LONDON — The best moments of Mikel Arteta’s Arsenal tenure have been defined by what he can do against big sides. Aggression brought his team a first league win at Old Trafford in 14 years, the clinical edge of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang carried them to an FA Cup and even champions Liverpool have struggled at times to cut through a greatly improved Arsenal backline.

At its best, this team can be more than a match for England’s top clubs. The problem is all too often what happens when they face the sort of opposition they are expected to brush aside with ease.

That was apparent on the last occasion Arsenal met Sunday’s opponents Aston Villa. Fighting for their Premier League survival in their penultimate fixture, Dean Smith’s side nabbed an early lead through Trezeguet’s strike and then proceeded to set up camp on the edge of their own area, challenging Arteta’s side to break them down.

Not only could Arsenal not find their equalizer, they could not so much as turn 69% possession into a shot on target. This was not the first time this team found a low block to be immovable — take games earlier in that season against Burnley and Tottenham Hotspur — and it would not be the last. To add to Arteta’s headache, every occasion in which they failed to carve their way through these defenses brought further questions about the exclusion of Mesut Ozil, yet to play a game since the Premier League’s June restart.

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Arteta insisted it was down to the team, not one man, to find ways around these diligent opponents and he is convinced that his side will not run into similar difficulties to those they faced at Villa Park in July.

Arsenal in action against Molde in the Europa League
Getty Images

“We mentioned in the last few weeks that we have improved in terms of goals and the aggressivity [sic], the consistency we needed in the final third and being more productive,” Arteta said. “The last few weeks we found things with lower blocks, we’ve been training that more, we’ve been experiencing that more throughout the games and through the night you could see a big improvement as well.

“That’s probably the final bit we have needed as a team. In other areas we have improved a lot.”

The validity of Arteta’s assessment remains open to debate. In the first 25 minutes of their 4-1 win over Molde on Thursday night, Arsenal managed to register just one shot on target and seemed to be running aground before Eddie Nketiah and Joe Willock forced an equalizing own goal on the stroke of halftime.

Similarly, the Gunners rank 16th in the Premier League for chances created per 90 minutes, 13th for expected goals, 10th for shots on target from open play and ninth for big chances created.

Chances created

6.43

16th

Aston Villa (12.33)

Big chances created

1

9th

Tottenham (2.71)
Possessions ending in attacking third 28 18th Liverpool (49.86)

Expected goals

1.17

13th

Liverpool (2.35)

Open play shots on target

3.29

10th

Liverpool (5.29)

Total shots

8.57

16th

Liverpool (17.57)

Arteta points to the difficulty of Arsenal’s schedule — they have already gone away to Manchester United, Manchester City and Liverpool — but it should be noted that this team have looked labored in their attacking endeavors against the likes of West Ham United and Sheffield United as well.

Not since the opening day win over Fulham have Arsenal really cut loose, notably the first and so far only game where Willian has really excelled. The former Chelsea winger, who signed a three-year contract at the Emirates Stadium, is yet to provide a goal or assist for his new club in eight appearances since that match.

His appearance against Molde in the Europa League was perhaps his most disappointing so far but Arteta insists that Willian’s performances against the Norwegian side and in Sunday’s win over Manchester United show progress from the 32-year-old.

“He started really well with his first game against Fulham and then we’ve been changing the front three, he had an injury, he didn’t have any time to train, he didn’t have a preseason, he was later than the others,” Arteta said. “They need to generate that cohesion, that understanding, those relationships on the pitch between the front players, the wide players, in order for things to work better.

“I can see a development in the last two games and the understanding of things that I asked them to do, which are different to things he is used to. He’s getting better and better, we all know the quality he has and he’s a great option to have on the pitch.

“He’s a player that can make the difference. He has got the ability to find that last action to open the door when everything is really tight, to score a goal and create an assist. As well [he has] the personality and understanding he has on the pitch to manage the game the way we need in certain moments. At Old Trafford he did that really well.”

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