Are we good? Contextualising Arsenal's Below Par Metrics
By Alfie Cairns Culshaw (Chief Editor)
Are we actually good or not? The ultimate question that analysts try to answer through the use of in depth video and, more prominently data, analysis. These analysts then try to curb the mainstream narrative around this question, in their smart and intellectual manner.
It's crazy how quickly this mainstream narrative can change. This time last week, Arsenal were considered to be heading inherently in the right direction, towards a top four place, after 10 games unbeaten in all competitions. The football was looking better, we were keeping clean sheets and our young players were thriving. Fast forward just a few days, and all of a sudden the narrative appears somewhat different, absurdly. A battering at Anfield has revitalised the negative (I know I'm saying it again) narrative around the club, painting us as a chaotic and youthful side far off where we should be. All the surface level stats reappear and all of a sudden our good run was nothing but luck and we ought really to be closer to the relegation zone than a top four place. The reality is likely that we lie somewhere in between these (not again) narratives.
The job of an analyst is to look deeper, and truly establish where we are using the data, but with context and nuance. As a self-proclaimed amateur football analyst, I will be attempting to do so in this piece.
What the numbers tell us (on the surface)
That sub-heading may be somewhat misleading. I'm not looking at the surface level stats, but rather looking at the underlying stats at face value.
The unfortunate reality is that they do make for grim reading. FBRef (via StatsBomb) have us 17th in the xG Difference (xGF-xGA) table, only above Watford, Newcastle and Norwich. We have the 13th best attack in the league, whilst possessing the 4th worst defence, all based on xG. We're 17th in 'big chances created' and 6th in 'big chances conceded'. Basically, we concede too many high quality chances and don't create enough high quality chances- something I think we all sort of knew and something that has already been well documented in the mainstream through more surface level data, such as goals scored and conceded.
However, not all aspects of the underlying data are quite so damning. We're 7th for shots taken per 90 (13.7), which would suggest we're good at getting the ball in and around the box frequently, but not quite good enough at working it into the box and creating good shooting opportunities inside it. This is supported by the fact that our average shot distance from goal is the 4th highest in the league, despite our ability to successfully pass the ball into the box sitting at 8th. We're effective at moving the ball into the box, but our players who tend to receive the ball inside it aren't quite good enough at retaining it inside these danger zones or making much happen within it. This is a major problem Arteta is going to need to fix, either through more extensive and innovative plans as to how to create opportunities or through developing those attacking players more individually.
Another area of Arteta's coaching and our game that needs improving remains our pressing. Despite an evident improvement in this aspect in individual games, such as Villa at home, it remains inconsistently implemented. We sit 8th for pressures in the attacking third, which is encouraging, but only 27.8% of all our pressures are successful in causing a turnover in possession, the second lowest success rate in the league.
The issue is either that Arteta has merely sparked an improved work rate amongst our forward players but not implemented a cohesive press, or that he has coached his team to press cohesively, but the players just aren't good at it. Given that the press has been excellent in certain games, like Villa, where the system enabled this relentless press, it's more likely to be the latter, that the players just aren't naturally effective pressers and all that will solve this will be the development of the younger players and dipping into the transfer market. Regardless, Arsenal must address this, because as everyone knows, pressing is the easiest way to solve chance creation issues in the modern game.
What the numbers don't show us (or 'contextualising the numbers' but that sounds shit)
As I alluded to in the introduction of this piece (and in the title), it's important to contextualise this data, and produce a bit more nuanced analysis rather than looking at it at face value.
Arsenal's season thus far can ultimately be summarised by this; we've played the three best teams in the league by some mile and been dreadful in all three, and have played mostly not so good teams in the other nine games and been mostly kinda decent.
Arteta hasn't been able to provoke anything in those games against teams far superior to us, and that is reflected in the staggering metrics from these games that have seen us lose on aggregate 11-0.8 on xG, and also 11-0 in actual goals scored. These three games have quite evidently skewed our metrics significantly. Excluding these three statistical outliers, and our xG difference per 90 is 0.5, which would put us 4th in the table for this metric, a quite remarkably different outlook than what this metric gives us on the surface. Obviously, our serious lack of competitiveness in these games is a bit of a concern, but we're ultimately not competing with those sides, and if we can be good against the rest then we're going to be in a good place come the end of the season.
If every side was able to simply exclude their three greatest xG deficits in individual games of the season, then of course they'd all look a lot better. However, no other side in the league have three xG scorelines that quite greatly contrast with the general trend of their metrics. It's fair to determine these as outliers to some extent.
Game state is another huge factor in our poor standing in the xG table. We've had several games this season where early scoring has reasonably affected our approach to the rest of the game, which ultimately impacts our metrics. On one side of the spectrum, after 35 minutes at the Etihad, we were 2-0 down and down to 10 men following Granit Xhaka's dismissal. In that extenuating circumstance, it's pretty much accepted that we're not going to create much and will probably allow City a few more chances. On the other end of the spectrum, we've been 3-0 up against Spurs after 34 minutes, 3-0 up against Villa after 56 and 2-0 up against Leicester after 18. In all three games, after scoring our final goal, we sat back and looked to absorb pressure, and may have allowed a few chances for a consolation, after an excellent start to the game where we created a fair bit.
We've spent the fourth least amount of minutes in the Premier League trailing this season, which is generally accepted to be the game state where you create the most as you chase the game. The only game we've actually been behind in that wasn't against one of the top three, we actually managed one of our most emphatic xG differences of the campaign, 2.15-0.59, in our 2-2 draw against Palace in October.
As shown by this more in depth analysis of our statistics, we probably aren't actually the 4th worst team in the league, which our xG difference would suggest. We also definitely aren't clearly the 4th best team in the league, which our xG difference without those three nightmare games would suggest. What we can assume is that we can't compete for a full 90 minutes with the very best, and are far from it, but we can compete with and just about better pretty much everyone else. It remains to be seen how we respond to going behind, but if we manage to continue not going behind in games and racing into considerable leads, then this shouldn't be too much of an issue.
Ultimately, after all this analysis, we're probably going to need a larger sample size to determine if we're actually good and if Arteta is doing a good job. For now, enjoy our marginal wins and consume large quantities of alcohol to get through our inevitable three more dismantling's to come.