Hey folks, Tim here, you know me as 7amkickoff. I’m back!
When I left last year I got asked if there was something personal that happened between me and Blogs and the truth is no. Andrew is a great dude! You know that. Me, on the other hand, well, I’m irascible, alcoholic, etc. etc.
The truth is that I had to quit writing my regular column here on Arseblog News because writing a regular column for you all, twice a week, was eating up way too much of my time. These stats articles require a ton of original research. Even the “By the Numbers” pieces (which might seem easy) took up huge portions of my free time. I also have to be honest that Thursday matches were another problem. I am a single dad and I have to get my daughter after school on Thursdays so it was always a rush to watch the games, look at the data, and try to come up with something interesting.
Anyway, Blogs asked me if I could write something more on a monthly basis and it turns out that I can! I still collect all the data I used to collect so it would be kind of a shame if I didn’t use it for something. Which is why I’m here! Today, we are going to look at what’s going on with Emery’s latest iteration of Arsenal, some of the problems, and perhaps a prescription to get out of the mess.
SHOTS SHOTS SHOTS
We know that through matchday 7 Arsenal have allowed the most shots in the League with 126, or 18 per game. This is a pretty incredible stat when you compare to Arsenal’s 2001/02 title winning season when Wenger’s team allowed just 262 total shots. To put that in the modern context: last season Man City conceded just 239 shots (6.3 per game) and this season City are on pace to concede 262 shots (6.9 per game).
That stat alone is pretty damning and gets worse. Through matchday 7 Arsenal were 5th worst in expected goals allowed (xGA) with 12.2 (source: understat.com) and tied for 7th worst in goals allowed (11). In addition to the high xGA numbers, Arsenal also have the 2nd most saves in the League with 4.6 per game.
However, there’s a clue here as to why Arsenal aren’t allowing more goals: most of those saves are coming from outside the box, 2.7. Tottenham actually lead the League in shots saved, 5 per game! And.. Tottenham are relying heavily on Lloris, who is making 3 saves per game from inside the 18 yard box.
You might think that Tottenham would have a bigger xGA number considering how many shots they are allowing in the box compared to Arsenal but the real problem for Arsenal is Big Chances allowed. Tottenham allowed just 10 through matchday 7 (1.4 per game). That’s a lot but Arsenal have already allowed 14. That’s more than 2 per game.
Again, for context, Arsenal allowed just 35 Big Chances total in 2015/16 – the season when they had a midfielder that Thierry Henry called “The Policeman”. In comparison, Arsenal allowed 77 Big Chances last season (2 per game), and 69 Big Chances in 2017/18.
Big Chances are an important stat because these are those one-v-one chances with the keeper or shots from close range with little or no pressure. Big Chances are scored at a nearly 50% rate and account for over half of a team’s goals (scored and allowed). Big clubs, title challengers, typically allow less than 1 per game.
What I learned from the 2010/11 season dataset
Big Chances have almost always plagued Arsene’s Arsenal. I found a dataset for the 2010/11 Premier League season (on the StatsZone app). That was a season where Arsenal only allowed 8.2 shots per game and through the first seven matches (to compare to this season so far) Wenger’s Arsenal side only allowed 83 shots. But they had allowed 16 Big Chances in those first 6 matches, conceding 10 goals, 6 of them Big Chances.
With Fabregas in the middle of the park, in 2010/11 Arsenal were in their “Barca-lite” prime. They dominated possession stats with 57.7% average per game. That explains the overall few number of chances conceded. That possession also ultimately kept Arsenal’s goals conceded numbers down as well. But, and this is a huge but, Arsenal conceded 64 Big Chances that season, 1.7 per game.
First, the overall number of Big Chances allowed (64) is bad. Expected goals allowed was 44.78 (actual goals allowed 43) and would have been much worse if Arsenal hadn’t been so dominant in possession.
Arsenal also allowed 7 goals off individual errors, conceded 6 more goals off penalties, and Squillaci scored an own goal. 14 goals that season were errors, 33% of the total goals allowed. Moreover, one third of the matches featured individual errors for goals.
One major reason why Arsenal were such a mess that season was because the Arsenal lineups were all over the map: Almunia started the season as number 1 and was dropped for Szczesny, who was dropped for Lehmann but returned to the lineup.
The defense also had personnel problems: Vermaelen spent the entire season injured, Djourou featured and played alongside Koscielny, and Arsenal had to rely on the error-prone Squillaci in defense.
And in midfield, Wenger struggled to figure out a good starting lineup. He played Denilson, Song, and Wilshere along with Cesc with Ramsey and Diaby also swapping duties.
In short, in 2010/11 Arsenal were a great possession side but saddled with an error prone defense, a manager who was constantly changing lineups, and a number of players who were not anywhere near good enough. Sound familiar?
Another feature of that season was Arsenal’s lack of what I call “proactive” defense. Wenger’s defensive scheme was mainly to have his back line nip in and win the ball back with interceptions. Alex Song was the only player outside of the back four who was making any meaningful interceptions/tackles numbers.
Ramsey, Wilshere, Fabregas, Diaby, Arshavin, Nasri, Chamakh, van Persie, Walcott, Bendtner.. These guys were barely doing anything in terms of proactive defense. Meanwhile, Gael Clichy was constantly tackling (3.4/4.2 per game) and trying to win interceptions (3.2 per game). That means players were running at him and shows that Arsenal played a much too reactive defense.
