Arsenal’s 2-0 defeat to Brentford was probably the worst possible start to the Premier League campaign that they could have managed.
Arguably more concerning though was that stale nature of the offensive performance. This a problem Mikel Arteta has struggled with more or less since he took over as the Spaniard has failed to find a consistent method of breaking down opposition back lines to create chances for his team.
That is, of course, except for the brief period where he did.
Arsenal fans have been through enough over the past 48 hours so they could probably do without being reminded of their shocking to start to last season, where a creative chasm caused by the failure to replace Mesut Ozil left their side 16th in the Premier League at Christmas having been outscored by every team except for Sheffield United, Burnley and West Brom.
The pair transformed the Gunners’ fortunes dramatically so that after Boxing Day the form table had them third in the league.
Much of the talk in the build up to the Norwegian’s January arrival was over whether he would displace Smith Rowe, but in reality the two ended up dovetailing well together.
In fact it was in the brief period where they both started alongside Bukayo Saka in an attacking trio behind the striker, where Arsenal produced some of their best attacking displays of the season.
Perhaps most impressive of all was the 4-2 victory over Leeds where the three worked fantastically in behind Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang to help the Gabon forward net the first Premier League hat trick of his career.
Looking back on that game now their positional interplay and attacking fluidity was enough to run Bielsa’s side ragged on that rainy Valentine’s Day.
Take Aubameyang’s first goal for instance.
Initially the team’s set up is relatively rudimentary, with the Gabon forward occupying the ‘No.9′ position, Smith Rowe wide on the left, Saka on the right, and Odegaard on the ball slightly deeper than the traditional ’10’ slot (image from Wyscout ).
The ball is then eventually worked back to Gabriel who drives forward prompting Aubameyang to make a typical Thierry Henry -style dart to the left channel, while Smith Rowe drifts infield to receive the pass.
The England Under-21 international then flicks it into Granit Xhaka who releases Aubameyang with a first time ball.
The 32-year-old then dribbles into a box packed with Leeds defenders, but is able to find space thanks to the movement of those around him. As seen in the picture below Smith Rowe has made a decoy run to penalty spot, while Saka is occupying defenders at the back post and Odegaard is available for the cut back on the edge of the box.
Aubameyang doesn’t need a second invitation to shoot in this situation, and duly obliges firing a clinical low shot past Illan Meslier at the near post to set the Gunners on their way to a handsome victory.
Sadly due to Smith Rowe’s fitness issues acclimatising to regular senior football, Odegaard’s ankle injury sustained while on international duty with Norway and Arteta’s bizarre insistence for playing Willian, we only got to see the trio in action on four occasions.
In those matches Arsenal won three, drew one, and average 2.5 goals per game.
Compare that to the level of attacking threat seen against Brentford on Friday night and the difference is sobering.
The only survivor of the Smith Rowe-Odegaard-Saka axis in the match was the Gunners’ new No.10. The 21-year-old put in a sublime display often single handedly dragging his team up the pitch in an attempt to change their fortunes.
Around though in Gabriel Martinelli and Nicolas Pepe the Hale Ender had players whose strengths lie more in finishing chances than creating them, causing Arsenal’s familiar final third problems to rear their ugly head again.
The fact that Flo Balogun was only able to get 13 touches of ball before being substituted on the hour mark serves as perfect evidence of this. Smith Rowe is a fantastic young talent, but he can’t be expected to solve this all on his own.
When asked about the issue after the game Arteta bemoaned the lack of senior players available to him on the night above all else.
“I don’t think that tonight’s game is the one to analyse given the circumstances that we had on the day,” he said.
While the Spaniard was undoubtedly dodging a valid question, he may well have a point due to Saka’s lack of fitness to start the match, and Arsenal’s lack of business in the transfer market.
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Signing a central attacking midfielder has always been a priority for the Gunners, and the desperate need for one hit home even more on Friday night.
football.london understands that the efforts have honed in signing Odegaard permanently from Real Madrid with advanced talks underway despite some previous interest in James Maddison. This means we could well see the attacking trio that caused so much damage across those four games last season in action far more often this time around.
With pressure building ahead of tough games against Chelsea and Manchester City, Arteta will be hoping that happens sooner rather than later as he seeks to overcome the toughest challenge of his managerial career to date.