.

In truth, when Sam Allardyce responded to a question over whether the FA Cup holders were in the relegation mix by declaring “absolutely”, the West Bromwich Albion boss' comments weren't entirely dismissed.

Because that’s where the Gunners were. Struggling for goals, breaking unwanted records with successive home defeats and with pressure mounting on the Spanish manager, just 12 months into his first job as the main man.

Arteta watching on during Arsenal's thrashing by Man City
(Image: NEIL HALL/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)

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Ahead of that loss to City, on the back of a reverse at Everton, Arteta, in response to growing scrutiny, bamboozled media, pundits and supporters alike by turning to statistics to explain recent results.

“Last weekend, it was a 67 per cent chance of winning, any Premier League game in history, and a nine per cent chance of losing, and you lose. Three per cent against Burnley and you lose, seven per cent against Spurs and you lose.”

What he was getting at was his belief that his side had been a little unlucky to suffer defeats in recent outings, as he referenced his side’s implied chances of winning matches based on expected goals (xG), via the club’s own statistical analysis.

However, in failing to show his workings, it was messy, unclear, over-complicated and left him open to criticism.

Fast-forward to the present, and suddenly things look very, very different.

Successive wins over Chelsea, Brighton and Allardyce’s Albion, eight goals scored and back-to-back clean sheets has led to repaired confidence.

Trust in young players has been repaid, and now Arsenal, despite only being 11th, are looking towards an improved second half of the season, and sit just six points off the top four.

Stumbling on a new centre-back partnership – Rob Holding and Pablo Mari – has appeared to help, with that duo, impressing together; had Gabriel not been sent off and gone down with Covid-19 too, he would certainly have remained in the starting lineup.

However defensively they rank as the league’s joint-fourth best defence according to goals conceded and seventh best defence this season according to expected goals against (xGA).

So that side of things was never really a major issue. It was their output with the ball at the other end which was the dominant problem.

Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette during Arsenal's loss to Spurs
(Image: Pool via REUTERS)

After 14 games, Arsenal ranked 17th for goals scored.

Since the opening two games, they had scored more than one goal in a game only once and in five matches during that 12-game spell, failed to reach double figures for shots.

In that Premier League stretch in which they took just eight points, their xG per game averaged out at just 0.94.

They weren't finding good positions from which to shoot from either, as only twice did they manage a non-penalty expected goals per shot (npxG/Sh) figure above 0.1. One of those was in the week three loss at Liverpool – where they registered 0.3, their highest of the season – while the other was 0.12, in the 3-0 home reverse by Aston Villa in week eight.

The 2-1 loss at Everton in their 14th game, where they scored through a Nicolas Pepe penalty and which led to the aforementioned Arteta press conference, was the nadir. They weren't scoring, nor were they creating either.

As such, along with the obviously improved results, eight goals in three games since (6.7 xG total) marks a major improvement as does the underlying data. For example that npxG/Sh figure is rising once more: 0.10 vs Chelsea, 0.11 vs Brighton and 0.17 vs West Brom.

Playing his part in that advancement has been the return to the first-team of Emile Smith Rowe, the talented youngster who is the kind of No.10 that has been missing since the ostracism of Mesut Ozil.

Others, such as Joe Willock, Willian and Alexandre Lacazette have been trialled as the central attacking midfielder in the 4-2-3-1 formation into which the side has transitioned, but Smith Rowe – previously having not seen any league action under Arteta, largely due to injury – interprets the role most similarly to the German, and perhaps in the most complete way.

While Willock prefers to run off the ball and Willian and Lacazette both come towards play to seek possession, Smith Rowe offers the greater mix, finding space between the lines and in either half-space, creating overloads out wide, while also making runs in behind opposing backlines to stretch defences. He gives greater variety.

Smith Rowe has impressed since returning
(Image: Arsenal FC via Getty Images)

In his three games back – totalling 228 minutes – he has been involved in 10 shot-creating actions, according to Statsbomb , via Fbref, taken 56 of his 138 touches in the opposing final third and progressed the ball 250 yards towards the opposition goal while dribbling and another 230 yards when passing.

