Wednesday, February 28, 2024

Stats and data show a top four finish is already an outside chance

As you’ll see from today’s title, this post isn’t likely to be one that cheers you up very much.

Before we get into it, I’d recommend checking out Scott’s By the numbers piece on the Leicester game, and 7amkickoff’s article which delves into our chance creation, xG and our attacking efficiency. Neither of which make for pretty reading, and while I know many people still scoff xG as some kind of irrelevance, it’s really not because it tells us plenty about this team is performing.

Also, much of the content from today’s post comes from @Orbinho at Opta, who has collated data from the first 19 games of 2018-19, the last 19 games of last season and the 12 so far from this season. If you’re in any way interested in football stats, please give him a follow because his stuff – not just about Arsenal – really is excellent.

I’m gonna break it down into chunks, the stuff in italics is his, my comments/thoughts below, and this is what we’ve got.

Goals and shots

In terms of goals scored, the team has clearly performed worse. That opening 19 games of last season saw the Gunners score at a rate of 2.16 per game, compared to 1.68 per game in the second half. But this season, that has dipped to just 1.33 per game. No improvement there. When you look at shots it’s been relatively consistent – 12.7 in the opening 19 games of 2018-19, 11.9 per match in the second half of the season and 12.5 per game this season.

But those numbers pale against the average of around 15 shots per game under Arsene Wenger. And away from home, the average drops to just 8.5 shots per game. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang has had just one shot in each of Arsenal’s last three away games. As one of the best strikers in the world, he can only thrive if provided the service and Arsenal just aren’t giving him that right now.

Creativity has been something we’ve touched on often, it was an issue last season and it’s even more pronounced now. It’s hard not to think that Emery and his staff are well aware of the statistical decline, and when it comes to fixing that, I don’t think it’s any coincidence that Mesut Ozil has been brought back in from the cold. I’d question the wisdom of playing him with a back three, as there’s no natural place in the team for him – especially as Emery’s solution was to play two split strikers who were asked to fulfil defensive duties – but you can see why he’s called him back. Desperate times call for desperate measures.

It’s also quite telling that the player with the most successful through balls for Arsenal in the Premier League this season is … David Luiz, a centre-half. His quality on the ball means it’s not quite hit and hope, but it’s abundantly clear we have problems building up play and making chances. The fact we’re consistently out-shot by the opposition illustrates that too.

Conversion rate and xG

That lack of overall quantity in itself isn’t an issue, but clearly conversion has dropped dramatically. Arsenal scored with 17% of their shots in that honeymoon opening period, but dropped to 14% in the second half of the season and only 11% this season. Those differences don’t sound big, but in fact it means Arsenal’s conversion has dropped from scoring one goal for every six shots to now one in nine. This means Arsenal need to create 50% more chances to score every goal.

When we look at Expected Goals, the good goalscoring stats from the start of Emery’s reign are clear. Actual goals scored in those opening 19 games were 41 – Expected Goals 28. The balls were flying in from long range, but the reality was it was unsustainable. The second half of the season saw Arsenal score 32 goals, but Expected Goals were 32.6. Basically scoring at the rate expected. And that has continued into this season where our actual goals and Expected Goals are identical at 16.

As much as that unbeaten run was enjoyable, and impressive in terms of points earned and results, there was always a feeling that we were riding our luck a bit. At the time I didn’t really think about it from a goalscoring point of view, I was most concerned about the quality of chances we were giving the opposition. In some games we definitely got lucky as they failed to take them, but the warning signs were there about how things were going at the other end too. We often hear of the new manager bounce when a team brings someone else in, with hindsight it looks exactly like we got ours when Emery arrived and got over those first two difficult Premier League fixtures last season. Since then, that’s a different matter.

Defending, xGA (expected goals against)

At the other end of the pitch, it’s a similar story with Arsenal giving up 12.4 shots per game in the opening 19 games of 2018-19. That rose to 13.8 per match in the second half of the season and is now at an horrendous 16.4 per game so far this season – the third worst record in the top flight. As a result goals conceded have gone up from 1.32 per game to 1.37 per game and then for this season to 1.42 per match. None of those three figures are acceptable for a team trying to challenge at the top of the table and it’s this lack of improvement from the tail end of Wenger’s era that worries the most.

Again Expected Goals Against (xGA) tells a story of a bad defence. Last season the figure was 23.6 in the first 19 games and we actually conceded 25. In the second half of the season, you could argue we atually got a little lucky conceding 26, when Expected Goals Against was 32.6. And as the metrics predicted, when you don’t address the underlying problems the defence was going to continue to be bad. And, sure enough, this season Arsenal have conceded 17 while their xGA is 17.6. It’s a difficult case to make that we’re improving.

