Cech saves Arsenal

James Tozier posted this on twitter:

And combined with the numbers I saw doing my By the Numbers piece yesterday that I was prompted me to look at Arsenal’s big chances created v. big chance conceded since Arsene Wenger invented the back three system. Those numbers turned out to be, big chances created 9, big chances allowed 11. Or 1.5 BC created per game 1.83 BC conceded per game.

And so then I looked at shots for v. shots against: 65 shots for, 81 shots against. Or 10.8 shots created per game and 13.5 shots conceded per game.

And the same story showed up in shots in prime for and against: 11 SiP for and 15 SiP against. Or 1.83 SiP created per game and 2.5 SiP conceded per game.

None of these are the kinds of stats you’d expect from a top quality team. Top teams dominate the opposition in those categories, not the other way around. So, I ran the numbers through my expected goals formula and produced similar numbers to James’ Tweet.

Opponent xGF xGA aGF aGA
Boro 1.74 2.34 2 1
Leicester 1 1.22 Own Goal 0
Tottenham 0.98 3.84 0 2
Man U 1.8 1.19 2 0
Southampton 2.06 2.1 2 0
Man City FAC 2.62 2.26 2 1
10.2 12.95 8 4

What’s happening here is that Arsenal’s new system is creating fewer chances for Arsenal than season average (-3.6 per game average) and creating fewer high quality chances that season average with Arsenal down from 1.8 big chances per game average to 1.5 big chances.

Worse, Arsenal are allowing the opponent more shots than average (+2.3) while also allowing the opponent an increase in high quality shots; opposition big chances per game are up from 1.6 to 1.83.

But the reason why Arsenal are winning is because What’s happening here is that  Cech is saving Arsenal. He’s saved 4 big chances faced and 8 more shots in prime on target. That accounts for about 4.5 goals saved by my formula. And you can probably remember the chances he saved: that shot by Wayne Rooney after Holding’s poor backpass, Cech’s save on Harry Kane after Ox gave the ball away leading to a breakaway chance, Cech’s save on Alderweireld’s header, his save on Mahrez’s volley, Silva’s header, Aguero’s shot from close range, and his block off the line against Middlesbrough. He’s been immense in these last few weeks, despite Arsenal’s midfield and defense leaking chances.

Ironically, this is exactly what happened in the six months prior to Wenger discovering Francis Coquelin. Once he installed Coquelin in midfield, Arsenal’s defense got more robust. But since dropping him this season Arsenal have gone from a team which allowed few big chances and few shots in prime to a Liverpool-esque side which allows the opposition to have their way with the back line. Arsenal are now the most profligate defensive team of the top 7 and that hasn’t been stemmed by the addition of a third center back. If anything, it looks like having a third center back is actually limiting Arsenal’s attack, at least it looks like that in terms of shot creation.

Wenger has indicated that the back three is a temporary fix and whether it is simply psychological, it has worked in terms of actual points on the board and not just “expected” goals. Even if Wenger persists with this formation I still think the long-term solution is a midfield with at least two players who can (and do) perform at high levels both in and out of possession.



  1. Spot on analysis, Tim, as usual. Arsenal have been fortunate to be finishing off scoring chances at a higher rate than their opponents and getting a lucky deflection that led to a win. Our current crop of defenders collectively do not have the talent to play a back 3 (or 4 for that matter) so eventually the house will take our meager winnings back and send us home with light pockets. I just hope we keep rolling sevens until seasons end and can walk away from the table with the FA Cup and a coupon to the all you can eat defender buffet.

  2. Great article. I have a theory on this though it’s based on a really small sample size and nothing else other than my initial observation on the advantage of having a back three. Our style of play (and I use the word “style” loosely), on the whole, hasn’t changed. Our wings backs and Ramsey are pushing up to support our front 3 in attack – meaning pretty much the only difference in our shape is that we have one extra man playing a bit deeper than we used to. So switching to a back 3 didn’t cause a real change in how our opposition attacks us once we lose the ball. However, it seems to me that because of the extra man, there is a bit less time for the opposition player to shoot. Even half a second in a scenario such as this makes a difference. It can make the difference in picking out a corner or just getting your shot away.

    Not trying to take the credit away from Cech. He has made some fine saves to keep us in the game but you do expect any top class keeper to make those saves. Neither am I saying our defense has gotten better. It obviously hasn’t as we are still giving up too many chances but I think having that extra man does put a little bit of extra pressure on the opponent to get their shot away quicker.

    I think most Arsenal fans will agree that we have a systematic problem when it comes to defense. Some of that stems from not having enough technical players who can pass/dribble their way out of pressure but you gotta wonder if the manager is doing enough in practice to teach the team how to do that because that seems to be our biggest Achilles heel against quality opposition.

  3. Btw Tim – there a lot of speculation out there of an internal strife between Gazidis and Wenger. Arseblog mentioned it this week and the Guardian has been incessantly writing about it the past couple of days. Would love to get your thoughts on that.

  4. I think it’s important to think about how these big chances arise. The “eye test” is different from these numbers whereas before with the back 4, it was blindingly obvious that we were insecure especially to balls played behind the fullbacks.

