The Premier League is back. And Arsenal kicked things off in style with a season-opening 3-0 victory against Fulham.
After a shaky opening ten minutes, Mikel Arteta’s side controlled the match. They moved the ball quickly and were composed in possession. They pressed Fulham high, suffocating them in key areas of the pitch. They defended excellently; the home side managing just 0.1 expected goals.
However, for all the positives Arteta and his players will draw from the victory and performance, the Gunners’ main weakness is still noticeably present.
And that is Arsenal’s central midfield lacks a crucial offensive spark.
Granit Xhaka and Mohamed Elneny were at the heart of Arsenal’s 3-4-3 formation. They were tidy, neat, maintained pass completion rates north of 90%, and played 60 and 64 passes respectively.
Nevertheless, they didn’t add creativity or incision to the Gunners’ attacks, barring one Xhaka pass to Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang in the opening period.
Invention in central areas is something Arsenal lacked throughout last season. With Mesut Ozil jettisoned from the senior squad and Dani Ceballos used in a deeper role, genuine ingenuity was absent.
Based on countless reports of Arsenal’s key targets this summer, the club accepts that it was a problem.
Per ESPN, Lyon midfielder Houssem Aouar, who has been extensively linked with a more to north London, is the Gunners’ number one target. The report adds Arteta wants to build his new-look midfield around the young Frenchman.
Aouar possesses the creativity and dribbling ability the Arsenal midfield is missing. And it is a skill set that would have flourished against Fulham on Sunday.
Xhaka and Elneny were afforded ample time on the ball, especially in the second period. Fulham did not entirely drop into a low block, but they were certainly more concerned with restricting space in deeper areas and remaining positionally disciplined than they were implementing a high press
In Arteta’s possession-based approach that requires an intense press and quick recycling of the ball, Arsenal will face similar gameplans throughout the season and they must prove that they can break down such defensive structures.
On Saturday, they were helped by some suspect Fulham defending. Tim Ream failed to clear for Alexandre Lacazette’s opener. Then Gabriel nodded home a second from a corner, before Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang scored on a quick-strike counter-attack.
Arsenal did not consistently scythe open the Fulham defence, even if they did largely control the game. They will have to find such incision and progression to consistently win matches throughout the season.
That is precisely what Aouar can provide.
Per FBREF, last season he averaged 0.14 expected assists per 90 minutes, created 1.24 chances per 90, played 4.98 passes into the final third per 90, and averaged 3.08 shot-creating and 0.46 goal-creating actions per 90.
He is also an excellent ball carrier. Against Fulham, Arsenal moved possession from side to side swiftly and efficiently, but there was little individual quality to drive forward and break the game open.
Bar a couple of sporadic Aubameyang bursts, very few players could dribble past an opponent and create space for teammates in the process.
Last season in Ligue 1, Aouar averaged 3.00 successful dribbles per 90, dribbled past 3.32 players per 90, and carried the ball a progressive distance of 217.1 yards per 90.
Such figures would immediately put him among the best in the Arsenal squad if he were to arrive at the Emirates.
Arsenal’s interest in Aouar has been recognised by Lyon sporting director, Juninho. “Houssem Aouar is really well liked by Arteta,” the Brazilian said, via Goal.
When asked this week, though, Arteta would not discuss a potential move: “I don’t want to talk about players at other clubs.”
The Arsenal boss did concede, though, that the club will be active in the final weeks of the window.