Richard Jolly digs deep to try and explain Arsenal's lack of goals and diminishing creativity as the Gunners stumbled into the international break with the lowest goals tally in the top 16 of the Premier League.
Harry Kane is in the lead, on 38. Mohamed Salah is second, four behind him. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang is tied for 48th with, among others, Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa, a defensive midfielder for promoted Fulham. He is behind Harry Maguire, three adrift of Trent Alexander-Arnold, four down on Yves Bissouma.
It is the table for the most shots in the Premier League this season. Aubameyang, a player some tipped to regain the Golden Boot, has only had 10. The damning detail is not that he is not even the furthest Arsenal player up the chart – Bukayo Saka has 12 – but that there is no Gunner in the top 42. The fact that Alexandre Lacazette has three goals from nine shots indicates how Arsenal’s essential problem is not their finishing. It is their creativity, or lack of it.
Only seven teams have a lower xG but only six have scored fewer. Arsenal have only underperformed their expected goals by 0.3. Their percentage of shots on target – 36.6 – is healthy, placing them ninth in that particular table. The opportunities they create may be good ones: the problem is that there are nowhere near enough.
Only four clubs average fewer shots per game than their 9.1 and whereas that quartet – Newcastle, Sheffield United, Crystal Palace and West Bromwich Albion – have a maximum average of 43.9 percent of possession, Arsenal have had 52.0 percent. Everyone else who has had that much of the ball has done more with it.
It is the continuation of a downward trend. Arsenal averaged 15.6 shots per game in 2017-18, Arsene Wenger’s final season, then 12.3 in their only full campaign under Unai Emery, before 10.7 last season. Aubameyang’s clinical finishing has tended to camouflage the extent to which they have been outshot. Last season, only Jamie Vardy scored more goals than the Arsenal captain but eight players had more attempts; the previous year, he shared the Golden Boot, though six players had more shots.
In part, that is a product of policy. Arsenal stand only 17th for long-range shots, which tend to be statistically inefficient; they would rather create fewer chances, but better ones. The issue is how few: they average 14.25 shot-creating actions per game, better only than the same quartet of Newcastle, Sheffield United, Palace and West Brom. It scarcely helps that they are not posing enough of a threat from set-pieces: only one goal scored, excluding penalties, and with just nine that have led to an attempt. They are 16th in both that table and a very different one: for dribbles per game. It suggests a lack of individualism that can open up a defence.
The absence of a dribbler, a playmaker or a creator in chief who can assume the major responsibility for fashioning opportunities leaves a void. It is no surprise that Kevin de Bruyne is the runaway leader in the table for shot-creating actions per 90 minutes, which is practically a private fiefdom. The issue for Arsenal is their first entry in the chart is Dani Ceballos, with 2.88 per 90 minutes to De Bruyne’s 7.61. Ceballos is behind five Brighton players and four from Aston Villa, including second-placed Ross Barkley. Only Willian and Aubameyang join Ceballos in the top 99. Only Aubameyang is in the top 50 for most shot-creating actions in all. Whereas De Bruyne averages 3.3 key passes per game, no Gunner has more than 1.3. None figures in the top 33. Nor is there any representation from Arsenal among the 20 players with the most crosses.
The Arsenal player with the most expected assists is Aubameyang, at 1.32, which puts him 25th in the league. Go by expected assists per 90 minutes and Ceballos, in 28th with 0.26, leads the way.
It highlights the lack of an attacking midfielder. Ignore De Bruyne and there are others who figure highly in various charts – Barkley, Jack Grealish, Bruno Fernandes, James Rodriguez, Jack Harrison, Hakim Ziyech, Wilfried Zaha – with the numbers suggesting Arsenal do not have an equivalent of any.
There are two who might have filled that void and one who was supposed to: one problem is that Willian is yet to replicate his Chelsea form in an Arsenal shirt. He averaged a healthy 5.12 shot-creating actions per 90 minutes last season, which put him sixth in the league, but that is down to 2.64 now, just as his average shots per 90 minutes has gone from 2.32 to 0.88. His expected assists per 90 minutes was between 0.24 and 0.47 in each of the last three years; now it is 0.13.
Meanwhile, the summer transfer target Houssem Aouar is averaging 4.80 shot-creating actions per 90 minutes for Lyon in Ligue Un; put those figures in the Premier League and he would sit seventh, separating Fernandes and Rodriguez. His 2.6 shots per game would leave him 17th, along with Ollie Watkins. His xG of 3.1 is better than Lacazette’s and more than twice as high as Aubameyang’s meagre 1.35.
The other, inescapable element is that Mesut Ozil’s numbers also suggest he is an ineligible upgrade. The German only recorded two Premier League assists in each of the last two campaigns but had 3.89 and 3.94 shot-creating actions per 90 minutes respectively. His 2.1 key passes per game last season was half his figure in 2015-16, when he recorded 19 assists, but is still far more than any Arsenal player now.
With Ozil omitted from their Premier and Europa League squads, Arsenal have no option to recall him. But in his absence, without Aouar or any comparable creator, they are not supplying their likeliest matchwinner. Aubameyang is one of the finest finishers in the country but has an xG per 90 minutes of just 0.17. It puts him 90th in the league. And that explains why Arsenal are not scoring.