The old joke goes “typical Arsenal, always trying to walk the ball in” and statistically there is a kernel of truth to the joke. Arsenal typically lead the League in shots in the 18 yard box. For example last season, Arsenal averaged 15.1 shots a game (4th best in the League) but 9.5 shots per game in the 18 yard box and 1.4 shots per game in the 6 yard box. The next best team to shoot like that was Man City, who averaged 8.9 in the 18 and 1.1 in the 6. Tottenham was third, Liverpool fourth and all the way down at 14th was Man U with just 5.7 per game.
Arsenal actually took the third fewest shots per game from outside the box with just 4.2 per game. Tottenham and Liverpool took the most 300 and 290 respectively, nearly double the number Arsenal tool, 158. But distance shots are low percentage Tottenham scored exactly the number I would expect, 10, from 300 shots. Liverpool nearly doubled Tottenham’s rate and scored 15 goals from distance, 5%. And Arsenal scored 4.
This season things in the League are a bit different. Arsenal are same old Arsenal, 15 shots per game with 9.4 in the 18 yard box and 5 from distance. The shots in the 6 yard box are down a bit to just 0.9. What has changed is that Arsenal are no longer top of the League in either of those two categories. In fact, Arsenal are tied for 2nd place with Liverpool and Man City, behind Chelsea who are attempting 10 shots a game in the 18. Right behind Arsenal are Tottenham and Man U with 8.4 per game, but crucially both of those teams lead the League in shots in the 6 yard box with 1.4 per game.
What this shows me is that on the offensive end of the field, there are six teams fighting for the top four spots in the League and they are all relatively closely grouped in terms of the quality chances they create.
What’s a bit weird about Arsenal this season is that they are finishing at a higher rate than last season. If we take out penalties, Arsenal finished just 10.7% of their chances last season. This season Arsenal lead the League with 13.8% finishing. That’s not an astonishing level of finishing or anything, Arsene Wenger’s 04/05 side finished 18% of their shots. It was a truly incredible season for Arsenal. They scored 84 goals that season on 476 shots, and 3 goals from 3 penalty shots. Unbelievable offensive efficiency. Defense is where Arsenal struggled that season, conceding 36 goals on the way to a second place finish behind Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea, who conceded just 15 goals.
It’s incredible to think that in the modern era a team could go a whole season conceding just 15 goals. Liverpool have already conceded 10 goals, Arsenal 7.
Özil makes way for Alexis and Arsenal’s Changing Attack
The biggest change this season is that Özil’s Key Passes stat is way down. Last season, he nearly broke the Premier League Assists record when he posted 19 assists. If we counted all his assists and key passes together he was creating 4.2 shots per game for his teammates. So far this year, Ozil has 0 assists and his key passes numbers are down to just 2.2 per game. That’s a massive drop.
What happened? Giroud happened. Or, well, didn’t happen. I mean to say that Alexis happened. And Cazorla happened. Basically, Özil stopped having a Giroud to pump in crosses, corners, and free kicks to and the corners and free kicks Arsenal do take are now being shared with Cazorla.
Arsenal’s number of corner kicks hasn’t changed much, down from 5.9 per game to 5.6. Crosses went from 19.9 to 19.6 per game. And free kicks are down from 12.3 to 11 (though that’s all free kicks, including the ones that Arsenal take short). But the overall number of key passes generated from those three actions is down to 3.4 per game from last season’s 5 per game. Just to put that in context, Arsenal led the League last season in Key Passes from crosses, with 3.2 per game (tied with Man City and Southampton). This season, Arsenal are down to 11th. Without a target man in the middle, Arsenal are taking the same number of actions but creating fewer chances from crosses and corners.
Özil’s numbers are the ones that have taken the biggest hit. His Key Passes from crosses and corners dropped from 1.8 and 1.1 last season to 0.5 and 0.5 per game this season. That is the fewest he’s ever had in those categories while at Arsenal. He had similar stats in his first season at Arsenal, when corner duties and free kicks were shared with Cazorla. That is exactly what is happening now. Cazorla is generating 0.9 key passes per game from corners and 0.4 from free kicks.
Alexis, meanwhile, has also transformed. His shots per game are down, from 3.6 last season to 3 this season. But that is entirely explained by the fact that he’s more conservative shooting from distance. That number has fallen from 1.3 to 0.6 per game and his shots per game in the 18 yard box is basically static with 2.3 last season and 2.4 this.
Alexis is also finishing his shots at a good rate, scoring 4 on 21 shots for a 19% finishing rate. What’s making that number so good is that he’s 100% in the six yard box this season, going 2/2. These numbers mimic very closely his last season at Barcelona when he was used as a forward (at times) and scored 6 goals in the 6 yard box, 10 in the penalty area, and 3 from distance, for an astounding 29% finishing rate. I doubt he’ll climb back to those rarified heights but he could get close if he goes on a scoring streak. This is the main reason why finishing stats are tough to replicate year on year.
Mustafi puts up big numbers
I’ve seen a number of articles praising Mustafi for the number of tackles he makes and it is true; among center backs, Mustafi is second in tackles per game with 4. That’s such a high number that he’s even tied for 7th among all players in tackles per game. The thing about tackles is that you don’t want to have to make them but if you are making them, you want to win a high percentage.
A tackle as defined by Opta is basically a 1-v-1 duel with an offensive player who has possession. Think of an offensive player, yes, like Diego Costa. If the offensive player gets past his defender, he gets a dribble. If the defender tackles the ball away (regardless of whether it goes to a teammate or not) the defender gets a tackle. If the defender simply marks him (hopefully tightly) then no one gets anything. So, a high number of tackles means that the player is either very aggressive or that there are a high number of players thinking they can take him on and beat him.
Either way what you really want to see is the player winning a high percentage of those duels. That, for me, is the real stat. Players and managers often perceive a weakness when there is none and Mustafi illustrates that perfectly. He has faced 18 duels and lost just 2 meaning that he has won 89% of his tackles.
He has also slotted in perfectly for Arsenal’s defense and is doing two things that Wenger demands his center backs to do: step up and aggressively intercept the ball and be able to play the ball out from the back. He’s second behind Monreal in interceptions with 3.3 per game and his passing percentage is a very serviceable 87%.
One thing to look out for though is that at Arsenal center backs basically can’t make too many bad short passes. Good news there is that both Koscielny and Mustafi pass at a 92% rate in terms of short passes. But Wenger also likes his center backs to be able to start an attack with a nice long ball straight up the pitch on the ground. Koscielny is ok at this, passing 60% completion on his long passes. But Mustafi is still integrating into the team and his long passing percentage is a pretty dreadful 34% (1.8/5.2 per game).
The other thing Mustafi may need to work on is his aerial duels. It’s a huge adjustment to come from the Bundesliga to the Premier League but he’s currently losing 52% of his aerial duels. Koscielny isn’t spectacular in the air either, he’s just a 55% aerial duel winner. The worry there is when Arsenal face a team like Crystal Palace Orcs (55%), West Ham Newstadiums (63%), or Middlesbrough (67%), teams who score more than 50% of their goals from headers, Arsenal might struggle to keep a clean sheet.