Mikel Arteta needs his big players to step up in the vital moments during one of the most important periods in Arsenal’s recent history. The problem is that two of them are out for the season.
The Gunners are aiming to reach the Champions League for the first time in five years, in what would be a milestone moment for their progression and improvement under their young Spanish head coach.
But since Kieran Tierney picked up a serious knee injury at the start of the month, the Gunners have lost three games out of three. Thomas Partey picked up a thigh problem in the first of those games – a 3-0 defeat at Crystal Palace – in a further blow to the Gunners’ top-four hopes.
The statistics show that Arsenal are a much more cohesive unit with both Tierney and Partey in their squad – and that their absence is detrimental to Arteta’s game plan.
So what makes Partey and Tierney so crucial to Arsenal – and how does the Gunners manager get around this problem?
Many predicted that Arsenal’s defensive game would take a hit with both Tierney and Partey on the treatment table – and that is what has transpired.
The data shows that the Gunners concede twice as many goals per game without the duo in their team which ultimately leads to a decrease in points picked up per game.
Arsenal simply have less control of the game without Partey in midfield, which is no surprise given he has attempted the most tackles (43), completed the most challenges (29) and won the most possession (153) compared to any other Arsenal player in the league this season.
In terms of losing control, Arsenal’s non-penalty xG was far better than their opponents in every game between the moment Partey returned from the Africa Cup of Nations in January to the start of April. But in their most recent defeats to Brighton and Southampton, the Gunners’ lack of control was so severe that they were dominated in the xG battle in a Premier League game for the first time in several months.
Partey gives Arsenal that better control in midfield and while his deputy Albert Sambi Lokonga is an astute back-up, his lack of Premier League appearances means the Gunners lose something when their first-choice defensive midfield option is out.
With regards to Tierney’s absence, Arsenal field a more careless option at left-back in Nuno Tavares when Tierney is out injured. The young Portuguese full-back, who like Lokonga is in his first top-flight season with the club, has endured a tough time at the club since the turn of the year.
Tavares was hauled off after 35 minutes in the FA Cup loss at Nottingham Forest in January, while his next start saw him suffer a similar fate at half-time in the Crystal Palace loss. The 21-year-old was dropped for the home loss to Brighton, with midfielder Granit Xhaka turning out in his spot – before coming off after 70 minutes against Southampton.
Arteta and Arsenal opted to go for a young and thin squad this season due to a lack of European football but the likes of Lokonga and Tavares have failed to live up to the performances set by their first-choice rivals while coming in to deputise.
And with Thomas Tuchel’s free-scoring Chelsea – who have found the net 11 times in their last three matches – acting as the Gunners’ next challenge this Wednesday, live on Sky Sports, Arsenal’s backline needs to be at its very best.
Arsenal are currently suffering a general drought in attack, with Arteta’s side mustering only one goal from 55 shots in their last four matches – and even that was a speculative deflected effort but Tierney and Partey’s absence has influenced the Gunners’ goal shortage.
The most damning stat is that Arsenal score over 50 per cent fewer goals when Tierney and Partey do not start compared to when they do. One of the reasons for that is due to Arsenal losing their left-back’s attacking intent when he is absent from the starting line-up.
The Scottish international has made far more open-play crosses (79) than any other player in the Arsenal squad this season and his ability to bomb down the wing allows the likes of Gabriel Martinelli and Emile Smith Rowe to adopt more central areas to help the Gunners attack.
Partey, meanwhile, does his fair share of work in the attacking side of the game. The Ghana midfielder has a dribble success rate of 81.4 per cent this season, which is higher than any other Premier League player who has attempted more than 25 bursts in the current campaign.
Meanwhile, Partey is a more progressive passer than his deputy Lokonga, who has a lower forward passing percentage than the Ghanaian. The former is also crucial to the Gunners uniting the play from defence to attack, with Partey much more comfortable in dropping deep to collect the ball from his defenders than his Belgian team-mate.
How does Arteta fix Arsenal’s problems?
So with Tierney and Partey’s respective absences affecting both ends of the pitch, culminating in a three-game losing streak for Arsenal, Arteta faces a race against time to find a solution before the top-four race runs out of the Gunners’ hands.
But with seven games of the Premier League season remaining for Arsenal, starting with Wednesday’s trip to Chelsea, Arteta believes he is close to that eureka moment.
“I’m very close,” the Arsenal manager told a press conference on Tuesday. “Our efficiency in front of goal, and what the teams have produced in our own box with the amount of chances they created, there is no relationship there at all.
“So we have expected to win all the matches and we have periods when we have to be very critical with ourselves because we haven’t had good periods, especially in the first half against Palace, and the first 20 or 30 minutes against Brighton.
“But for the rest, I think the team has produced more than enough to get a completely different outcome from the matches. It’s down to us, that’s the good thing.”
But with young players such as Tavares and Lokonga expected to carry the torch in their injured team-mates’ absences, Arteta knows that instilling confidence in his young squad is equally key.
The Arsenal manager added: “I have to be very clear with why we have lost the games and then give them more support and confidence and be behind them because it is what they need and what we are going to need altogether between here and the end of the season.
“When things go well it’s easy. It’s all about ‘we’ but when things don’t go that well, maybe it’s about ‘him’. I hate that and I’m the first one to try to apply myself to do that, defend our players, protect them and let them be who they’ve been because they’ve been pretty good to be fair.”