One swallow does not a summer make, nor one fine day; similarly one day or brief time of happiness does not make a person entirely happy. – Aristotle, human bummer
Arsenal put in their most complete performance of the season yesterday against Sunderland, tallying 36 shots and allowing just 6 in return on their way to a 2-0 win. Arsenal played exceptionally well yesterday and this win followed a win over Stoke away, which was their first in 6 years, which is part of a four-match win streak leading many a Gooner to exuberant praise for Arsenal, for defender Rob Holding, midfielder Granit Xhaka, and especially for Arsenal’s new 343 system.
Wenger seems swept up in the emotions of this new dawn himself, taking time to berate the press over questions about whether Arsenal will finish top four or not this season.,
“I answer for 20 years the question: ‘Is the top four nothing special?’ I don’t know why, suddenly, it could become such a big problem [not to finish in the top four]. I am quite surprised. I want to make sure, absolutely, that we are in there but let’s get to 75 points and see what happens. You want all the teams to fight like Sunderland did tonight and, after, you have to accept the result.”
Finishing in the Champions League places is a promotion for many teams. If you’re not in the Champions League places, to then get into the Champions League is a chance to play against the best teams in Europe and have them beat you 10-2 on aggregate.
And for Arsenal, who have been in the Champions League for 20 consecutive years, finishing fifth this season is a form of relegation. So, is it a big deal? Yes. Is it a trophy? No. Is this a rhetorical device? Yes.
As for the new Arsenal system there are many supporters out there right now who are already in awe of the 343 and see it as the answer to all of Arsenal’s problems. I was one of the first to suggest that a back three might help Arsenal’s defensive woes. The idea is solid: one extra defender, not to patrol for all the extra strikers that teams play against us but rather to help support Arsenal’s midfield.
Arsene loves to push both fullbacks and at least one of his two center mids up into attack. In a 442, Arsenal often become a 217 in attack (I’m not joking), especially against teams who invite pressure. This gives the opposition huge open spaces and few Arsenal defenders to cover and leaves Arsenal vulnerable to counter attacks.
In a 343 Arsenal have an extra defender and thus when Wenger sends everyone forward, Arsenal look more like a 316 in attack. This gives better balance to the defensive third, less space to cover for each individual, and an extra defender is available should one attacker slip through.
And the results, the end results of the games, have been good. Prior to this switch, Arsene presided over a team which had kep just 4 clean sheets in 12 matches, now they have 4 clean sheets in the last 8. As so many have said this week, this new formation passes the “eye test”.
But as I keep pointing out on twitter, while the results have been good, the underlying stats haven’t changed. Until yesterday’s crazy 36 shot outburst Arsenal had actually been outshot by our opponents 62-78 in 7 games. And worse, Arsenal had created just 13 Big Chances and conceded 13 Big Chances. This matched almost exactly the stats from the previous 7 matches where Arsenal had been outshot 71-77 and had created just 13 Big Chances and conceded 13 Big Chances.
And before you say “well, it’s just 13 Big Chances, who cares?” Big Chances account for 50% of a team’s goals scored for and against and Big Chances are scored at a rate of 50%. Of all the shots that your team will take or concede, this is the number one shot that you want to get for your team and prevent the opposition taking. I’m actually toying with the idea of simply dividing shots into big, medium, and small chances.
And those 26 Big Chances conceded in the last 14 matches is atrocious. Chelsea have conceded a total of 31 Big Chances in 37 matches this season, Man City 34, Tottenham 35. Arsenal 58.
Most of the negative responses I’ve received in return from these stats have suggested that perhaps Arsenal are limiting the opposition’s shot quality. But again, this isn’t true. Prior to yesterday’s 36 shot haul, Arsenal’s expected goals were 9.6 for and 10.4 against. In the previous 7 matches, Arsenal’s expected goals for was 10.05 and against 10.35.
What happened here is that Cech has saved Arsenal points down the stretch, Man City missed a ton of chances, and Tottenham had a gangbusters match against Arsenal. And one more weird this is starting to develop, by removing an attacker, Arsenal’s attack may be getting better.
Cech has saved 4 Big Chances in these last 8 matches and yesterday made two saves that weren’t coded as “Big Chances” (because the angle and distance) but were great saves none the less. I’m not sure that this 8 game burst quite makes up for the previous 30 but the reason Arsenal are on a winning streak is because Cech is saving good shots again.
That Tottenham match was utter domination. They created 5 Big Chances and had an expected goals tally above 3. Removing that match makes Arsenal look much better in terms of expected goals against with a 7 in 6 matches. Still not great form but a far cry from 10 in 7.
And in attack, Arsenal have suddenly found their shooting boots. In the last two matches Arsenal have created 9 Big Chances which is as many as they created in the previous 6 matches combined. Perhaps it’s the fact that teams are going on vacation early, Manchester United have certainly taken a cue from their boss and aren’t playing up to the level they did earlier this season. Another explanation could be that earlier this season Wenger was playing Coquelin in some weird advanced midfield defender role. Because Coquelin isn’t heavily involved in buildup play having him between the lines in attack robbed Arsenal of space. If Coquelin isn’t there to help build-up play (he does, just not much) and is mostly in the team as a defender, then moving that player back into the defense where he belongs creates space in attack and stability in defense. Plus, Wenger buys defenders who are excellent long passers: players who can play a long ball on the ground to a midfielder or a forward to start Wenger’s preferred “ladder” like attacks. Though, it is just two games at the end of a long and bitterly disappointing season for Arsenal.
Possibly the most numerous reply I received to the tweets I sent out about this change being a lack of change is the quote above: “one swallow does not a summer make”. Each time it was meant as a retort to what I was posting, as if they are countering my data with the reply that my sample was too small. It’s a hilarious response because I am literally saying the same thing. To be explicit: despite the recent good results, the data doesn’t show much of a change in Arsenal’s attack or defense from earlier this season, we aren’t seeing a wild positive or negative swing here in this new sample. So, while the results have been positive, it’s dangerous to suggest that the 343 is the cause of these results. Or that there is anything more than maybe just a little better luck (a few key Cech saves) and possibly a bunch of teams taking time off to explain the string of results.