Arsenal's season has fallen apart - is there any way for Arteta to save their top-four hopes?

Mikel Arteta Arsenal 2021-22Getty Images

We all know things change quickly in football, but only at Arsenal does optimism turn to pessimism at quite such an alarming speed.

In mid-March, Arsenal were fourth, one point above Manchester United with three games in hand - and six points clear of their most likely rivals for the Champions League spot, Tottenham, with two games in hand.

Four defeats in the last five, however, has seen that lead evaporate. The Gunners are currently sixth, with one game in hand - Wednesday's clash with Chelsea - left to draw level with fourth-placed Spurs on 57 points.

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A young team in perfect balance, fizzing through matches, has become flat and lifeless overnight.

All talk of Mikel Arteta having finally cracked it has gone out the window, with Arsenal seemingly right back where they were at the start of the season.

Of course, the reality is that both the optimism and the pessimism are too extreme. Arsenal are still moving in the right direction and such a young team is more vulnerable than most to bouts of poor form; this will keep happening, and supporters ought not to panic too much. 

Nevertheless there are tactical concerns arising from this run of defeats that need addressing.

Mikel Arteta Arsenal GFXGetty/GOAL

By and large it comes down to the north London outfit losing two of their best players to injury - Thomas Partey and Kieran Tierney - and needing an upgrade in the centre-forward position. 

Partey has become the most important player in the Arsenal team, not only for his capacity to anticipate opposition counterattacks and shut them down, but for his press-resistance at the base of midfield. 

To illustrate the point, Arsenal have won 44 points from the 22 Premier League games that Partey has started this season, and 10 points from the nine games he has not.

This is hardly surprising. The modern Premier League is all about the transitions; preventing opposition breaks and creating scenarios in which the hard-pressing of the opposition can be used to your advantage by moving vertically through the lines.

That is why Rodri and Fabinho are so vital at Manchester City and Liverpool, respectively, and why a player like Declan Rice is in such high demand.

Arsenal, lacking a player in this mould for over a decade, have excelled recently as Partey injected verticality and defensive battling into their midfield.

Without him, though, many parts of Arteta's system collapse.

Thomas Partey Arsenal GFXGetty/GOAL

Firstly, they are worse defensively without Partey's acceleration into challenges and 50-50s, as evidenced in the recent defeats to Brighton and Southampton. 

But it is on the ball that the Ghana international makes the biggest difference. When he is not there, Arsenal move back to sideways possession without purpose, struggling to cut through the opposition defence with line-splitting passes. 

It is no coincidence that in his absence, Arsenal have held more possession than usual (65% and 71% in their last two games), but rarely looked like scoring.

Partey's skills also mean Arsenal have been able to move into a 4-3-3 formation, with the ex-Atletico Madrid star anchoring alone, in turn releasing Martin Odegaard and Granit Xhaka to play higher up the pitch and connect to the forwards. Again, this made Arsenal more creative and vertical.

But without Partey, Arsenal's more creative players are having to come deeper to help out; Arthur Lokonga has needed Odegaard to move alongside him, creating gaps that prevent the brilliant combinations – Emile Smith Rowe to Odegaard, Odegaard to Saka – we had been seeing recently.

But Partey's absence cannot explain everything. After all, Arsenal were already 2-0 down to Crystal Palace when he suffered his injury, with Wilfried Zaha winning a penalty to make it 3-0 after robbing a clearly impeded Partey in midfield.

Tierney, meanwhile, has been missing for every minute of this three-game losing streak and, as with his absence last season, it has revealed the importance of Arsenal having a strong left side to counter-balance the right.

Kieran Tierney Arsenal GFXGetty/GOAL

Arsenal have a recent history of leaning too heavily to the right, expecting Saka – now with Odegaard – to create the vast majority of their chances.

They need Tierney's driving runs from the left to balance things out, otherwise it becomes too easy for opponents to focus on the one dangerous flank.

Defensively, Arsenal have been disastrous without Tierney. Nuno Tavares and Xhaka have both looked vulnerable in one-on-one situations, which were targeted specifically by Brighton in particular. 

Graham Potter deployed Enock Mwepu in an unusual right-central midfield position that gave the Zambian licence to overlap down Arsenal's left, tripling up with Pascal Gross and Danny Welbeck. He scored one goal and assisted the other.

As for the Southampton defeat, it could be argued Arsenal simply lacked the bite required to deal with such a hard-pressing central midfield  - a knock-on effect of the disjointedness that came from Partey's absence.

But just as important was Arsenal's difficulty in scoring goals, an issue as much about technical ability as tactics.

Throughout their recent winning streak, admittedly against lower-ranking opposition, Alexandre Lacazette's capacity to drop off the front line had looked like an upgrade on Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, but now his preference for playing with his back to goal is becoming a hindrance.

Alexandre Lacazette Arsenal GFXGetty/GOAL

Arsenal require somebody to make runs into the penalty area and poach; to make the movements needed for Saka, Odegaard and Smith Rowe to turn possession into chances.

Currently, far too often Arsenal are working the ball out to Cedric Soares to swing aimless crosses into the box.

Arteta's concern about his team's goalscoring is clear from his decision to move to a 3-5-2 or 4-4-2 formation for the final 30 minutes of each of their three consecutive defeats. But even playing two strikers, usually Lacazette and Eddie Nketiah together, has failed to produce high-quality chances in open play.

The answer to Arsenal's problems is, quite simply, to sign better players over the summer. Being so badly affected by just one or two injuries points to a lack of squad depth, while replacing Aubameyang is clearly a top priority before the start of next season.

As for the last seven games of the 2021-22 campaign, the key is getting back to making fast starts: Arsenal have taken the lead in 16 of the 17 league games they have won this season. 

One way to do this would be moving Saka into the left-back position for the time being, adding creativity back to the left wing – with Gabriel Martinelli or Nicolas Pepe replacing him on the right wing. 

What is more, this move could help Arsenal build more fluidly out from the back in Partey's absence, as Saka can drift into central positions alongside Lokonga in the first phase of play, in turn freeing up Odegaard and Xhaka to become advanced eights once more.

But aside from that, there is little Arteta can change between now and the summer. Arsenal fans will need to hope their up-and-down season has one more upswing left.