In the wake of Arsenal’s 2-0 defeat at the hands of bitter rivals Tottenham, much was made of the Gunners’ insistence on putting the ball into the box from wide areas.
In all, Mikel Arteta’s men put 44 crosses into the box which, according to the statistical wizards at Opta, was the most they had attempted since their 2016 clash with Leicester. In that game, Danny Welbeck nodded home to secure a 2-1 win.
Today, though, our relentless efforts to get the ball into the danger area were not nearly as successful. We managed just two shots on target across the 90 minutes and failed to trouble the scorers in drawing yet another blank.
Just as last week against Wolves, this willingness to get the ball in from wide quickly became a source of angst among fans and pundits alike, with large numbers bemoaning the lack of end product. And while it is true that we once again failed to create enough good chances or put away those we did create, it feels counter-intuitive to put that failure on the very thing that gets us into the danger area in the first place.
Let me be clear: crossing is not where our problems lie. Kieran Tierney and Hector Bellerin are pretty good at the byline and Bukayo Saka is well capable of creating havoc with his deliveries. For all his faults, Willian is also an accomplished crosser of the ball.
That not every cross results in a goal is not a sign that it is a pointless endeavour, far from it. Every ball into the box is a question for the defence and an opportunity for our attacking players, particularly when lined up against a packed defence. Mikel Arteta is correct when he says that getting the ball into the box as regularly as we have been will result in goals, it simply requires better finishing.
Having dispensed with a counter-attacking style of football, Arsenal have had to rely on playing our way through the middle and that has proved incredibly difficult for a team that lacks genuine quality in midfield. Where teams sit deep and pack the centre of the pitch, that task becomes ever more difficult and so we have to find a different way of getting the ball in an area where we can score goals. That means crossing the ball.
The alternative given how deep teams are sitting against us would be to attempt to thread a ball through the eye of a needle, picking out runs with intricate balls through massed ranks of defenders. Not only is that low-percentage football, it is also football that relies on the players with the craft and vision capable of pulling it off. At present, for one reason or another, we don’t have the players capable of doing that.
You might argue that Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang is unsuited to an aerial bombardment but that excuse doesn’t wash. A £300,000-a-week striker of his quality should be more than capable of adapting, whether the ball is crossed into his feet or squarely on his head from eight yards out (as it has been twice in two weeks).
And there we arrive at the problem. We created more than Tottenham, our expected goals was double theirs, and we spent the majority of the match playing in their half of the pitch. The difference, in the end, was in the absolute quality of the finishing. Tottenham can’t miss at the moment whereas Arsenal can’t score, not even a grubby, fortunate deflection. Try as we might, it simply won’t go in. Whether we put eight balls into the box or 80, if the players receiving them are lacking in form, quality, or confidence, they all count for nothing.
And that is where we are as a team at the moment. We are mired in the worst scoring drought in a generation with no end in sight as our confidence is dented further week-after-week. There are plenty of directions in which the finger of blame could be pointed for that fact but putting the ball into the box – creating situations from which we could score – should not be one of them.