Nuthin’ but an ‘XG’ Thang

Much has been said and written about Arsenal’s poor chance conversion this season. The manager cites it as the foremost reason for the disintegration of another title challenge. Arsenal fans are fattened up on a daily diet of Mesut Özil’s chance creation figures. The German could forge human life with his left boot, only for a careless Arsenal striker to trip over the umbilical cord.

XG or “expected goals” has become an oft quoted metric this season- especially in relation to the goal shy Gunners. In the Premier League, Arsenal have treated paying punters to only one more home goal this season than a Newcastle team likely to be relegated senseless. Wenger elaborated this week, “We created two expected goals per game last year at home. This year, we’ve created 2.5 expected goals per game. Last season we scored 114 per cent of our expected goals, this year we’ve scored 50 per cent, or 55 per cent.”

Arsenal are playing with the same set of forwards as they were last season, so why the big differential? Olivier Giroud, Alexis Sanchez and Theo Walcott  have all lost form at different intervals of the campaign, which accounts for some of the deficit. Everybody in the world knows that Arsenal need a top class centre forward, including the manager himself, who has spent much of the last three summers chasing the likes of Gonzalo Higuain, Luis Suarez and Karim Benzema.

The only discernible difference between the current top 4’s two big underperformers this season- Arsenal and Manchester City- is Sergio Aguero. City adopt a loosely similar style to Arsenal, played by a gaggle of individuals. But in Sergio Aguero, they have a striker capable of eking out chances for himself and converting some of the ½ or even ¼ chances that the team creates. He can conjure a juicy t-bone from granola dust and Arsenal don’t have a player like that.

As this piece explains, the XG metric does not entirely account for the quality of chances created. Or at least it is not yet able to do this rigorously enough yet. The same goes for Özil’s eye boggling chance creation numbers, which do not really distil the quality of the chances created. Context is still required. I don’t have the impression that Özil is regularly sending our fleet of clown shoed strikers clean through on goal, only to watch them foiled by a stray banana skin. (Though Walcott’s next ‘comedy vine’ will surely involve him stepping on some kind of rake).

I think there are other factors that go some way to explaining why Arsenal have not been converting chances. Over the New Year period, the midfield area endured a period of dysfunction that would have made the Manson family squeamish. The jarring ‘Flambo’ duo in the engine room did not exactly make for swift, seamless build up play. In short, Arsenal had to work so bloody hard just to get the ball into the opposition penalty area, that the strikers lacked serenity once they got there. When the build up play is a lung sapping struggle, the finishing is likely to be desperate.

Let’s take Welbeck’s beautifully crafted opener against Everton. Smart, swift build up play begat a cool finish. Now compare to Arsenal’s profligate second half display against Southampton in February. Chances are thrashed, slashed and bashed off target, with the approach play resembling an amphetamine fuelled pinball session. The fleet of defensive bodies ahead of Arsenal’s beleaguered strikers also hardly invites composure.

The latter point illustrates the biggest issue of all. Arsenal do not move opposition defences and goalkeepers around enough. In the games against Crystal Palace and Sunderland, the build up play was far too laboured, as wave after wave of slow, deliberate side to side passes, allied with a lack of movement upfront rendered Arsenal predictable and easy to contain. As a result, when the chance to shoot finally does arrive, goalkeepers and defences are usually well placed enough to deal with them.

The best time to dismantle a well manned defence is shortly after the opposition has possession and defenders are not braced. Arsenal looked as though they had solved this problem over the Easter period. At Goodison Park, Iwobi has the ball in the net less than ten seconds after Everton are attacking Arsenal’s defensive third. Alexis’ goal against Watford arrives seven seconds after a Coquelin interception.

Özil’s finishes his chance at Upton Park less than seven seconds after West Ham think they have cleared the ball. Alexis has looped Danny Welbeck’s cross into the net against Crystal Palace just five seconds after Welbeck has dispossessed an Eagles defender. Whilst Borussia Dortmund manager, Jurgen Klopp once famously remarked, “the gegenpress is my most creative player.” This is a tactic that Spurs have taken to heart in a big way this season, forcing turnovers high up the pitch.

When Arsenal commit to doing this, they are notably more prolific and a front three of Iwobi, Alexis and Welbeck is well equipped to execute it. Especially with the leather lunged Mohammed Elneny making his presence felt in midfield. Wenger recognises that the speed of Arsenal’s passing needs to improve. “How we can cope with it is to be quicker with our passing, quicker in our movement and as well by being more dangerous with shots from outside the box, because that is something that gets the defenders out.”

The Gunners’ sluggish build up play also partially explains why they have yielded only three penalties in all competitions this season. If you do not move defences around with quick, incisive passing, you do not panic them or force them into moments of rashness. With the lithe (and it must be said, sly) presence of Jamie Vardy upfront, Leicester have invoked ten penalties this season.

Leicester turn defence into attack very quickly and have the rapid, prowling presence of Jamie Vardy hungrily hunting defenders. They also have the quicksilver, dancing feet of Riyad Mahrez, with those slender ankles just begging to be tapped by bamboozled defenders. Arsenal have become better at forcing turnovers high up the pitch, but with the ball, they do not attack with enough imagination or conviction.

Faced with a mise-en-scène of static strikers and compact defences, it is incredible that Mesut Özil manages to pass the ball forwards at all at times. That he so regularly does is testament to his laser vision and a unique ability to thread the eye of a needle. The German is passing into the tiniest nooks of space and therein lies the problem. His colleagues are not doing enough to turn those nooks into corridors or even canyons. Until they can, Arsenal’s title chances will continue to be thwarted.

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