Goals have been a problem all season for Arsenal, and the solution looks as far off as ever.
Another week passes and another three points to keep us in control of our own top four destiny. But it was also another week of missed chances and goalless strikers.
Despite ongoing concerns about the fragility of the back four and the team’s defensive structure, apart from one or two games, this isn’t the primary issue the team has. Sure, Arsenal have in seasons gone by (1990-91, 97-98 and 98-99 are great examples) amassed imposing points titles as much through frugal defending. But on the whole, successful seasons under Arsene Wenger have been characterised by impressive goal returns.
To date, we have conceded less goals then the 2001-2 title winners, and only three more than any season in the post invincibles era. And things would have to go badly wrong in the next three games for us to get anywhere near the goals conceded total for at least five seasons in that time. Our points total will be one of the worst in the Wenger years however, and this is largely due to the other end of the pitch.
Arsenal have only scored 54 league goals this year. The team needs to score six in the next three games to surpass the worst total under Wenger, set in 1998-99 ahead of a rock solid defence that only conceded 17, and that was a season where one extra goal in any of about 15 league games would have secured the title.
Our seasonal goal-per-game average has us on course to finish with less goals scored than any season with Arsene’s management, which is reflected in what will be one of the worst goal difference and points totals in almost two decades.
Looking at the squad, it’s not hard to see why. Only three players in the squad have ever scored 20 goals in a season. Alexis, Olivier Giroud and Theo Walcott. And between them you only have Giroud’s 21 for Montpellier in 2011-12 for more than 20 league goals at any point in a career.
So much as we talk about tactical predictability, imbalance in midfield and a lack of top level creativity beyond Ozil and Cazorla, the cold hard facts are that we just don’t have enough goal scorers in the squad, and haven’t had any at an elite level since RVP’s little boy inside screamed all the way to Manchester at the cost of his long-term career.
Of course, there is some mitigation in the fact that this season almost every player in the squad has a lower scoring total than their ‘expected goals’ statistics would suggest likely. But, ultimately, three potentially regular goal threats in a squad of 25 just doesn’t cut it this level, unless you have a miracle season devoid of any injuries at all, like Leicester.
I hasten to add that this is not an attack on our current striking options. Giroud is a fine option to have off the bench (where he has proven he can be an impact player) but lacks the mobility and two-footedness needed at the level of the club’s aspirations. Welbeck is a good squad man, whose work-rate, physicality and technique mean he can contribute in a rage of different roles, but he has never shown any sign of being a clinical finisher. Walcott, whose stock is as low as it’s been in some time, is the opposite to both. When on peak form, his contribution to overall play is minimal, but with the right team setup to play to his strengths (and usually only then), he can be deadly… though this season has been his least productive in terms of minutes per goal or assist in six years. With that in mind, it would be unlikely for his contribution in the future to be so minimal were he to remain at the club.
So there is a big ‘main man’ sized hole at the club, just waiting to be filled. It’s not far-fetched to suggest that a centre forward of the quality that Wenger spoiled us with for so long, would have fired us to the title. Given that we have drawn 10 league games this season and lost four others by only a single goal, 14 more goals (which would give us the exact season average since we last won the league) at the right times, would have had us crowned as champions already.
The greatest frustration lies with the fact that anyone in a position to comment at the season’s start cited a lack of cutting edge in the final third as an urgent issue. It’s pretty clear that the manager also recognises it, but is reluctant to put the requisite readies on the table to make it happen. Once again, his refusal to exceed his personal valuation for players has shown itself to be a false economy.
One can only hope that his reluctance for the final year of his contract to descend into acrimony and farce is sufficient to be willing to make the necessary investment, even if it means paying over the odds.