Arsenal’s lack of firepower proving costly in Champions League race but path to improvement is clear

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Arsenal’s 1-0 loss to Southampton on Saturday made it 15 games since one of their strikers last scored a goal from open play in the Premier League, a run which goes all the way back to December.

Eddie Nketiah was chosen to lead the line at St Mary’s in the absence of Alexandre Lacazette, who was ruled out with Covid-19, but he fared little better than his team-mate has recently.

The 22-year-old did at least have a shot on goal, which is more than Lacazette managed in the 2-1 reverse against Brighton a week earlier, but he never really threatened to find the net.

It is now more than two months since Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang left for Barcelona but damningly, having fired seven goals in all competitions in the first half of the campaign, he remains Arsenal’s highest-scoring striker this season.

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Arsenal coped just fine without him initially, winning 10 out of 13 Premier League games and scoring 26 goals between mid-December – when he was exiled from the side – and the end of March.

But with Lacazette and Nketiah unable to provide enough cutting edge up front and Bukayo Saka, Gabriel Martinelli and the rest of Arsenal’s supporting forwards struggling to deliver consistently in front of goal, results have deteriorated sharply.

Poor finishing proving costly

It is not for a lack of trying.

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Arsenal had numerous scoring opportunities against Southampton, with Saka, Emile Smith Rowe and Martin Odegaard going closest, but the outcome was a familiar one as Jan Bednarek’s goal, from one of only nine shots to Arsenal’s 23, proved decisive.

Between December and March, Mikel Arteta’s side managed to convert enough chances to reignite their top-four hopes, but wasteful finishing has been an issue throughout the season.

Arsenal rank fifth in the division in terms of expected goals this season, according to Opta, and yet their actual total of 45 places them eighth, sandwiched between Leicester and Crystal Palace.

Opta’s expected goals model states they have scored roughly 10 goals fewer than they should have over the course of the campaign, based on the quality of the chances they have created.

The only teams with worse records in front of goal this season are bottom side Norwich and mid-table Brighton.

Arsenal’s poor finishing contrasts sharply with that of their opponents on Wednesday night.

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Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta says he expects Alexandre Lacazette to stay focused on playing for the club despite doubts about his

Chelsea have of course had problems of their own up front this season.

Romelu Lukaku, signed from Inter Milan for a club-record £97.5m fee at the start of the campaign, has failed to meet expectations and now finds himself demoted to the bench, his future uncertain.

But while Arsenal have struggled to convert their chances into goals, Opta’s data shows Thomas Tuchel’s side have scored nearly eight times more than expected, making them the most efficient side in the division this season in terms of finishing, despite the issues around Lukaku.

It gives them a significant edge ahead of Wednesday’s game.

Encouragement in underlying numbers

Image: Arsenal's Bukayo Saka celebrates after a recent goal against Watford

Arteta knew Arsenal had gambled when they allowed Aubameyang to leave without bringing in a replacement in January. The logic, he explained to Sky Sports in March, was that the right player simply wasn’t available at the midway point of the season.

“Even if you are tempted to do something, but you think it’s going to bring you trouble in the coming months or years, you should not do it,” he said. “But whether it was a good decision or not, we will only know at the end of the season.”

It looks increasingly as though it will be remembered as a bad one, even if there is acceptance that Aubameyang’s presence at the club had become more of a hindrance than a help, but there is at least encouragement to be found in the underlying numbers.

Arsenal have been a long way from their fluent best of late, the injuries to Thomas Partey and Kieran Tierney significantly impacting their performances, but on the whole they are still creating chances.

In fact, since the turn of the year, they have registered a higher total of expected goals than their opponent in nine out of 12 Premier League games, the only exceptions coming against Manchester City, Liverpool and Crystal Palace.

Statistically speaking, Arsenal’s performances at both ends of the pitch throughout the second half of the campaign have been better than at any other period of Arteta’s tenure.

It is little consolation now, as a top-four finish slips out of reach, but the numbers suggest an increase in firepower in the summer could have a transformative effect on their future results.

Lack of experience must be addressed

Image: Arsenal have lost four of their last five games in the Premier League

Arsenal’s gamble in January was all the more risky given the profile of the squad Arteta currently has at his disposal.

Last summer’s recruitment drive has proved a success, the new signings reinvigorating the side and lowering the average age of the team dramatically, but with youth comes inexperience and that inexperience has shown lately.

“The players that we have, they haven’t done it in this league,” said Arteta after the Southampton game. “When you have a world-class player that has been playing in the league for 10 years, probably you are not sitting here.”

Arsenal’s inexperience can be seen not just in their failure to convert chances in recent weeks, but in the way in which their form has fluctuated over the course of the campaign.

Defeats have come in clusters and so too have victories.

The streakiness is typical of youth and underlines the need for more experience this summer, something the club are aware of having focused their recruitment on players aged 23 or under last year.

“I think now we can be more flexible in the type of recruitment we do because obviously we are the youngest squad in the league right now,” Arteta added to Sky Sports in March. “We have to be careful about what is the balance.”

That balance is not right yet and that is another factor which may end up costing them a Champions League finish this season. But the path to improvement is clear – even if there is more frustration to come between now and the end of the campaign.

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