Could a team two places lower in the Premier League, with fewer points and fewer goals scored than at the comparable stage of the previous campaign, have improved? It sounds unlikely, but evidence is mounting that this is true for Mikel Arteta’s arsenal.
The suggestion would have been ridiculed a month ago, but if Arsenal maintain their statistical dominance in matches and add a run of wins to last weekend’s victory over Liverpool, it will be taken seriously.
Neutrals found Arsenal less exciting to watch, even boring, while the club’s supporters were tense, excited and unsure about the team’s tactical direction after last season’s surprise title challenge. A regular in the team, Granit Xhaka, was replaced by Kai Havertz. Crowd favorite Aaron Ramsdale was replaced in goal by David Raya. Some of these emotions were impulsive reactions to changing expectations, but some fears reflected very real growing pains on the field.
Last season’s Arsenal had more to offer than the memorable fourteen games before the World Cup in Qatar, of which they won twelve. Arsenal won 50 points from the first nineteen games of the season, the best at half-time in the club’s history, but only 34 points from the first nineteen games of the season. remaining 19 games. Despite carrying equal weight in both halves of the season, Arteta’s team this season has been compared to the rambunctious Arsenal of pre-February 2023, rather than the more skittish version that followed.
After last season’s 23 games, which featured Arsenal’s very best football and form, they achieved 54 points from 51 goals scored and 23 goals conceded. This season, Arsenal have 49 points from 47 goals scored and 22 goals conceded. However, their attacking performances, as judged by expected goals, are virtually identical, while their underlying defensive numbers have improved. Apart from points, Arsenal did not lead the league in any of these main figures last season, always behind Manchester City, while this season they lead or co-lead the league in goals conceded, expected goals conceded and expected goal difference. Points won are of course the most important metric, but may not always be the best predictor of what is to come.
Looking at evenly matched games rather than games played, the difference between last season’s Arsenal and this season’s Arsenal is clear: shot conversion. Of the equal matches, minus the three involving the promoted clubs, Arsenal scored 49 goals from just 37.9 expected goals last season. Players like Martin Odegaard and Gabriel Martinelli enjoyed hot finishing spells. In the same matches this season, Arsenal have scored just 35 goals, out of 38.1 expected. Their expected goals conceded, and therefore their expected goal difference, are better this season than last season in these matches. However, if Arsenal want to win the league, they need more positive variance in front of goal.
Arsenal’s defensive record was the most impressive aspect of their play, and they were expected to be more solid and less vulnerable following the addition of Declan Rice. Their ability to suffocate opponents makes Arteta’s team look much more stable in the biggest games.
While a league season is all about picking up points against all types of opponents, this bodes well for a fixture that includes trips to City, Brighton, Tottenham and Manchester United, as well as potential Champions League matches. Arsenal conceded just one expected goal at Anfield in December, after conceding 8.2 expected goals in their previous two league games there. In league matches with Liverpool and City at the Emirates, Arsenal have conceded less than one expected goal between them. City had four shots, the fewest Pep Guardiola has had in a top flight since April 2010.
Ahead of Liverpool’s match at the Emirates, Arsenal may have lacked an attacking threat of their own against the best. However, these are fixtures where living with small margins is less of an issue. It could prove effective in Europe, with knockout competitions rewarding teams that can avoid defeat.
If Arsenal are better, why hasn’t it felt that way?
Game is on
Arsenal’s more lethal shot conversion last season saw them gain the upper hand more often, and they did so earlier in matches. Naturally, fans are more relaxed when their team is up front, especially in the case of Arsenal, who face teams that want to suppress them.
After 23 Premier League games last season, Arsenal had scored 11 goals within the first 20 minutes. This season there are only eight, three of which have come in Arsenal’s last four games.
Over the whole of last season, Arsenal led 47 percent of Premier League minutes, and were two or more goals ahead in 24 percent of their total minutes. This season, Arsenal have led for just 35 percent of Premier League minutes and have been ahead by two goals or more just 16 percent of the time.
