Tuesday, February 7, 2023

Penned In

One can see with their eyes that Arsenal are a different beast this season compared to last- and most Arsenal fans were enthused by what they saw in 2021-22. Clearly, a lot of that excitement was built on the expectation of further improvement and so it has proved.

Recruitment has been key in this improvement too, of course. William Saliba and Gabriel Jesus have immensely improved the spine of the team. Oleksandr Zinchenko has only been less influential for availability reasons. The uptick in quality through recruitment has not been a one window affair, though.

Ramsdale, White, Gabriel, Partey, Odegaard, Tomiyasu plus the continued development of Saka and Smith Rowe (and Xhaka!) has seriously upped the team’s technical level. These are all players who can handle the ball in tight spaces and have a range of clubs in the bag when it comes to ball circulation. That is, to my mind, the key element in Arsenal’s improvement.

So far in this Premier League season, Leeds United away is the only game I could point to and say that Arsenal did not demonstratively dominate the game. There are other fixtures which are more debatable- Crystal Palace and Southampton away, really it depends on how you view the Manchester United defeat (either United were very clinical / a little lucky or Arsenal were caught on the break by a good counterattacking team).

It really is as simple as this; Arsenal have found a template that is repeatable with these players. What is happening is simple mathematics (or geography), they are spending more time with the ball in dangerous areas compared to last season. They are higher up the pitch and spending more time penning the opposition back towards their own goal.

When Arsenal (slightly unfortunately) fell behind against West Ham on Monday evening, there was a sense of calm among fans and players alike. The Gunners were clearly well on top in the first half, they enjoyed the lion’s share of possession and territory and little of it was sterile.

At half-time, many of us, broadly, felt that Arsenal probably needed to sharpen up in the final action but that if the second half was played in much the same way as the first, Arsenal would win the game.

The team have not been behind very often this season but when they have been, or when the opposition have equalised, Arsenal have not been required to shift gear or change tack. They just stay true to their template, dominate the ball, dominate territory and keep opponents clinging onto the cliff edge in their own area while the attackers tap dance all over their fingers.

As I have said, your eyes show you that Arsenal have been a more dominant team this season, the raw numbers don’t necessarily show you this; but the underlying data does.

Shots per 90Possession
Average for 2021-2215.254%
Average for 2022-2315.853%

The basic data illustrates that Arteta’s team are having a slightly higher number of shots per game than they were last season with a slightly higher possession count. However, let’s delve further into the shot data first to illustrate why there is a greater feeling of dominance from the team and confidence from the supporters.

Shots (XG in brackets)Shots conceded (XG in brackets)Average shot distance (in yards)
Season average 2021-2215.2 (1.7)11.0 (1.3)17.8
Season average 2022-2315.8 (2.3)7.9 (0.86)16.1

Once we add the XG to those shots, we see that while the shot count has not gone up significantly on average, the quality of those shots has. Arsenal are producing more than half a goal worth of XG per game compared to last season. We can also see that the team have become far better at suppressing shots, the opposition are taking over three shots fewer per game compared to last season. The average shot distance has moved forward by more than a yard and a half, which contributes to increased shot quality.

In short, the average Arsenal Premier League game last season saw Arsenal take around 15 shots, while the opponent took roughly 11 with Arsenal shading the XG 1.7 to 1.3. That’s how a lot of those interminable 1-0 wins felt when Rob Holding was thrown into them in the dying embers holding five fingers aloft. This season the team has significantly widened that gap taking exactly double the number of shots compared to the opposition with a comfortable XG buffer.

And when you keep opponents penned in, eventually things break for you, as we saw against West Ham. Odegaard’s gorgeous defence splitting pass for Xhaka during the first half was centimetres away from being the assist of the season. There is perhaps an irony that when Odegaard did get his assist later in the game, it came via a miscued shot.

When you dominate territory consistently and you are able to keep numbers forward, that is just more likely to happen. Keeping defences under the grill for extended periods means the chaos will probably work in your favour eventually. One of the most revealing stats, to my mind, is how much more often the team are scoring from rebounds this season- the ball is falling for Arsenal in the area slightly more often due to a) how much time they spend in that area of the pitch and b) the number of players present.

Shots that lead to another shot attemptGoals that come from another shot attempt
Season average 2021-221.740.34
Season average 2022-232.070.47

Possession can be a dicey metric to deal with. It often depends on game state, plenty of teams actively don’t want to dominate possession. For Arteta’s Arsenal, possession matters. Broadly speaking, they are a possession team. But where that possession happens is critical. There is a reason that Arteta spent his first few transfer windows shoring up the rear compartment of the team.

He needed that technical security before he could commit five players ahead of the ball in the manner that he envisioned. A small breakdown of the possession data, below, shows you that there has been a shift in where Arsenal are possessing the ball. There is a huge uptick in final third touches and penalty area touches. This is not sterile possession.

PossessionTouches in the final thirdTouches in the penalty area
Season average 2021-2253%168.425.3
Season average 2022-2354%197.732.7

Arsenal’s improvement this season is not complicated, they are having more of the ball in more dangerous areas and staying in those areas for longer. That is down to good coaching, of course but also down to excellent recruitment. The club have been able to slot the right players with the right attributes into this template and make it repeatable. Long may it continue.

All data in the article is via FBRef

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