Arsenal have signed Denis Suarez on loan from Barcelona. Nick Wright explains why the Spaniard’s creativity could be invaluable to Unai Emery.
There was little to get excited about during Arsenal’s 2-1 win over Cardiff at the Emirates Stadium on Tuesday night. The game will be remembered for its emotional tributes to the missing Emiliano Sala, but out on the pitch, and under constant rainfall, the action made for uninspiring viewing.
Arsenal dominated the ball as expected, registering more than 70 per cent of the possession, but the lack of creativity and cutting edge was striking. For the most part, they simply passed the ball from one side of the pitch to the other as Cardiff waited to spring forward on the counter-attack.
The breakthrough, when it did finally arrive, came from a rare moment incisiveness, as Alex Iwobi’s perfectly-weighted through ball released the overlapping Sead Kolasinac, who was tripped for the penalty which was duly converted by Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang.
Kolasinac has been a vital attacking outlet for Arsenal this season, bombing into the opposition box from left-back and picking out team-mates on a regular basis, but their broader creative shortcomings cannot be ignored. The Cardiff game was just the latest in which they have struggled to break down their opponent and create scoring opportunities.
It’s borne out by the statistics. Arsenal are averaging just 12.7 shots per game this season. It represents a considerable drop on 2017/18, when they averaged 15.6 shots per game, and sees them drop from fifth to 10th among Premier League clubs. Their current shooting numbers are their lowest since Opta started taking records in 2003/04.
Arsenal are battling for a top-four finish under Unai Emery
Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette’s clinical finishing has ensured the drop-off in shot volume has not been too costly for Unai Emery’s side – Arsenal have scored five more goals than at the same stage of last season – but it is still a cause for concern.
It centres on a lack of service. Arsenal have traditionally excelled at funnelling the ball into the attacking third, with Mesut Ozil the last in a long line of gifted playmakers to arrive at the Emirates Stadium in the second half of Arsene Wenger’s reign, but the German has performed poorly and fallen out of favour under Emery. Arsenal’s creativity has suffered.
Arsenal have struggled to move the ball into the final third this season
In fact, they are struggling to even move the ball into the right areas. From averaging a minimum of 63 passes into the final third per game in each of the previous four seasons, Arsenal are now making just 51 per game – giving them the fifth-lowest total in the Premier League. Against Cardiff, and despite making 590 passes in total, the number stood at just 41.
The need for a player with the guile to unlock defences has led Emery to Denis Suarez, who he previously worked with at Sevilla. The Spaniard certainly brings technical quality having split his footballing education between Manchester City and Barcelona, and while he has featured sparingly for the Catalan giants this season, there was evidence of what he can do last year.
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Indeed, in 2017/18, Suarez created an average of 2.2 chances per 90 minutes in La Liga – putting him behind only Lionel Messi (2.6) and Ousmane Dembele (2.7) at Barcelona and ahead of Philippe Coutinho. For context, no Arsenal player has matched that rate of creativity this season.
Denis Suarez in action for Barcelona
He was similarly effective during the 2015/16 on loan at Villarreal, where, as well as contributing five goals and 11 assists in La Liga and the Europa League, he created more chances per 90 minutes (1.7) than any of his team-mates.
The numbers will come as no surprise to Emery, who took Saurez on loan for the duration of the 2014/15 season. Emery loves his versatility – Suarez is capable of playing in a variety of attacking positions – but he primarily used him behind the strikers at Sevilla. Given his reluctance to start Ozil, that could be where he fits into the Arsenal team, too.
It’s not just his passing ability that could help. Arsenal’s current squad contains few players who thrive in one-on-one situations. In fact, the stats show their dribbling numbers have declined in each of the last five seasons. From averaging 15.8 successful dribbles per game in 2014/15 – the most in the Premier League – the Gunners now average just 7.3 – putting them 13th.
Arsenal are averaging just 7.3 dribbles per game this season
It’s another concern for Emery but, happily, it is also another area in which Suarez excels. The 25-year-old is quick, skilful and direct, and, as well as giving Arsenal another option in the number 10 position, he can also provide penetration in wide areas.
Denis Saurez impressed under Unai Emery at Sevilla
Last season, Suarez made 3.2 successful dribbles per 90 minutes in La Liga. Lionel Messi (5.6) and Ousmane Dembele (3.9) were the only Barcelona players to better that, while Suarez’s average put him seventh in the entire division among player to play a minimum of 500 minutes.
The question, of course, is whether he can come in and make an immediate impact at Arsenal having only made a handful of appearances for Barcelona all season. Can Suarez get up to speed quickly? Can he provide the spark they have badly lacked? Arsenal’s laboured performance against Cardiff was just the latest reminder of the qualities they currently lack.