Arsenal's set-piece brilliance is masking open-play issues

  • Mikel Arteta won't admit it, but Arsenal's reliance on set pieces reveals a style problem in open-play
Arsenal FC v Crystal Palace - Premier League
Arsenal FC v Crystal Palace - Premier League / Sebastian Frej/MB Media/GettyImages

Arsenal are the set-piece kings of the 2023/24 Premier League, but the Gunners' fiefdom in dead-ball situations is hiding a deeper problem.

Mikel Arteta won't want to admit it, but his Arsenal team has a style problem. It's an issue being masked by old-fashioned mastery of set pieces.

A tally of ten goals from corners and 13 from set plays demands a tip of the cap. Even if those goals are propping up a title challenge otherwise undermined by a lack of fluency in open play.

Just 42 league goals in 21 games sums up the problem. It's the lowest scoring output among the division's top five.

The reasons are extensive: no standout centre-forward, not enough creative playmakers in midfield, a predictable pattern of play geared almost exclusively to exploiting width, etc, etc.

Arteta needs solutions, but for a supposedly progressive manager, he's taking a pragmatic route by weaponising set-pieces.

Arteta's showing his pragmatic traits

Mikel Arteta
Arteta's pragmatism guided Arsenal to their last FA Cup glory / Catherine Ivill/GettyImages

Progressive managers look for progressive solutions. Pep Guardiola traded in flying wingers for false nines at Manchester City. He swapped inverted full-backs for John Stones making powerful breaks from the base of midfield.

Guardiola isn't the only gaffer putting his best foot forward when making tactical adjustments. Jurgen Klopp knew his midfield could no longer press with the same terrier-like intensity once Jordan Henderson and Fabinho slowed to a crawl.

Rather than look for more tough runners, Klopp changed tact by installing playmakers like Alexis MacAllister, Curtis Jones and Harvey Elliott into the middle of the park. Now, Liverpool weave more elaborate patters in possession, but still with the intention of entering the final third as quickly as possible.

Klopp and Guardiola have used tactical tweaks to improve their attacks from open play. Arteta? Not so much.

The Arsenal chief has adopted a meat-and-potatoes approach to finding the net. A throwback to the days of loading the box, pumping a high ball into the mixer and letting the strong man win.

A goal is a goal, and nobody should sneer at the ones Arsenal score from set-pieces. Yet, if you don't think this is a style problem, you're kidding yourself.

Want proof? Sky Sports News used Opta stats to show 31 percent of Arsenal's league goals have come from set-pieces, with only Luton Town and Everton accounting for more.

Luton use set-plays as a way to smash-and-grab points for Premier League survival. So do Everton and manager Sean Dyche, who nobody's going to confuse for Arsene Wenger or Pep Guardiola, philosophically.

Arteta is firmly part of the Wenger and Guardiola coaching tree, but this isn't the first time he's leaned into less artful solutions.

Arsenal won the FA Cup in 2020 once Arteta reverted to a 3-4-3 formation that was really 5-4-1 out of possession. The setup relied on a low defensive block, while Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang made the most of rare, rapid counter-attacks.

This formula, perfect for cup football, but not the most aesthetically pleasing, should have looked familiar to Arsenal fans of a certain age. Or to those who know history.

It was the same mode of travel George Graham once used to win both domestic Cups in the same campaign. Arsenal lifted the League and FA Cups in 1993 thanks to a deep defensive structure, set-pieces and the impish brilliance of Ian Wright up top.

Graham had previously won two league titles making Arsenal's rearguard and offside trap famous. Graham's teams were also synonymous with set-pieces. The Arsenal near-post corner routine, usually involving a Tony Adams or Steve Bould darting to the front stick to flick the ball on for a team-mate to head in, was prolific on Graham's watch.

There's a reason this routine, as well as general aerial dominance, all-but disappeared during the Wenger era. Set-piece reliance is usually the purview of dour, defensive teams. A side free-flowing between the lines has less need for more direct routes to goal.

Arteta's had trouble maintaining an entertaining, expansive style of play for too long, so he's gone for a simple solution to a complex problem.

Arsenal can be braver about solving attacking woes

The manager was right when he said not having a striker who can score 30 to 40 goals means "we have to share them."

Yet, there are other ways to share goals than counting on the tallest players in the squad every week. Those ways include putting more creativity around Martin Odegaard.

Emile Smith Rowe shouldn't be on his way out of the club when Arsenal have created 44 big chances. That's 10 fewer than Liverpool and six less than City, per the Premier League's official site. The Gunners have also played 11,896 passes, only the sixth-most in the division and well behind City and Brighton.

A two-footed creator like Smith Rowe, who has shades of Santi Cazorla in his game, would take some of the attention away from Odegaard. So would Fabio Vieira, whose injury woes have denied Arsenal his keen eye for an assist recently.

Smith Rowe and/or Vieira would be playing alongside Odegaard if the idea was to make more use of the ball away from set-piece situations. Instead, Arteta wants the extra physicality of Kai Havertz.

The striker problem will likely be solved in the same way. By spending big on a more muscular presence than Gabriel Jesus.

A cheaper alternative would be to shift Gabriel Martinelli's pace through the middle. Or to roll the dice and partner Jesus with Eddie Nketiah more often.

That would carry more risk than counting on set-pieces to be the secret sauce. Arteta is playing to a strength, the nuanced dead-ball strategies of set-piece coach Nicolas Jover. It's a sound strategy, as far as it goes, but playing to a strength can also mean ignoring a deeper weakness.

Arteta will eventually need way to restore the slick, one- and two-touch magic that can keep Arsenal in the goals even when those vaunted corners aren't working.