    I can remember well in the Man U game a moment in the first half where Rob Holding underhit a square pass to Koscielny, who didn’t react fast enough and it ended up at the feet of Wayne Rooney. Cech blocked that shot and bailed us out. But that wasn’t loose defending, that was an error in possession in a terrible place. I don’t have time to sit here and look at how big chances arose for our opponents but my feel of Arsenal’s defending is not nearly so desperate as those numbers suggest.

    I also remember well last season we were leading the league in expected goals but not in actual goals and that was no good either. I’m not sitting here trying to discredit expected goals, I think it’s the best metric we have to look at team performance, particularly over the course of a season. For some reason though, this message and the football I’ve been seeing don’t seem to add up, particularly on the defensive end. Maybe it’s my misty Wenger goggles acting up again or maybe any little improvement seems like a lot in a season rife with defensive failure.

  5. So…is this also subtle argument that Coq should come back in the side? For…Xhaka? Ramsey? Who?

    1. No. I understand why Coq was played in the unusually weird high up the pitch position he was started in at the start of the season – because he is a liability with the ball. And you have to admit that Arsenal win games when he’s on the pitch, despite the fact that he can’t pass the ball.

      Still, I don’t think Coquelin is the answer and I’m making the same argument I’ve been making for years: Ramsey needs to have a chain attached to his leg, he’s a shit attacker and letting him run forward all the time is literally killing this team — either that or buy a fucking player who can play both with and without the ball who won’t just bomb forward.

      Actually, come to think of it, the problem is Wenger. He lets Ramsey play as Arsenal’s 4th center forward. And Ramsey is just a kid (though he’s 26 now) and is going to go glory-hunting if the boss lets him.

      1. Dunno man, I’m not completely disagreeing but I think the team needs an unpredictable threat like Ramsey from midfield. Without him the buildup is very labored. He does provide some cutting edge in the final 3rd, even if his finishing has been atrocious. Against Man united for example he was the only consistent threat in the final 3rd; the spare man that United defenders weren’t expecting or didn’t know how to pick up in the box. I think he got free 2-3 times in the first half alone. That’s valuable. After Alexis and Ozil, he’s pretty much the only player in that midfield with the craft to make a goalscoring chance. I think those forays forward are a lot less problematic with a back 3 (even if the stats aren’t better, the optics sure are).

        1. I get the idea of running a CM in late to the box but you have to have some defensive presence in the middle of the pitch. Having a midfielder pop up in the box consistently should be a luxury but I think at Arsenal Wenger sees it as a necessity. See, he doesn’t have the forwards needed to just play straight up football, like everyone else who wins the league does. So, he’s flooding the box with players to make up for quality with numbers.

          When Ramsey goes forward, Ozil is supposed to drop. Ozil as the first line of defense is just never going to work. That means that the problem is that behind Ramsey is just Xhaka and Xhaka is too slow and, let’s be frank here, braindead in the tackle. Very few players could cover the ground that Xhaka needs to cover when Ramsey runs forward. Even Kante would be exposed.

          I also don’t see Ramsey as a provider. His passes aren’t incisive enough, he doesn’t cut through the lines like Alexis and Ozil do, and he lacks the vision to be a provider and has averaged less than a key pass per game the last two years. So, he doesn’t finish, doesn’t provide, and while I agree with you on what Wenger is trying to accomplish, I think it’s a poor choice because it doesn’t work!

          The reason Cazorla works is not because he’s a great defender but simply because he doesn’t run into the opposition box constantly.

          1. I don’t know… is our central midfield partnership the problem? or is it not?.. I don’t know.

            But I feel we’ve got to really improve this area if we going have any chance of competing in this new look EPL (one in which the quickest, toughest and SMARTEST win the big big titles).

            For god’s sake why are our midfielders not intercepting opposition passes as often as they should? You don’t need to be big, tall and fast to do that. Just be as (or nearly as) smart as Thiago Alcantara or Cazorla. Our midfielders are just so incomplete and frankly unintelligent at times.

            Carzorla works because he is smart enough to work chiet out for himself right there on the pitch (something Arsene seems to demand from Ramsey even though its clear he just can’t do it)

            If this how Wenger is going to manage, he better get himself some damn intelligent and smart central midfielders for next season. Gosh I’m stressed out..

      2. People over-exaggerate the extent to which Coquelin is limited with ball.

        I ran a comparison matrix on all our central midfielders (excluding Xhaka) with stats I believe every central midfielder should be rated with regardless of differences in physical attributes.

        The stats I used were: Successful take-ons, pass completion, and interception.

        Guess what? Coquelin won out in all except pass completion where he rated a maginal 2% lower than second placed Ramsey (87/89). Even his pass completion rate isn’t woeful considering he had less back passes than Elneny who won in that area.

        What I am saying is that Coquelin is and was never our biggest problem with creating chances. He just happened to be the sacrificial lamb at a time when we were at a loss for ideas.

  6. tip: read your article about Kante/Leicester, and substitute Cazorla/Arsenal.

  7. Shots finished – goals conceded = win/loss
    Simple really.
    As long as the Arsenal keep finishing and not conceding- they win.
    Is that not what futbol is about?
    In the long run I get what Tim is saying.

  8. nyc hit the nail on the head : more rushed goal attempts.
    Secondly too little a sample. Thirdly no steady back three yet. Forthly the gods.

    The attack stats are logical as numerically we are one man less and our pattern is not compensating with greater verticality.

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