Is Arsenal's recent scoring drought down to a lack of confidence?
It was the kind of admission and squad psychoanalysis that Arsene Wenger makes only when a team problem has been fixed. Or, at least, when he thinks a team problem has been fixed. It was Feb. 7 at Bournemouth, and Arsenal had just scored twice, ending a run of three league games without a goal and four without a win. Wenger had been asked whether any of that had been weighing on his team.
"Of course, of course," he responded. "They don't score, the confidence goes quickly -- and for the strikers even more."
The question, then, is whether that confidence was still an issue against Barcelona -- and whether it will be an issue at Manchester United on Sunday, and for the rest of the title run-in. Arsenal still don't look that assured in front of goal.
After a generally good display against the reigning European champions, they were often panicky and overly anxious in attack. That was never better illustrated than by Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain's snatched attempt at a finish in the first half, or Olivier Giroud's comical pass to nobody in the second. Of course, it's possible this is a mere one-off consequence of the circumstances -- and the psychological pressure of knowing you need to be so precise when facing a side as good as Barcelona -- but some of it did seem a continuation of the missed chances in the 2-1 win against Leicester City before Danny Welbeck's winner, as well as so many recent blanks.
Either way, one thing is certain: Arsenal are currently a long way from the seamless and sensational attacking football of October, a spell in which they swept Manchester United away 3-0 in a perfect opening 20-minute spell at the Emirates. At that point, it did seem as if the side had hit on Wenger's ideal, the type of football that all of his training-ground work is built toward.
Santi Cazorla was setting a passing tempo in the middle, Mesut Ozil was funnelling that into finely threaded balls, Alexis Sanchez was rampaging onto them and even Giroud -- so often at the centre of debate over whether Arsenal could do with a higher-level striker -- seemed to be evolving. With the way Hector Bellerin was so often overlapping on the flank, and giving Arsenal another dimension, some of the play was reminiscent of the "red arrows" of the invincible season in 2003-04.
The play recently has not been so reminiscent of that. The figures indicate it.
Throughout a five-game winning league run in October, that included that 3-0 win over United, Arsenal hit an average of more than three goals a game, hitting 16 in total. It fed into a fine opening few months in which they scored 54 in 30 matches in all competitions -- almost two a game.
In the last eight, they've scored only six.
This is also where the "confidence" Wenger mentioned comes in, and why the blank against Barcelona might be down to more than playing Barcelona. Just before Lionel Messi so supremely scored the opening goal in that 2-0 win for the Catalans, and that unwavering assurance, Arsenal showed the complete opposite. All of Giroud, Aaron Ramsey and Bellerin were on the right, moving the ball around, but it was as if none of them wanted to fully take responsibility. They all looked to pass the buck with unambitious passes.
Wenger's ideal play eliminates the mental space for that hesitation. His whole approach is to build a team to the point where their performance level is so fast it seems instinctive.
That was what was happening around the last game against Manchester United. It is not happening now.
The vim is gone.
Ozil has played only one of those glorious assists in the past eight games, Sanchez no longer looks sharp or fully fit, and is attempting to overcompensate with almost every move. Giroud is meanwhile in the midst of his joint-worst goal drought since joining the club, and Bellerin is more running down blind alleys rather than blinding opposition with his overlaps.
Ramsey perhaps illustrates this as much as anyone, and may indicate a central issue that is affecting confidence. When the midfielder and Arsenal are at their best, so many moves end with him devastatingly arriving in the box to finish.
In the past few games, and especially against Leicester, he has been arriving in the box a lot but not finishing at all. He just doesn't look on form, or in full confidence. Of course, that's also because he's not in his best position.
Arsenal's midfield injuries have meant Ramsey playing as one of the central midfield spots, removing him from his most dangerous areas, and removing that tempo for the team. It's impossible to escape that reality. A central midfield of Ramsey and one of Francos Coquelin or Mathieu Flamini does not have a true pace-setter, and that has taken any sense of control out of their game.
That is not the sole issue of course, but it has probably influenced so many other individual issues.
If the team are not able to move with the same fluency, it means that attacking players suddenly can't execute things with quite the same speed, causing them to gradually check themselves and second-guess things. Fundamentally, it has caused that bit more hesitation in their game.
This is not to say it is irretrievable, and the imminent return of Santi Cazorla will also help. It's also possible that one attacking player rediscovering their groove could sufficiently lift the team for a short spell, until the midfield is back at its best. It also shouldn't be overlooked that, against Leicester, they did create a series of chances amid a hectic second-half siege.
Again, as with Barcelona, it's hard to tell whether that is down to the circumstances or themselves. The circumstances may well suit them at Old Trafford. Manchester United have not looked confident themselves. Can Arsenal sense a team so much more hesitant than them?
Wenger could do with that confidence coming back quickly.
Miguel Delaney is a London-based correspondent for ESPN FC and also writes for the Irish Examiner and others. Follow him on Twitter @MiguelDelaney.