Can a team two places lower in the Premier League table, with fewer points and fewer goals than the equivalent stage of the previous campaign, improve? It sounds unbelievable but evidence is mounting that it is true for Mikel Arteta’s Arsenal.
The suggestion would have been laughed off a month ago, but if Arsenal maintain their statistical dominance of games and add a run of wins to last weekend’s win over Liverpool, it will really kick off.
Arsenal were not so boring to watch, even boring, according to Neutrals, while the club’s supporters were confused, agitated and unsure of the team’s tactical direction after last season’s surprise challenge. Kai Havertz replaced Granit Xhaka in the team. David Raya replaced crowd favorite Aaron Ramsdale in the back. Some of these feelings were impulsive reactions to changing expectations, but some concerns reflected very real initial problems on the field.
Last season’s Arsenal had more than the impressive 14 games leading up to the Qatar World Cup, of which they won 12. Arsenal won 50 points from the first 19 games of the season, the best half-way score in the club’s history, but not only 34 points from the game. 19 games left. Despite the two halves of the season being of equal weight, Arteta’s side this season have found themselves compared to the fast-paced Arsenal that existed before February 2023, rather than the quicker version that followed.
After 23 games last season, which includes Arsenal’s best football and form, they had 54 points from 51 goals scored and 23 conceded. This season, Arsenal have 49 points from 47 goals scored and conceded 22. However, their offensive output rated on potential targets is nearly the same, and their underlying defensive numbers have improved. Apart from points, Arsenal did not lead the league in any of these key metrics last season, always trailing Manchester City, but this season they lead or co-lead the league for the goals conceded, goals expected and the difference between goals expected. Points gained are of course the most important measure, but they may not always be the best predictor of what’s to come.
Looking at equal games rather than games played, the difference between last season’s Arsenal and this season’s Arsenal is obvious: shot conversion. From the equivalent games, minus the three involving the promoted clubs, Arsenal scored 49 goals from just 37.9 goals expected last season. Players such as Martin Odegaard and Gabriel Martinelli enjoyed hot finishing spells. In the same games this season, Arsenal have scored just 35 goals out of an expected 38.1 goals. Their expected goals conceded, and therefore their expected goal difference, is better this season than last season in these games. If Arsenal are to win the league though, they need more positive variety 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 after the addition of Declan Rice. Their ability to shut down opponents means that Arteta’s side look much more consistent in the biggest games.
While a league season is about picking up points against all kinds of opposition, it’s a good run in that includes trips to City, Brighton, Tottenham and Manchester United as well as potential Champions League ties. Arsenal conceded just one expected goal at Anfield in December after conceding 8.2 expected goals over their previous two league outings. In league meetings with Liverpool and City at the Emirates, Arsenal have conceded less than one goal together. City had four shots, the fewest shots by Pep Guardiola’s team in a top-flight game since April 2010.
Before the Liverpool game at the Emirates, Arsenal may not have had an attacking threat of their own against the best. However, these are fixtures that have little difficulty surviving on a smooth edge. It could be effective in Europe, with winning competitions rewarding teams that can avoid defeat.
If Arsenal are better, why didn’t it feel that way?
Arsenal had a more lethal shot conversion last season putting them in front more often, and doing so earlier in games. Of course, fans are more relaxed when their team is in the lead, especially in the case of Arsenal facing teams trying to sneak up on them.
After 23 games in the Premier League last season, Arsenal had scored 11 goals in the first 20 minutes. There are just eight this season, with three of those goals coming in Arsenal’s last four games.
Across the whole of last season, Arsenal spent 47 per cent of their Premier League minutes in front, and in 24 per cent of their total minutes they were two goals or more ahead. This season, Arsenal have spent just 35 per cent of their Premier League minutes up front, and have been two or more goals ahead just 16 per cent of the time.
Most of Arsenal’s accumulated expected goals came when they were drawing games, which happened in 48 per cent of minutes compared to 37 per cent last year.
So, while Arsenal are putting up impressive numbers on the stat sheet, they have done so in game states that keep the fans nervous. Arteta’s side were less effective, due to final difference or other factors, ripping the games early.
A more functional style in possession
One reason Arsenal are spending more time drawing is their deliberate approach in possession. Whether this was a tactical move by Arteta or a natural consequence of Rice replacing Thomas Partey at the heart of the team is debatable.
Arsenal’s defensive numbers have improved because they are conceding fewer turnovers and counter-attacking opportunities, and when they do concede them Rice is there to throw a damp cloth over the flames. The trade-off is that opposing teams have more time to settle into their defensive shape.
Arsenal were more wary of pushing passes through midfield, which resulted in conceding goals in crucial games against West Ham and Southampton last April. Partey is a player who likes to get the ball in congested areas, even in back-to-backs, trusting himself to get out of pressure. Rís prefers to move to the ends of the game and see the game in front of him. It’s a difference in style that Arteta will be well aware of.
Last season, Partey was playing 4.45 progressive passes per 90 minutes but Rice is playing 3.52 per 90 minutes this season. The Englishman is a crisp forward on the ball and his numbers are generally strong, but he does so with less disguise on his passes than Partey.
The result is that Arsenal haven’t sliced through the core of teams as much, which leaves some fans feeling that football is safe. 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 have four players each. Rodri ends up being about double the number of Rice.
Depending on a set piece
Only Chelsea have scored more penalties than Arsenal’s six this season, while Arteta’s side have scored 10 goals from corners which is more than any team. This is a concern that Arsenal rely too much on set pieces and not creating enough from open play. Even after a 5-0 win over Crystal Palace, there were fears that the first two goals came from Gabriel’s leaders. Have Arsenal’s goalscoring concerns been eased?
Arsenal are still trailing Liverpool and, believe it or not, Newcastle United in terms of expected non-penalty goals, so there is room for improvement before they can claim to have the best attack best at the league as well as defense.
When these worries are getting worse, we long…
Arsenal made an impressive start to the series when it came to creating chances in open play. Some of the doubt about Arsenal’s attack seems to be based on a stodgy few months in the first place, rather than what they are currently producing.
Up to and including a 1-0 win at Brentford in late November, Arsenal were 12th in open play goals generated, behind the likes of Wolves and Everton. This was a problem, no doubt.
In the 10 Premier League games since then, however, Arsenal have topped the charts for expected goals from open play, and that span includes two games against Liverpool, a trip to Villa Park and the games that Arsenal lost last season were Brighton at home and Nottingham Forest away.
What has changed? Martin Odegaard’s form and fitness. The two could well be linked, as since the Arsenal captain got the upper hand on his hips he has taken on a much more comprehensive midfield role.
In the first nine league games of the season, Odegaard was performing more like a second striker. His shooting 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 touch and 1.6 touches per 90 in the two middle zones on either side of the halfway line. Since he is averaging more than five touches per game in both zones, as well as getting a lot more touches on the left side of the field.
Prior to that trip to Brentford, Odegaard averaged 35.9 successful passes per 90 minutes, expected just 0.13 assists and created just 1.7 chances. Since then, Odegaard has averaged 55 successful passes per 90 minutes, 0.41 potential assists and is creating 3.6 chances. This is a transformation and not a marginal gain.
If Arsenal’s proven trajectory continues, the debate over whether this season’s team is better than last could soon be settled.