The majority of Arsenal’s expected goals came when they drew, which happened in 48 percent of minutes, compared to 37 percent last year.
So while Arsenal have achieved excellent stat sheet numbers, they have done so in game situations that keep fans nervous. Arteta’s team, due to variance in finishing or other factors, was less effective at opening games early.
A more functional style of ball possession
One possible reason why Arsenal spend more time drawing is their deliberate approach to possession. Whether this has been a tactical shift on Arteta’s part or a natural consequence of replacing Thomas Partey with Rice at the center of the team is up for debate.
Arsenal’s defensive numbers have improved as they get fewer transition and counter-attacking opportunities, and when they do get them, Rice is there to throw a damp cloth over the flames. The trade-off is that opponents have longer to get into their defensive shape.
Arsenal have been more cautious about forcing passes through the center of the pitch, something which led to goals being conceded in crucial games against West Ham and Southampton in April last year. Partey is a player who likes to receive the ball in crowded areas, even with his back to goal, and trusts that he can escape pressure. Rice prefers to go to the ends of the play and see the play in front of him. It’s a stylistic difference that Arteta will be well aware of.
Last season, Partey played 4.45 progressive passes per 90 minutes, while Rice is playing 3.52 per 90 minutes this season. The Englishman is a rapid progresser with the ball and his numbers are generally strong, but he does so with less disguise in his passing than Partey.
The result is that Arsenal have not penetrated the hearts of the teams very well, leaving some fans feeling that the football is boring. According to StatsBomb data released on X, formerly known as Twitter, Arsenal have only two players averaging more than six line-breaking passes per 90 minutes in the Premier League this season (Rice and Oleksandr Zinchenko). Man City and Liverpool each employ four players. Rodri completes about double the amount of rice.
Relying on a set piece
Only Chelsea have scored more penalties than Arsenal’s six this season, while Arteta’s team have scored 10 goals from corners, which is more than any team. This has led to concerns that Arsenal are too reliant on set pieces and not creating enough from open play. Even after a 5-0 win over Crystal Palace, there were concerns over the fact that the first two goals came from Gabriel headers. Were Arsenal’s goal concerns really allayed?
Arsenal are still behind Liverpool and, believe it or not, Newcastle United when it comes to expected goals without penalties, so there is room for improvement before they can claim they have the best attack and defense in the league.
The pivotal moment these concerns miss…
Arsenal gave the league a significant lead when it came to creating open playing opportunities. Some of the skepticism about Arsenal’s attack seems to be based on a difficult first few months, rather than what they are currently producing.
Until a 1-0 win over Brentford at the end of November, Arsenal ranked 12th in terms of expected goals in open play, behind teams such as Wolves and Everton. This was undoubtedly a problem.
However, in the ten Premier League games since then, Arsenal are ranked first in terms of expected goals in open play, and that period includes two games against Liverpool, a trip to Villa Park and games Arsenal lost last season, such as Brighton at home and Nottingham Forest away.
What changed? The form and fitness of Martin Odegaard. The two could well be linked, as since overcoming a nagging niggle, the Arsenal captain has taken on a much expanded role in midfield.
In the first nine league games of the season, Odegaard operated more as a second striker. His shot numbers and expected goals have declined since then, but his creative numbers have gone through the roof.
Early in the season, Odegaard averaged just one and 1.6 touches per 90 in the two central zones either side of the halfway line. Since then, he has averaged more than five touches per game in both zones, as well as many more touches on the left side of the pitch.
Before that trip to Brentford, Odegaard averaged 35.9 successful passes per 90 minutes, just 0.13 expected assists and just 1.7 chances created. Since then, Odegaard has averaged 55 successful passes per 90 minutes, 0.41 expected assists and created 3.6 chances. This is a transformation and not a marginal gain.
Should Arsenal’s chance-creation streak continue, the debate over whether this season’s team is better than last season could soon be settled.