You first, no YOU first
Unless you’re Manchester City and you have the best attacking team in the Premier League you don’t want to concede the first goal in any game. When opposition score first League average points per game for the comeback team is just 0.44. In other words, if you are Stoke City and you let the opposition score on you first 12 times and you end up getting a grand total of 5 points out of those games, you’re getting just about League average.
Even if we throw out the top performing club (Man City) and the bottom THREE teams who have combined for 26 games without a single point when the opposition score first, the League average only goes up to 0.46. That is to say that if you’re a team that lets the opposition score first in a lot of matches, you’re probably not a very good team.
So, obviously Man City are so superlative we’ve run out of superlatives to say about them. They just do everything well. They even comeback well. But if we look at PPG after the opponent scores the first goal (and again, this is just about who scores first) Everton are second and Arsenal are third (PPG).
On the other hand, Arsenal are also down in the table with the Leicesters and the West Broms in terms of how often they allow this to happen. Last season (in 38 games) Arsenal allowed the opposition to score first 11 times and took just 8 points in those games (0.72 PPG). And the season before it was 10 times and 9 points (0.9 PPG).
You’re going to let the opposition score the first goal sometimes. Chelsea last season allowed the opposition to score first 8 times and Leicester the season before 10 times. You’re also not going to get a lot of points out of those games when you let the opponent score first. Top clubs seem to get around a point a game when you let the opponent score the first goal.
The key then is to score first or to prevent your opponent from scoring first and Arsenal are on pace to allow the opponent to score first 16 times. As fun as it is to see your team come back from 2-0 down and get a 3-3 draw, no matter how much fun it is to see two teams score 4 goals in as many minutes, allowing the opponent to score first 16 times in a season is definitely not going to be good enough to finish top four.
A Tale of Two Kitties
Have you ever heard of the Peter Principle? The famous quote is that “managers rise to the level of their incompetence.” In other words, a guy gets promoted based on his previous good work and keeps rising until he reaches a level where he is incompetent. At that point he is no longer promoted but often is left at that level without demotion.
This happens because people are often chosen for the quality of their previous work rather than their relevant skills. The best clerks in the DMV are often made manager without any knowledge of management. I don’t know, this feels like an allegory or metaphor for something.
Anyway… did you know that Arsenal have allowed 10 goals in the first halfs of games this season? Burnley are stingiest in the League, allowing just 4 and Everton the most liberal with 16. Arsenal’s 10 goals allowed is just above mid-table.
But the problem (as outlined above) is that Arsenal are the 2nd most prodigal team in the league in the first 20 minutes of games. The top five are Stoke (9), Arsenal (7), Crystal Palace (7), Watford (6), and West Ham (6).
On the other end of the pitch Arsenal have scored just 5 goals in the first 20 minutes and just 7 in the first 30 minutes. And four (4) of Arsenal’s first half goals conceded in the Premier League have come from individual errors, the most in the League this season.
Meanwhile… Liverpool have now scored 19 goals in the first half of games. That’s tied with City for the best record in the League and one more than Man U who have 18. In the first 30 minutes of games, Liverpool are best in the League. They have 13 goals in the first 30 minutes.
It’s not a surprise that Liverpool got off to a fast start, that Arsenal committed an error, or that the error led to a goal. That is what Liverpool do, a sort of blitz in the first 30-45 minutes of games and this is what Arsenal do, a sort of Maginot line collapse early in games.
In terms of overall stats the two halves looked like this:
Arsenal were awful in attack in the first half. Despite having as much of the ball (or more) than Liverpool, they only got 4 shots, all from outside the 18 yard box. Meanwhile, Liverpool created 3 big chances against Arsenal in that first half. They currently average 2.8 big chances per game (all 90) in the Premier League.
In the second half, Arsenal matched them or bettered them in some regards but not anywhere near as overwhelmingly as they had dominated Arsenal in the first half. Arsenal created more chances in the second but so did Liverpool, that xG difference is entirely down to the extra big chance Arsenal made. And an error from Mignolet, who is prone to them, allowed Xhaka to score and cover up what would otherwise have been his worst performance of the season.
Arsenal’s attacking players just couldn’t get the ball to each other as evidenced by the fact that Arsenal misplaced 124 passes in this game, 24 more than Liverpool.
Klopp’s plan was clearly to let Arsenal pass the ball from deep and instead to focus his press on forcing Xhaka, Sanchez, Ozil, and Iwobi into bad passes. In that first half Alexis (10), Ozil (8), Xhaka (6), and Iwobi (5) turned the ball over 24 times off passes.
Throughout the entire 90 minutes, Xhaka and Wilshere combined to complete just 81/104 passes, giving the ball away 23 times. But it was Alexis who was just awful: he completed just 27 of 45 – giving the ball away 18 times off passes and a further 5 times off bad dribbles and bad touches.
One thing I will point out in Alexis’ defense is that we focus way too much on how often forwards give the ball away at Arsenal. Guardiola is known to not care if the team gives the ball away, just win it back, he says. Plus, he is a master at teaching his team how to set up through passing to maximize their chances of doing just that. But just as a counter point to Alexis: Salah had 10 turnovers, Mane 8, Coutinho 7, and Firmino 6. All far more than Alexis.
The difference is that their forwards all passed the ball:
Firmino 74%, Salah 79%, Coutinho 81%, Mane 86%
Lacazette 62%, Iwobi 67%, Ozil 83%, and Alexis 60%
It’s more the team dynamic, both offensive and defensive, that accounts for this discrepancy. Arsenal’s forwards looked isolated and like individuals playing for themselves for a long time while Liverpool’s front four actually passed and moved to create three and four player strings for shots. In the end the front four for Liverpool passed the ball better than their back four.
Sources: Whoscored.com, my personal database, Squawka.com