Alan Shearer: Arsenal missing chances is costing them and it has nothing to do with bad luck

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For a little while, I felt like an Arsenal fan; watching their FA Cup defeat against Liverpool was maddening, an exercise in stomach-churning frustration. I was on co-commentary duty for the BBC and as each golden chance came and went, the closer I came to turning the airwaves a vivid shade of blue. It took a lot of self-control (and a tongue bitten half to shreds) not to scream, “OH MY GOD, NO NO NO, JUST F***ING HIT THE BALL, PLEASE.”

As a former striker, I found all those unnecessary touches, the muddled decision-making and the moments of hesitation utterly infuriating, so I can certainly understand why supporters would be bemoaning their lack of a proper, high-quality centre-forward. If it’s so clear to them and so clear to the rest of us, then surely Arsenal’s hierarchy can’t be immune to it. As these cold January days tick by, price tags will be rising exponentially at clubs with even half an eye on selling.

My mate, colleague and Arsenal goalscoring legend, Ian Wright, put it succinctly on social media.

We need a killer. pic.twitter.com/BqnwJ0wFMO

— Ian Wright (@IanWright0) January 7, 2024

They need a killer alright, a cold-blooded finisher whose first and only instinct is to pull the trigger. Not every successful team have one; Chelsea and Manchester City are two English sides who have won trophies relatively recently without an out-and-out centre-forward, but Frank Lampard was prolific from midfield for the former and for the latter Pep Guardiola was blessed with an array of world-class players in every attacking position who, led by Ilkay Gundogan, all chipped in with goals.

And anyway, I always felt with City in the days before Erling Haaland’s arrival that they ran the risk of the very biggest moments passing them by. Arsenal are miles from that level and I simply don’t believe they will get to where they want to go without a reliable No 9. Kai Havertz isn’t that player, Gabriel Jesus is not a natural goalscorer, Eddie Nketiah is a good impact player but not the solution if you’re aiming to win the Premier League or Champions League.

The best teams often play the best football, but they’re always the most ruthless. Arsenal are the opposite. There’s a strange element to them this season in that, in some respects, they look a better side to last time, when they finished second. Defensively, they’ve looked pretty solid, while summer signing Declan Rice makes their midfield play more rounded, yet just about all of their numbers are down in an attacking sense compared to last season.

It isn’t only about a handful of fluffed shots on Sunday.

After 20 games last season, Arsenal had scored 45 goals, the second-best total in the league. This season, it is 37, which is seventh-best. Their shot conversion rate last season was fourth with 13.9 per cent. This season it is 11.4 per cent, which is 10th. They had the second-best expected goals total (xG), the third-best shot quality xG; this time, it is fifth and 10th. Goals from open play? They are 13th in the table for that one with 20.

Goals from set pieces are the one exception — Arsenal have the best record in the division — but by every other metric it is a story of decline and that Liverpool game summed them up, with an unhealthy dose of waning confidence thrown in.

Whether it is a lack of belief or pressure bearing down, those things chip away at a forward’s instincts to the extent where you look to take an extra touch. You want to feel the ball, to have that comfort and security.

What it does, of course, is bring the opposite and you can’t afford it at the top level, not against a team like Liverpool.

If Arsenal had hit first-time shots instead of taking those extra touches, they would have won comfortably because Jurgen Klopp’s team were there for the taking in the first half. They gave up so many chances, but Arsenal’s dithering gave their defenders and goalkeeper, expert players in their own right, time to recover and set themselves.

Arsenal — and Havertz in particular, who was the major culprit — lived to regret it. Most impressive from Liverpool’s perspective, in a match where they were missing Virgil van Dijk and Mohamed Salah, their two best players, was how they hung in, changed things around and then transformed themselves into a different team, but they shouldn’t have been offered that lifeline. Arsenal should have been out of sight.

Twice, Havertz wanted an extra touch instead of hitting it first time. Martin Odegaard did something similar when he chose to pass instead of shoot. Hit it, man; just hit it!

The best example of what Arsenal were missing, of what they weren’t doing, came with Liverpool’s second goal, when Luis Diaz simply moved the ball from under his feet and then smacked it in — a great finish.

Lucho securing our place in the #EmiratesFACup fourth round 🔒😮‍💨 pic.twitter.com/c8B2FqoAcy

— Liverpool FC (@LFC) January 8, 2024

Each touch narrows the odds in the defending team’s favour and often it narrows the angle for a striker. There are a couple of examples of this from Arsenal’s recent defeats against Fulham and West Ham, both featuring Bukayo Saka, a brilliant player I love watching, but who is having a tough time right now.

Look at this first chance. Look at Saka’s positioning as he winds up for his shot. The defender coming towards him must be six yards away, but he still manages to get the block in.

How? It’s that flicker of doubt, that split-second pause — which is way too long in the Premier League.

This next clip is all about Saka’s terrible touch. When the ball arrives at his feet eight or nine yards out, he’s on his own with most of the West Ham goal to aim at and he should shoot first-time.

There is no need to do anything other than strike it across goal, particularly when he’s left-footed in the first place. By the time he does shoot, the angle is dreadful and he hits the post.

But the problem for Arsenal isn’t just about confidence or their misfiring forwards not quite being good enough, even though that’s true. To my mind, the pace of their attacking has been slower compared to last season and, in part, it’s down to how their opponents have responded.

Their 1-0 defeat at St James’ Park in November might have been headline news because of VAR, but what I found really noteworthy was how Newcastle United doubled up on their forwards. More teams are doing that to Arsenal now and it works. In those circumstances, it’s up to Arsenal to move the ball quicker (ironically, they did it pretty well against Liverpool, not that it did them any good), something they have struggled with on occasion.

Here’s another example from the West Ham match.

Arsenal have explosive pace out wide, so you do what you can to prevent them going down the wings and getting in behind you. By doubling up on those players, you effectively force them inside, where they are invariably confronted by a thicket of defenders.

When the ball comes to Saka here — I promise, I’m not picking on him – he’s left as one versus two.

So he has little choice other than to step inside and tee up a long-range shot for Rice. The calculation from West Ham is that goals from outside the box are far more rare.

From the same game, here’s a different sort of problem Arsenal have. When the ball comes to Jesus on the left corner of the penalty area, look what he’s faced with. Look at his options.

There are three team-mates in a line on the edge of the area who are not playable at all. None of them are causing West Ham’s defenders a problem, nobody is making a run. There’s nothing for Jesus. It’s just basic play. Other than pass it backwards, all Jesus can try to do is put the ball in the top bin, which is going to take a spectacular finish — the kind you might produce once or twice in a season. It’s a really, really difficult chance. He is given no help at all.

It’s very rare that a manager will come out and say something as stark as, “I desperately need a centre-forward”, and Mikel Arteta has to protect and cajole the attacking players he’s got, particularly when they’re already struggling for confidence. He’s got to keep them onside, but in private he must be tearing his hair out. You can’t keep saying, ‘We’ve dominated the game, we should have won and I’m really happy’, because the last few weeks have really hurt Arsenal.

Elite forwards don’t come cheap and there’s a reason for that; it’s the most difficult and most important position on the pitch (and yes, too right I would say that). Whether Arsenal have the financial leeway to make such a signing I don’t know, but I do know that failing to do so has already cost them and will continue to do so.

Missing chances like they have has nothing to do with bad luck.

(Photo: Joe Giddens/PA Images via Getty Images)