For me this is the biggest disappointment of the Emery era. I’m as unhappy as anyone by the fact that our attacking power has declined – particularly when you consider the quality of the players we have there and the investments we’ve made in the transfer market – but the inability to produce any kind of defensive improvement is a poor reflection of his 18 months in charge.

Not simply because it was obviously an area that has needed work for a long time, but also because of Emery’s focus on it. This is a quote from former Head of High Performance Darren Burgess from August 2018, just before the start of the head coach’s first season in charge:

Most people recognised that our defence was poor last season we conceded a ridiculous number of goals around 50 or something which Arsenal hadn’t done in maybe 15 years so one thing he’s been working on unsurprisingly is making the team a bit more solid and better organised in that area. Obviously it remains to be seen how successful that is but that’s an area he’s focused on.

He’s very particular on player positioning depending on where the ball is in certain areas of the pitch. His sessions are very intricate in that regard. Not better or worse to the previous way but certainly different.

We conceded the same amount of goals (51) in Emery’s first season as we did in Wenger’s final and worst campaign in charge. This season we have a negative goal difference, and compared to last season we’ve scored just 17 compared to 26 last time out.

If he was a coach who was, like Wenger for example, the kind of who thought the best form of defence was attack, or long spells of possession, then you might be able to rationalise this lack of progress a bit more easily. But this was a key area for him, he recognised the problems and set out to fix them. That 18 months down the line we’re probably defensively worse than when he took over is damning in that context.

Possession and control

Emery has started talking about wanting to control games, but against the better teams we seem to have less and less and it’s clear other teams are beginning to dominate the ball. Possession has dropped from 60% on average per match in the first half of last season when we were often trailing and had to chase games, to 57% and now to 55% per game this season. That ability to chase games successfully seems to have diminished, but we’re also doing very little with any possession we have. Against Sheffield United Arsenal had 69% possession and managed just nine shots. Against Leicester, Arsenal’s last shot of the game came in the 53rd minute.

What do I need to say about this? You all watch the games, when is the last time you saw Arsenal properly control a game for 90 minutes outside of the Europa League/Carabao Cup games this season? When was the last time we properly dominated a team in the Premier League? Answers on a postcard.

Points and top four chances

Right now Arsenal have earned 1.4 points per game in 2019-20. In the first half of 2018-19 that was two points per match and in the second half 1.7. Emery’s win percentage is 33%, the lowest since 1994-95, a season we finished 12th.

Only four teams have ever finished in the top four of a 38-game Premier League season having just 17 points after 12 games. Only one team has done it in the last 12 seasons when the bar has been raised by the top teams. That was Arsenal in 2014-15, but significantly they were only two points off 4th place after those 12 games. With an eight point deficit to 4th and a vastly inferior goal difference, Arsenal are basically relying on a collapse from one of the current top four to have any realistic chance of qualifying for the Champions League via their league position this campaign.

The bit in bold is key. And from Scott’s piece linked above:

My projection model now gives Arsenal a 17% chance to finish in the top four. FiveThirtyEight gives Arsenal a 13% chance and according to the betting markets it is between 16% and 20%.

You can argue the ins and outs of those projections if you like, but combined with the Opta data, past history, our level of performance this season and the underlying metrics like goal difference, xG etc, it looks very much as if it will take something of a miracle for us to finish in the Champions League places this season. After just twelve games, that’s a profoundly disappointing position to be in considering the optimism and hope that existed at the start of the season.

Nobody expects Arsenal to win the title, that’s a completely unrealistic target, but given the squad we have, the talent within it, the money we’ve invested, the wage bill (ours was £240m last year and while we’ve moved on some big earners this summer, Leicester’s was £119m last season so the gap there is stark), and the purported stature of this club, finishing in the top four should be the minimum requirement. Anything less would be failure, no question, and right now we’re a long way down that road.

So, does our current situation make changing the head coach pointless? Does it make it imperative so we can get more from this squad, perhaps with that patented New Manager Bounce? Should we stick with a Europe League specialist as our best chance of Champions League is winning a European trophy this season? Something else?

You know what I think. The club’s inaction is going to hurt us even further, and while it might be a long shot, we’ve got to give somebody else the job to see if they can make things better. There’s no good case to be made for sticking with what we’ve got, because not only has there been no improvement, it’s getting worse.

I’ll leave it there, there’s plenty to get your teeth into.

A couple of small bits of housekeeping. Arseblog has been nominated for Best Fan Media at the FSA Awards 2019. The poll is open until November 30th, so if you could give us a vote here that would be very much appreciated.

And later, Andrew Allen and I will be doing a YouTube live stream for Patreon Members. If you’re not already signed up, and you want to support what we do on the site as well as getting extra benefits like ad-free podcasts, ad-free apps for iOS or Android, bonus content and more, you can do so for just €5 per months at

Right, take it easy, more here tomorrow.

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