Welcome back to real football, everyone!
As promised, over the break I looked at some of the numerical differences in the way that Arsenal play in the Premier League versus the way that they have played in the Champions League and a few things both individually and collectively stood out.
Two disclaimers before we get into the meat of this: first, when it comes to overall numbers (shots, goals, shots on goal, etc.) I include the two matches against Udinese. When it comes to individual numbers I couldn’t include them because some places count those matches and some don’t. If you look at Arsenal’s overall performance in the Champions League, though, there isn’t much deviation whether you choose to include Udinese or not.
Second, if you go out and find some of these numbers for yourself (whoscored.com, etc.) you might notice that some of the players I say “lead the team” don’t actually lead the team in that category. In nearly every case this is down to the number of games that a player has played for Arsenal and whether I decide they should be included in the “leads the team” category. For example, Nasri led the team by being dispossessed 9 times in the one game he played for us and while that fact is funny, because it shows just how disinterested he was in playing that one game, it doesn’t really tell us anything about the current squad.
Arsenal Play Better Defense in Europe
The thing that surprised me the most about the way that Arsenal have been playing in Europe versus the way they have played in England is their defensive record. Over six games in the Champions League, Arsenal have only allowed three goals and have kept three clean sheets: that’s 0.5 goals allowed per game and no single game with more than one goal allowed. Over 11 games in the Premier League, well, they are allowing 1.91 per game and I don’t have to tell you about the games where Arsenal have had some eye-popping (gouging?) score lines go against them.
Still, in Europe, Arsenal have only allowed two goals in their group play which is tied for third overall behind Real Madrid (0), Marseille (1), and then Arsenal, Barfelona, Benfica, and Chelsea. If you look at the company they are keeping, tThis is pretty impressive defensive performance from the Arsenal.
What is worrying about Arsenal’s European campaign is that they are creating fewer chances overall and allowing the opposition more chances than normal. Though, again, the fact that goals are not going in shows that Arsenal are either allowing fewer quality chances or that the opposition is just unlucky at the moment.
Individually, Arsenal have some players who are really standing out defensively though not in ways that you might imagine. For example, Koscielny is listed as 6’1″ tall and yet he is Arsenal’s most dominant aerial player in the rough and tumble Premier League, winning 23 of 30 aerial duels and averaging 6.1 clearances per game.
Mertesacker’s Premier League aerial duel numbers on the other hand are dumbfounding. For a guy as big as he is to only win 50% of those challenges is very strange. It’s also strange that he’s only attempted 16 challenges and Koscielny has 30 (even considering the number of games each has played). To put this in perspective, Brede Hangeland leads his team and has won 29 of 40 challenges for Fulham. It sort of looks like Premier League opponents are targeting Koscielny, or he’s more actively challenging for headers than Mertesacker. I would tend toward the former because in the Champions League you see that Mertesacker is actually pretty dominant in the air. In those games he has won 8 of 10 duels to lead the team in that category.
Apart from tackles, where Santos and Song are the team leaders in each league, Koscielny is statistically Arsenal’s best defender, hands down. His interceptions numbers, clearances, and fouls numbers are all outstanding.
If you look at the first chart again another number should stand out; the number of shots that Arsenal are creating in the Champions League is five fewer than in the Premier League. And as a result of the fact that they are creating fewer chances in Europe, Arsenal are scoring fewer goals. Nearly half as many, in fact.
I suspect that this is down to the way that Arsenal’s midfield three of Arteta, Song, and Ramsey are being used in the Champions League.*
The first problem is that Ramsey has had only one start and two subs in the Champions League this season. If he had been able to start all four of the group stage games I’m sure his numbers would be higher. That he is averaging 0.7 key passes per game and 0.3 through balls per game while coming on as a sub should tell you that Ramsey could get the job done but for his (insert ailment).
But what’s even stranger is how much Arteta and Song seem to be shackled to their defensive duties in the Champions League. Arteta’s numbers overall are very consistent which is why when you see his through ball numbers disappear and his key passes numbers evaporate you have to think that it’s intentional in terms of strategy from the manager.
Similarly, when you see Song’s tackle numbers go through the roof, his forward pass numbers dry up and his long ball numbers more than double, again, that has to be because the boss is telling him to shield the back four a little more in these games.
It looks like Arsene is playing more conservatively with the midfield in Europe versus the domestic league and as a result Arsenal’s scoring is down. But on the flip-side, Arsenal defense looks much better.
What do you think, too early to draw that conclusion? Would you take numbers like the European numbers in the domestic league?
*The two matches against Udinese are not accounted here