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Monday, 29 October 2012

Half of half a season in: life without RVP

Before victory against QPR this weekend, it had been six months since ‘ONE-NIL! TO THE ARS-EN-AL!’ had been the end result in a premier league fixture. This chant carries memories of the Arsenal of old (circa fifteen years ago), back when the calibre of the defence in many ways equaled that of the attack. After the unconvincing back-to-back nil-nil draws which began the 2012-2013 season, much was made by optimists of the possibility that Steve Bould’s appointment as Assistant Manager might hail a new era of Arsenal defensive solidity akin to that which Bould himself was previously part of.

Over the first quarter of the season, this belief has seemed to prove largely plausible. Per Mertesacker has looked much improved and Carl Jenkinson has also caught the eye with some promising performances. As well as keeping the joint most clean sheets, Arsenal have conceded the fewest goals out of all Premier League teams so far this season; three less than league leaders Chelsea and Manchester City, five less than Everton and seven less than Manchester United and Tottenham.

However, as of yesterday, all these teams sit ahead of Arsenal in the table. The reason for this is fairly obvious to all. It is all very well not conceding goals, but there is another pretty vital aspect of football: scoring. Arsenal’s players have managed just fourteen goals between them so far, the third lowest total in the top half of the table, seven less than Chelsea and ten less than United: respectable for a mid-table to Europa League-pushing club, not for the top four. Were you to discount the six-goal haul against a hapless,  bottom-of-the-table Southampton, Arsenal’s tally would be almost halved and the team would have the joint third worst total in the League.

This is exactly the situation some would have predicted after the loss of the Premier League’stop scorer last year, Robin van Persie, to Manchester United. Van Persie is the League’s current top scorer this season with seven goals, not to mention three assists. Here’s the stat to spell it out: if Arsenal had managed to score just one more goal in four of their games this season, they would be at the top of the table, joint on points and goal difference with Chelsea. With van Persie’s seven goals, there would be breathing space.

This is the frustration for Arsenal fans: at a time when it looks like things are finally coming together at the back, the team has lost its mojo up front. Whilst the 'one-man team' line is a little tired, there is no getting away from the fact that van Persie scored thirty of Arsenal's seventy-four League goals last season, almost four times that of our second top scorer, Theo Walcott. Wenger has tried to replace van Persie with two strikers proven in top European leagues: Lukas Podolski and Olivier Giroud, who currently hold three premier league goals between them. Three is also the number of goals scored by Arsenal’s current top scorer Gervinho. His goals to shots ratio is close to van Persie’s, but, as he is not deployed as an out-and-out striker, he is just not having enough of either. Despite great pressure in Saturday’s game, it was only after eighty-four minutes and a QPR red card that Mikel Arteta, as indeed he did the last time Arsenal won a league game one-nil, was able to convert a late chance. Arteta's effort was one of twenty-one Arsenal shots on Saturday. So far only two Premier League teams have a lower shot accuracy rate than Arsenal.

So, what is to be done? In an Arsenal team that is quite different-looking to that of a couple of seasons ago, some might stress learning to walk before trying to run: start at the back and work forwards. I am in no way suggesting that Arsenal should focus less on defence; their record so far this season is testament to hard work on the training ground and strength at the back has been a long-overdue achievement for the club. However, should goals continue to elude our attacking players, one of three options should be taken.

Firstly and obviously: buy in January. A top class striker would presumably not be out of Arsenal’s financial reach. Knowing Wenger’s transfer policy, this would be a last resort but there is also the possibility of bringing someone in on short-term loan for the second half of the season. Secondly: work with what we have. In contrast to our lack of confident strikers, Arsenal have an enviable array of promising midfield players. Theo Walcott for one has expressed the desire to play a more central, striker-like role. His shot accuracy has improved of late, and when he recovers from injury, this would be an interesting opportunity for Wenger to take him up on it.

Thirdly and bluntly: work more on shooting in training. Our defence has clearly improved so much of late that the attackers are not even getting goal-scoring opportunities in practice matches. Steve Bould you have some explaining to do…

In seriousness, while we are not at panic stations quite yet, Arsenal's league position must improve by Christmas. None of Chelsea, City and United have played their best football yet but it is already likely that Arsenal's lack of clinical finishing will see them fail to penetrate the top three. Newcastle, Liverpool and Tottenham also already have players amongst the top five scorers in the league, and Everton are playing their best attacking football in years. It is true that a clinical goalscorer is not necessarily the most vital aspect of a team; last season Blackburn were relegated despite their striker Yakubu finishing as the joint fourth-top scorer in the League. However in Arsenal's case it does seem that it is the Dutchman-shaped hole in the line-up that is costing them points. So while I am thankful that the 'nil' at our end is largely being taken care of by Vermaelen and co., surely we can find a few more 'one's at the other. If all else fails, let's hope Arsene still has Thierry on speed-dial.

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