Arsenal's Champions League hopes were dealt a blow Saturday at West Ham in a limp attacking display that is beginning to define the middle third of Unai Emery's first season in charge.
If only the Gunners had an exceptional playmaker in the ranks. Spoiler alert: they do.
Transfer speculation stemming from tactical omissions have left Mesut Ozil's north London tenure hanging in the balance. Arsenal really could have used their star midfield maestro on Saturday.
At the London Stadium, the German's top-class playmaking and ability to find forwards in menacing positions were sorely missed, and the manager admitted post-match that Ozil was again held off the team sheet for tactical reasons.
"We decided that the players here were the best for this match. We've won with him, we've lost with him. No one player makes the difference between winning and losing the game," Emery said when pressed about Ozil's omission.
If Arsenal are going to harbor realistic top-four hopes, it's time Emery alters his footballing ethos to include the player who has created more chances than anybody else in Europe's top-five tiers since making his first team debut in 2006.
Arsenal are mustering their fewest shot attempts per match in 15 years with a scant 12.6. That figure is three fewer than last season's Arsene Wenger swansong, and if there was a conspicuous shortcoming on display at the London Stadium, it was the lack of opportunities.
Matteo Guendouzi and Alexandre Lacazette were responsible for Arsenal's only two efforts on target, and after going down a goal shortly after the interval, Unai Emery's charges rarely threatened West Ham 'keeper Lukasz Fabianski. Zero efforts on target after the 68th minute suggests as much.
Emery again opted for a back-three that put an attacking impetus on wing-backs Sead Kolasinac and Ainsley Maitland-Niles, and in doing so, left a midfield duo of Granit Xhaka and Guendouzi with a considerable task in providing creativity in central areas. Xhaka is not that player, and if the wing-backs are well marked as they were by a disciplined West Ham side, the Swiss international's ability for incisive diagonals is nullified. Guendouzi was a prescient signing and appears to be a star-in-the-making, but the 19-year-old's faculties for craft on the edge of the area is a skill that awaits development. Only 17 of Guendouzi's 65 passes came in the final third, none of which were categorized as a key pass. Gifted heaps of time on the ball, the teenager obliged West Ham's intelligent approach with several wayward efforts from distance.
Lacazette looked sharp dropping deep to help in the buildup and Alex Iwobi offered some ingenuity going forward, but Premier League joint-top scorer Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang was again desperate for service in a similar vein to a futile outing at Liverpool.
Ozil has not featured since coming off at the half on Boxing Day versus Brighton, and while the German's array of talents do not always cater to Emery's desire for industry and two-way play, a compromise needs to be made.
Some concessions on his part might make the rebuilding process a more facile endeavor, and it's a shift that has served his counterparts well. Liverpool appear poised to end a 29-year wait for league silverware, and much of it is due to Jurgen Klopp's ability to vacillate between characteristic high-pressing, heavy metal football and a more reserved 4-2-3-1 formation featuring a double-pivot midfield this season.
Arsenal have kept just a trio of clean sheets in the league this season and it's abundantly clear that the manager does not have the pieces in defense to forge a robust backline capable of playing the ball from the back. Tightened purse strings at the Emirates won't address that issue in the January window, and with only loans at his disposal, the gaffer's hands are tied.
For all the talk of Arsenal's failures in defending, they've also becoming a side who fail to create goalscoring opportunities against organized defensive units. The players Emery fancy aren't available, and with Arsenal's brass eyeing summer upgrades, it's time the manager manipulates his tactical ideology a touch to include Ozil. Switching to a back-four that facilitates an extra body in the middle of the park is an option, and slotting Ozil in atop a midfield pyramid with Xhaka and Lucas Torreira in support would provide that extra bit of cleverness.
Ozil has created over 1000 scoring opportunities since breaking through with Schalke in 2006, and amid doubts of the player's functionality in Emery's rigid system is a playmaker who on his day can create countless opportunities from nothing.
On Saturday, the difference could have been just one of those chances.