Getting Lucky or Boxing Clever?

During the course of Arsenal’s recent winning run, a debate has slowly begun to germinate about the team’s performances. With 7 wins on the bounce in all competitions, there is precious little to complain about in terms of the results. Yet performances have been far from convincing. As ever with these things, the debate was insulated inside the Arsenal fan base until the Watford match, but in recent days it has bled into the football mainstream.

Arsenal have done little to impress in the unforgiving arena of the eye test and the underlying numbers seem to support the assertion that the team has ridden its luck of late. Unai Emery is still fine tuning his system, so some growing pains are to be expected. I have written at length about Arsenal’s unbalanced attack, but a defence currently giving up an average XG of 1.5 against per match has hardly proved to be a buttress.

In the words of Mike Goodman of Stats Bomb “A defence that doesn’t supress shots and also allows good shots is not a defence.” As a dataset, expected goals is at its most useful as a predictive model. Like age, you cannot run away from it forever, soon enough it will grip you in its talons. The Arsenal rearguard is soon to face Mitrovic, Vardy and Zaha, who surely won’t be as profligate as the likes of Isaac Success and Dominic Calvert-Lewin.

That said, Arsenal have only ‘cheated’ XG in their last two league games, at home to Watford and Everton. Though not emphatically, Arsenal outstripped West Ham, Cardiff and Newcastle in this respect. XG is a good indicator, but does not always tell the whole story. For instance, Alex Lacazette’s early one on one miss against Watford won’t show up quite as generously as it ought to because XG takes little account of context. (The distance of the shot would be accounted for, the unopposed 20 yard run-up would not be).

Likewise, it won’t show up the fact that Arsenal ought to have been awarded an early penalty on Saturday. Emery is at least making tactical tweaks that are helping the Gunners to win games late on, but it does rather beg the question as to whether his starting line-ups have been correct. It is goals that are changing games for Arsenal more often than not.

Recently, goals have been “bunched”, with two in 3 minutes against Everton and Watford and two in 9 minutes against Newcastle. Often, an individual feat, such as Xhaka’s free-kick at Newcastle or Lacazette’s fizzing strike against Everton, bail a limp looking Gunners out and then confidence seems to flow and so do the goals.

Emery’s capacity for in-game tinkering was seen as an attractive attribute after Wenger’s (broadly speaking) more laissez-faire approach from the sidelines. Against Everton, Arsenal varied up their approach in the second half and played a lot of long passes in an attempt to surpass Everton’s aggressive press. They also shepherded the ball left to keep Richarlison from isolating Bellerin on the right. Mesut Özil effectively changed position three times against Watford in search of space.

Agents of change such as Alex Iwobi and Danny Welbeck have been able to influence the game from the bench by balancing Arsenal’s attack. This has led some to ponder whether the typical pattern of the games is all part of Emery’s masterplan- to keep games relatively tight in the first half, not concede a goal that would mean Arsenal have to chase the game and then to introduce an injection of energy and structure late on. There has, after all, been a strong emphasis on fitness and ‘staying in the game for 90 minutes’ as Emery puts it.

I am not sure I buy into this argument however. Firstly, I don’t think the Gunners have been especially solid in the opening 45 minutes of matches. Secondly, it just seems like pontificating after the fact. No manager would wait until the 70th minute to unleash his most balanced or best unit. Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo would probably make great impact subs, but nobody will find out for sure because no manager in their right mind would do anything other than start them.

The team looked far more balanced and happy in the matches against Brentford and Vorskla with the presence of players don’t regard being played in a wide attacking position as a waste of their talents. That said, the quality of the opposition in both scenarios leaves a very large asterisk on that particular point of view.

Yet, despite the focus on a disjointed attack, where Aubameyang, Ramsey and Özil all look a shade of pale at the moment, the forwards have been reasonably efficient with chances. Even the two own goals Arsenal have benefitted from against West Ham and Watford have been ‘forced’ by the waspish presence of Alex Lacazette.

There is of course, also the argument that there is nothing lucky about having two decent goalkeepers thoroughly capable of making match winning saves, as Leno and Cech have in recent weeks. Nor is there anything lucky about being more clinical than Watford and Everton given the presence of £100m worth of striker and the world’s finest creator in the Gunners attack.

But the question of sustainability remains. Many of us are having trouble identifying a particular style or identity with Emery’s team- even with the caveat that the coach’s feet are not yet firmly under the table. This piece from @ThatGooner I think offers a partial explanation.

Emery has subtly doctored his setup in each game, asking for a slightly altered approach in the way Arsenal build play. This ‘horses for courses’ style was much thirsted for by a good section of the fan base and it may go some way to explaining why the team hasn’t settled into a stylistic groove yet, because slightly different demands have been made of them in each game.

That said, Arsenal are still quite cavalier in possession and with Özil and Aubameyang nominally in wide positions, the full-backs don’t have much of a duvet to pull over themselves, defensively speaking. Anam from Arsenal Column described Arsenal’s shape as a ‘6-0-4’ given the chasm between Arsenal’s midfield double pivot and the island of attack.

The simpler answer is that Arsenal’s attack is unbalanced and games don’t significantly swing into their favour until alterations are made to balance it. Meanwhile, the defence has largely relied on profligate finishing and strong goalkeeping to keep the wolves from the door. “In 90 minutes, there are moments for the opposition and there are our moments,” Emery said after the Everton match.

We want to control the game more in the first half, because we didn’t have the ball like we want. We conceded two or three important chances to Everton…we spoke in the dressing room about stopping their attacking moments with better positioning on the pitch. In the second half, I think we only conceded one chance from a free-kick which Petr Cech saved very well and there were no more.” It doesn’t sound, from that, like starting slowly and growing into the game is all part of the plan.

Emery’s penchant for in-game tweaks has served Arsenal well, it has at least allowed him to refuel while the plane is still in flight. But sooner or later, the Gunners will need to be tip top from take-off, otherwise they will come a cropper and Unai’s touchline tinkering will look more like drowning than waving.

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Renowned Arsenal historians Andy Kelly and Mark Andrews and I have written a book about the tumultuous early years of Arsenal Football Club covering the period 1886 – 1893. ‘Royal Arsenal- Champions of the South’ is available to order here.