What Mikel Arteta did during Porto loss suggests Arsenal haven’t solved a huge problem

Arsenal are continuing to struggle to create goals in open play against deep blocks

Arsenal's Spanish coach Mikel Arteta applauds during the UEFA Champions League last 16 first leg football match between FC Porto and Arsenal FC at the Dragao stadium in Porto on February 21, 2024. (Photo by PATRICIA DE MELO MOREIRA / AFP) (Photo by PATRICIA DE MELO MOREIRA/AFP via Getty Images)

For all their recent goalscoring form, there is one question that still remains over the Arsenal attack. Can they break down a low block in open play?

Against Liverpool and Burnley they showed what they can do when teams give them space. Their group stage exploits in the Champions League show yet more examples of the 100mph football that Mikel Arteta wants his side to play.

Up against tightly packed defences though, they have continued to remain stunted. Set pieces have been their main salvation. Against both Crystal Palace and West Ham – sides who set up to frustrate – Arsenal were able to get an edge with early corners and free kicks. With both teams forced to chase the game the spaces the Gunners crave opened up and they took full advantage. They should be given credit for this, but it has not silenced the doubt that hung over them during their run of one win in seven prior to the winter break.

In a poor quality game at Estadio do Dragao, with the rest of the attack misfiring, there was no set piece salvation. Gabriel Magalhaes, Kai Havertz and William Saliba all had chances from dead ball situations, and if they had been more ruthless perhaps Arsenal would be looking excitedly forward to the quarter finals of the Champions League.

The reality remains though that in open play against Porto they looked totally toothless. There were mitigating circumstances. Overzealous officiating and the awarding of 36 fouls across the course of the night didn’t help. Nor did the fact that the ball was in play for only 51% of the match. But the reality remains that Arsenal failed to record a shot on target in a match for the first time in two years.

“We really dominated the game, but we lacked purpose, especially in the first half,” Arteta said in his post-match press conference. “You need to have much more aggression, you need to break lines, to play forward and generate much more threat on that backline. In the second half there were much better things and we generated a lot of situations, without really creating much from it.”

The Spaniard himself seemed to accept on the night that Arsenal’s best chance of a breakthrough was going to come from a set play. As Arsenal won the late free kick that led to Gabriel’s head Arteta and his coaching staff began applauding effusively and pumping their fists, almost in celebration.

Arteta has insisted that his side will learn from their lack of cutting edge which punished brutally by a superb, if avoidable, late strike from Galeno. Thus far though, they have shown little to suggest that they are improving in open play against the very tightest of defences. If they don’t figure out a solution other than set pieces to break low blocks down, then winning the Champions League and Premier League this season at least, will by nigh on impossible.

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