F365’s early losers: Arsenal’s away form (and that back three)

Daniel Storey

Having defended shambolically and been excellent in attack against Manchester United, you might have thought there was a reasonably simple way for Arsenal to improve against Southampton. Instead they decided to continue with the defensive incompetence, but instead look less potent in attack. It’s a bold approach, you have to agree.

Arsenal have now dropped 16 points away from home in the Premier League this season, and we’re only in mid-December. They have been beaten by Stoke, Liverpool, Watford and Manchester City, and only beaten Everton and Burnley. This week Arsene Wenger ruled his team out of a title race for which nobody had considered them as challengers in the first place. This is why.

This ineptitude away from the Emirates is hardly anything new. Last season, Arsenal ranked third for their home record, but sixth on the road. In the last calendar year, Arsenal have lost 11 of their last 20 away league games. The only five teams who have lost more in the Premier League over that time are Stoke City, Swansea, Watford, West Brom and Crystal Palace.

Four of those 11 defeats have come since the change of shape to a back three that initially looked to have solved some of Arsenal’s issues and certainly gave them a bounce last season. Unfortunately, while Laurent Koscielny and Nacho Monreal are able to cope with the formation, it does nothing for Per Mertesacker. With Shkodran Mustafi injured and Rob Holding out of favour, Mertesacker starts.

Mertesacker is coming to the end of his career, and looks woefully out of depth as the central member of this flat back three. When the attack-shy Southampton are making you look silly, something has to change. The first half produced a series of misunderstandings and miscommunications. Koscielny was just as guilty of making individual errors after the break.

The back three is worth persisting with if it ensures defensive solidity – which it now doesn’t – but even then the knock-on effect on Arsenal’s central midfield cannot be overlooked. The lack of extra central midfielder means that Granit Xhaka is afforded less protection, and Aaron Ramsey and Alexis Sanchez are effectively given free roles to roam at will. That only leaves Xhaka exposed without cover, and he has proven himself incapable of coping without it.

Xhaka’s passing is also hugely frustrating, sideways and backwards rather than with the drive that Jack Wilshere would surely provide. None of Arsenal’s Thursday boys started on Sunday – what more must they do? Moving to a back four would take Mertesacker out of the firing line, and allow for an extra central midfielder. In away games, that must surely be the better plan.

If the defence deserves the most censure, Arsenal’s attack is hardly firing away from home. Not only have seven Premier League teams scored more away goals, but 56% of Arsenal’s away league goals came in a 52-minute period against Everton.

Over the last two seasons, Arsenal have averaged 36 away goals per season. Having broken their club record to finally sign the centre forward supporters were desperate for, Arsenal are currently heading for 21 in 2017/18. In 502 away minutes, Alexandre Lacazette has had six shots on target. It’s just not working.

An attack that looks clumsy and is too easily held at arm’s length. A central midfield that is sluggish and lacks protection. A defence that is making far too many individual mistakes and is organised in a shape that fails to get the best out of the team. A manager that still refuses to react quickly enough to issues. Apart from that, everything is going swimmingly when Arsenal play away. Two points dropped rather than one point earned.

Daniel Storey