His expected assists per 90 minutes (xA90) stands at 0.38; granted, it’s a limited sample size, but it’s double Arsenal’s next best (Dani Ceballos, 0.19). There’s not much that’s going to fill Youtube highlight reels, his style is more understated, but it’s effective.

“He is a player that I really liked since the first day I watched him,” said Arteta prior to the win at West Brom. “Just the way he moves, how intelligent he is with the positions he takes and his work rate – don't underestimate that.

“He works really hard for the team and he had a really bad injury this year and hasn't really trained with us at all.

“For the last two weeks he has been much more involved and you can see what he can bring to the team. I am delighted to have a young player with his talent and in that position. It was something that we needed."

Certainly it would seem that far from just throwing Smith Rowe in at the deep end with his side struggling, Arteta has been waiting for the 20 year-old’s return. That patience has been rewarded and he will hope that the injury issues that have hampered his development in the last two years are now behind him.

Smith Rowe celebrates with Bukayo Saka after his goal against Chelsea
(Image: Pool via REUTERS)

Crucial also to Arsenal’s upturn in form has been another simple change, namely moving Bukayo Saka.

The England youngster is unquestionably one of the Premier League’s best under-21 players and his versatility has been an asset, with him playing anywhere down the left side since Arteta's arrival 13 months ago.

Indeed Arsenal’s big strength when they were bad this term, was down their left, with he and Kieran Tierney. Despite Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s goalscoring struggles, it continued to be Arsenal’s greatest area of threat whether playing 4-3-3, 3-4-3 or 4-2-3-1, due to the quality of the aforementioned duo, and their respective ability to progress possession and carry attacks down that flank.

Tierney’s reputation is that of a fine defender – and he has been used as a third centre-back when they’ve switched to a back three – but like Saka he carries a major attacking threat, this season completing the club’s most key passes (23) and second-most shot creating actions (39); Saka tops the latter chart (with 43).

Saka and Tierney also lead the way in terms of dribbles leading to shot attempts and have had the most touches of all Arsenal players in the final third.

But while the duo in tandem was a great strength, it also meant teams could focus on shutting down that side of the field and forcing Arsenal to head down their right, where they have struggled. Nicolas Pepe is still not quite where the club had hoped since arriving for £72million from Lille, Willian is struggling to justify the three-year deal handed to him last summer and Reiss Nelson's days look numbered.

The switch of Saka from left to right has spread Arsenal's threat across the pitch.

It has made the side's attack less predictable with Saka keen to tuck inside to dovetail with Smith Rowe – but still good enough to go outside on his right foot – while simultaneously opening up space into which Tierney can more readily rampage down the left, as seen to great effect at West Brom, making it more difficult for opponents to contain Arteta’s attack.

No longer can opponents block off one side and filter them down the other way.

Tierney is a key attacking weapon and arguably Arsenal's most important player
(Image: Arsenal FC via Getty Images)

That has been borne out by three successive wins, the eight goals and the team landing their two biggest xG totals of the season in the wins over Chelsea (2.1) and Albion (3.4).

Saka was man of the match in the London Derby win and laid on the crucial winner at Brighton for Lacazette, as well as scoring at the Hawthorns. Tierney won a crucial penalty against Chelsea, and produced a magnificent individual performance in the West Midlands, while Smith Rowe has been an important component in each success – even when he's not still at 100 percent.

“We look more of a threat and more creative,” said Arteta after the win over West Brom.

Arteta, after being under pressure, made a few simple changes and ensured that rather than looking over their shoulder, the Gunners are shooting upwards once more.

The game no longer looks so difficult and Arsenal now look unrecognisable with two Hale End graduates and their flying Scotsman – seen as a club captain in waiting by his manager – leading the way from all areas across the field.

Can Arsenal still claim a place in the Champions League? Have your say in the comments.

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