With little pressure up top, and Wenger’s back five gambling on winning the ball back, Arsenal were easily sliced open by the opposition. One more telling stat from that season: Arsenal were the most dispossessed team in the League. Meaning that we were the team most often caught with the ball at feet. This is the first time I’ve had a chance to look at the “deep” stats from the 2010/11 season but now that I have seen them I understand why Fabregas wanted out.That team was a defensive mess.
Similarities/Differences between 2010 and 2019
Before I start here I want to be clear that just because I am comparing Arsenal to Leicester I am NOT suggesting that we sign Brentan. I’m also not jumping on the bandwagon because they beat 10 men Newcastle 5-0 this weekend. I was looking at these stats all season and noticed the change in their style from last season. Leicester are merely a useful foil for describing what Arsenal are doing wrong and what they could be doing better.
The first problem is that Arsenal are no longer a strong possession side. The Gunners are now 9th in possession overall 53.6% It’s not a huge drop in possession from 2010/11 (just 3%) but that drop in possession means that Arsenal allow the opposition more of the ball than before and thus, more opportunities for shots.
The major problems are that Arsenal are dead last or at the bottom of the table in most of the defensive stats. Now, defensive stats have very small correlation to shots allowed and goals conceded. However, they do tell us whether the team is aggressively trying to win the ball back. Arsenal are not doing that, we are playing passive, low block defense for long stretches of the season so far.
- Arsenal are 18th in tackles per game with just 15.1; Leicester are 1st with 23 per game
- Arsenal are 17th in interceptions per game with just 8.6; Leicester are 7th with 12 per game
- Arsenal are 19th in passes blocked with 5.3 per game. Leicester are top of the League with 12.4 per game
- Arsenal are also 16th in crosses blocked per game with 1. Leicester are 8th with 1.6
- Arsenal have allowed the most shots per game, 18.3. Leicester have allowed the 2nds fewest, 8.7
- Arsenal have allowed 14 Big Chances, Leicester have allowed just 6
- Arsenal have already conceded 2 errors for goals plus 3 penalties. Leicester have just 1 error for a goal and 1 penalty conceded
- And finally, Arsenal are 17th in being dispossessed per game with 11.7. Leicester are 5th with just 9.3
The result of this passive defensive work is that Arsenal have allowed 14 big chances this season (2 per game and on pace to concede over 76 big chances). Have allowed the most shots per game, 18. And have already allowed 11 goals, on pace to concede 60 goals. And, playing it out from the back has proved to be a huge problem at Arsenal. We lead the League in possession lost in our own half!
Arsenal are playing the ball out from the back, losing the ball in our own half, and also not winning the ball back enough. You may have heard me say that there are “structural” problems at Arsenal. This is what I mean.
So, what can be done? Well, how about playing some defense? And I don’t just mean the center backs and fullbacks. I love Bellerin and Holding is my favorite defender in a long time, plus Tierney looks like a real winner. I think adding the three of them is going to help Arsenal’s possession stats (Ainsley Maitland-Niles leads Arsenal in possessions lost with 89). But unless the team starts pressuring when out of possession I fear for them in this system because Unai Emery’s passive defending is going to keep putting pressure on the defense.
Man U may be a bright spot
Pepe’s pressure on Tuanzebe forced the error for Aubameyang’s goal. We have seen that sort of pressure applied periodically this season and when the team does it, it works well. The question is what are the triggers? Are there triggers? If feels awfully random right now but it could be part of a plan.
Arsenal’s low block defense against Man U was hard to watch – because we aren’t used to seeing our team do this – and our lack of possession/pressing allowed Man U to take 16 shots. However, the shot pattern was mostly excellent.12 of their shots were from outside the box, they only created 1 big chance (McTominay’s missed header) and their only goal came from a blocked shot. Overall, I would prefer if the team controlled games more proactively but as a temporary solution, keeping the opponents shooting outside the box is a legitimate defensive scheme.
Unai also looks to have abandoned playing it out from the back. There was one moment where we tried to play it out but Luiz was caught in possession. From then on, Leno kicked it long. The problem there is that we don’t have anyone to reliably win those long balls (until Lacazette returns) and the team needs to scramble to win the second ball. One side note, back in 2011/12 Wenger used to have Szczesny kick it long to Sagna who won a ton of aerial duels that season, he led Arsenal with 2.7 per game. Yesterday, Calum Chambers won 3 of 5 aerial duels, all from Leno long balls aimed at him.
And finally, defense. Ok, so Arsenal conceded 55% of the possession to Man U yesterday. Not good. However, we did at least put in a shift trying to win the ball back. Arsenal made 19/26 tackles but most importantly won 9/12 tackles in their half and 5 of 6 in their final third. We also had 2 of our 8 interceptions in their half. And we had three blocked passes in their half. Plus! As I pointed out once before, Pepe’s pressure forced the error that led to the goal.
The problem is that there doesn’t seem to be a clear progression from one style to another. Last season Arsenal finished 5th in possession with 56% but 11th in overall shots taken, 15th in tackles, 13th in interceptions, and 10th in passes blocked. We also allowed fewer shots last season, 13.1 (10th in the League). So, if anything the stats look like we are going backwards. Like we are becoming more passive, less proactive. And that’s worrying.
Even more worrying is that Arsenal’s attack is heavily reliant on Aubameyang’s incredible scoring record. As of this writing, Aubameyang has scored 7 goals in 7 matches from just 21 shots. 10% finishing is normal for all shots, 20% is a great finishing rate for a striker, 33% is probably unsustainable.
Or, who knows, maybe Auba will score 38 League goals on 114 shots this season? I would still wonder where the other goals are going to come from and how we were going to stop the opposition.