I hate when I have to write these columns when Arsenal are in the middle of a bad stretch of matches.
My general view on Sports is pessimism, I think I do that as a way to protect myself from future pain but when things start trending badly with a team I support it becomes really easy for me to veer into burning it all down mode.
I don’t think I am there with Arsenal yet, but Arsenal is so far away from the intermediate goal of qualifying for the Champions League. Last week I wrote about how Arsenal compares to the average team that has finished in 4th place and it was incredibly humbling to see how far Arsenal has to go, to meet what used to be the floor of the club’s goals for the season.
This match against Wolves was just another example of what a team that is built with a coherent plan is capable of. The coherent vision was able to overcome the talent advantage that Arsenal had in this match, and that has been the case for a majority of these disappointing results.
Arsenal 1 – 2 Wolves: By the graphs
Arsenal 1 – 2 Wolves: By the numbers
13 – Shots for Arsenal, tied for the most that Arsenal have had in a League match this season
8 – Shots from open play for Arsenal, tied for the most that Arsenal have had in a League match this season
41 – Touches in the Penalty Area, the most Arsenal have had in a League match this season
234 – Final third touches, the most Arsenal have had in a League match this season
52 – Progressive passes completed, the most Arsenal have had in a League match this season
36 – Crosses attempted, the most Arsenal have had in a League match this season
5 – Cross completed in the penalty area (excluding set plays), tied for the most that Arsenal have had in a League match this season
1 – Through ball pass completed, tied for fourth-fewest (three matches with 0) this season
4 – Successful dribbles, third-fewest for Arsenal have had in a League match this season
10 – Tackles, fourth-fewest for Arsenal have had in a League match this season
19 – Times dribbled past, the most Arsenal have had in a League match this season
10 – Interceptions, tied for the most that Arsenal have had in a League match this season
There are ways to look at the above and maybe think that it isn’t too bad. Arsenal came out of this match with season highs in shots, shots from open play, progressive passes, and touches in deep areas.
The only problem is that first, these are not impressive numbers for season highs, in fact, these would be poor to average attacking numbers for teams that Arsenal would like to be peers with. Second, Arsenal played behind in this match for long stretches chasing the game and still struggled to create much in the way of an attack.
My impression of what Mikel Arteta’s “Plan A” is in attack is playing the ball from the back, drawing out the defense to open up space, and then looking to exploit that by beating pressure. There were a couple times that almost worked early in this match but once Wolves were in the lead they no longer needed to press Arsenal. The 82 total pressure events from Wolves are by far the fewest Arsenal has faced this season, and Wolves pressed Arsenal just 14 times high.
That left Arsenal reliant on their “Plan B” to create and in this match, it seemed that was going to be working the ball out wide and then try crosses into the penalty box. Here is the illustration of Arsenal’s cross attempted from StatsZone:So many of these are the very hopeful type of cross where there isn’t much of a plan beyond trying to put it into a dangerous location and hope that Wolves make a mistake or Aubameyang wins a header that is far from favored to come out on top on.
You can see this as well looking at where Arsenal had their possession in this match. Once the ball progressed into Wolves half, the ball went out wide (some of this is certainly that Wolves clogged up the middle) with very few attempts to play through Zone 14
This was the dreaded horseshoe shape again, but again the version where the possession in central locations is primarily from the centrebacks.
Granit Xhaka’s de-emphasizing
55 – Pass attempts, 4th most on Arsenal
87.3 – Pass completion percentage
9 – Long passes attempted (6 completed), 5th on Arsenal
0 – Switches
7 – Final third entries, 2nd on Arsenal
8 – Progressive passes completed, 2nd on Arsenal
4 – Passes into the penalty area completed, led Arsenal
0 – Key passes
0 – Shots
2 – Tackles, 2nd on Arsenal
4 – Interceptions, led Arsenal
12 – Pressures, 5th on Arsenal
This is another weird one to analyze, the numbers above aren’t horrible but these are a long ways away from Xhaka’s best or even typical performances when he was the hub of Arsenal’s midfield. Xhaka has strengths, especially his ability with long progressive passing and connecting the attack from possession in the team’s half of the pitch. In this match, it really looked like he was asked to play a role that didn’t suit him, and his performance matched.
What this brings to the forefront is the question, if you aren’t going to feature him as the focal point through which attacks are started what is the point of playing him?
Green Shoots for Aubameyang?
5 – Shots, the most he has had in a match this season
0.4 – Non-Penalty xG, tied for the most he has had in a match this season
22 – Touches, the fewest he has had in a match this season
10 – Touches in the penalty area, the most he has had in a match this season
39 – Pass targets, tied for second-fewest in a match this season (33.3% completed)
14 – Passes completed, the fewest he has had in a match this season
2 – Passes completed in the penalty area, tied for the most he has had in a match this season
I might be starting to sound like a broken record but I think that depending on your perspective the above stats could look either good or bad depending on your perspective. I am choosing to look at these as potentially positive, especially considering the really poor performances that came before it.
In this match, Aubameyang was pretty isolated as is illustrated by his total of just 22 touches. That isn’t too big of a deal when he is playing striker, and especially when he is able to get touches in places that matter for him to potentially turn that possession into shots. So while he didn’t get on the ball a ton, he did get essentially all of his touches in the final third and nearly half of his touches inside the penalty area. He was also able to turn those 10 touches in the penalty area into 5 shots! The dark grey lining (is that the opposite of a silver lining?) is that he wasn’t able to make these his signature high-quality chances with a well below his average xG per shot of 0.08.
Going further you can see he was targeted by his teammates often fairly regularly, the problem was that these were often crosses and that is a strategy that doesn’t match his skill set. For me, this calls for a re-evaluation of the strategy of how Arsenal go about trying to get the ball to him not that this was necessarily a failure of the strategy of playing him as the main striker.
This doesn’t put to rest my worry about him declining but I think that we can read positive things from this performance that Aubameyang is beyond getting any production from this season.