One swallow does not a summer make

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.



  1. What the new system has done, at the very least, is give the players some renewed confidence. It’s been slow going even when we started playing this system, and maybe that can explain some of the underlying stats.

    One thing though, when are these chances coming? If we concede a big chance at 0-0, it maybe indicates a slow start. If instead we concede at 3-0 later in the game, then maybe the players are just losing focus while comfortably ahead, or going forward more to enjoy their football. Any idea?

    Cech has been visibly better of late. Again, maybe it’s just given him and the defense something to hang their helmet on and refocus, because for all intents and purposes it was looking like a wasted season.

    Whether we finish top 4 or not (Wenger’s right. Suddenly it is treated as a great prize), we still need to build ourselves up for the FA Cup final, and indeed next season. The back 3 has gone some way towards providing that platform. Whether we stick with it or not, I don’t know. I would ideally like a 433 (not 4231), but I feel our personnel are more suited to this system.

    1. I like the 4-3-3 too, but the longer we keep winning and playing decently well with the 3-4-3, the more it makes sense. For other managers, there’d be the prospect of using multiple systems depending on the opposition, but for Arsene, it’s always been about consistency: find a winning formation, a winning lineup, and stick with it (and there’s good sense to that).

      But here’s an interesting thought: when Monreal plays in the back three, and the Ox as right wing-back, all we’d have to do to switch from a 3-4-3 to a 4-3-3 is sub out a left back for a right back (Gibbs for Bellerin). In other words, even though, in some sense, the 3-4-3 is more defensive, depending on your personnel there really doesn’t have to be much of a difference between the two in terms of offense-defense balance. We shouldn’t have to lose our defensive solidity in a 4-3-3, nor struggle for creativity in the 3-4-3. Whether that’s an argument for the one or the other, I’m not sure.

      1. Oh that’s right. We have switched systems late in the game at least twice. Does that affect our big chances at either end? And even so, it just means we were desperate to score, so might not indicate much. Guess we’re all saying there’s too small a sample size (Wenger included)

      2. Things that are more dangerous than Kieran Gibbs cutting inside on his right foot (which should happen every time a defender doesn’t show him down the line, which should be like, 90% of the time if their coach has any sense or scouting intel):

        -Per Mertesacker on the dribble
        -Santi Cazorla’s aerial presence
        -Theo Walcott cutting in on his left foot
        -The soap suds in my bathroom (I could slip and fall)

        I like Kieran a lot as a nice bloke but as a wingback for Arsenal I can’t imagine many duller blades. I actually liked Javi Manquillo’s (Sunderland’s LB) game quite a bit. We were linked with him in transfer windows gone by but now his future is owned by Atletico, and he looks like he can step in for Felipe Luiz pretty soon.

        All of which is to say: Kolasanic is a sorely needed import.

        1. Is Manquillo primarily a left back or right back? didn’t he play on the right last night?

          btw, agree about poor Gibbs.

  2. One of my favourite lines from the Ethics! Always thought Aristotle was a helluva lot funnier than people give him credit for, though, admittedly, I always read it as though it were written with a smirk. If I went back and read it again today, I’d probably voice it in pure Wengerism.

  3. Something need to be done to jar some life back into this team and the new system was that something. It gave some players a chance to shine in a new role (Ox), restored confidence where it was failing in the old system (Ozil) and prevented balls behind the fullbacks from being as damaging as they had been. All of that is a win for the new formation.

    I can’t and I won’t dispute the underlying stats; the numbers are the numbers. There is definitely something to the idea that we are uncorking the champagne football in fixtures that mean relatively little, so after we score there is not much of a fight back from the other side. So I think it’s fair to say that while the 3-4-2-1 (not 3-4-3 in my book, at least not when Giroud plays) has had the desired effect, it’s far from a panacea. The midfield still has not been sorted out given the limitations around the options to partner Xhaka (Ramsey’s positional indiscipline, Coquelin’s bluntness in possession, El-Neny’s general ineffectiveness, Cazorla’s advancing age, etc) but the new system may still be here to stay depending on other comings and goings because the team simply seems to feel better with that extra defender back there.

    New systems take time to fully bed in, and this one is still in its infancy. It will face much tougher challenges, but it does seem like a better platform for the future than the 4-2-3-1. And it shows Wenger can, belatedly, learn new tricks.

      1. Keita is awesome and he says Arsenal were in for him this summer (No idea if that was before or after we bought Xhaka)

        There is a small likelihood that might strengthen our chances of getting him, even if we don’t have CL. RB Leipzig have finished second in the Bundesliga and qualify. But Red Bull Salzburg won the Austrian league to qualify for the CL. Uefa rules prevent two or more clubs with the same ownership to compete in Europe, and Salzburg get priority because they finished higher. Leipzig say they are confident because they’ve made changes to their directors etc. I’m not sure that is (or ought to be) true, but in all likelihood, Uefa will just accept some ‘fines’ and let them both play.

        Beyond that, money talks.

        1. Beyond just money it’s his projected role and visibility in the team that could convince him to come. He could play for a lot of teams but Arsene’s selling point may be that he’ll have a bigger role sooner than he would at other clubs, and probably he would also be given freer reigns to get forward. That type of thing generally doesn’t get talked about when we discuss transfers but if I’m a player and I’m picking my next club then how I’m used and how much I’m used are two of the biggest things I care about.

          Mind, I think it might be a long shot depending on who else gets involved but if we push the boat out far enough we might just get him. I can hope, can’t I?

          1. Ok, so other than the odd youtube video, I don’t know much about him. From what i can tell, he seems a bit like a young deep-lying Cazorla (pint-sized but not a pushover, creative, energetic, great dribbler). While I like all of that, and think it could work well with Xhaka, I’d like it a lot better if it came with a big dose of defensive nous and aggression (basically, a bit of Kante/Keane/Vidal thrown in).
            Can someone who’s observed/studied his game speak to his attributes??

          2. Here’s a question for Doc and others: if the choice were between Keita (or someone comparable) and a “world class striker” (Mbappe, or someone comparable), which would you choose?
            I think we’ll be ridiculously lucky to get either, though we need both.

          3. (I’ve read the statsbomb article about Keita, so I know he’s played DM in the past, just not sure, at this stage in his development, in an unforgiving league like the Prem, he’d contribute that much defensively, as opposed to being more of a creator. But I could be wildly off.)

          4. I think Sanchez is the world class striker, so for me the midfield engine room is the prime need. We’ve collected too many players who don’t or can’t quite do the job in there, so the dream scenario is to have a healthy Cazorla backing up Keita in that role next to Xhaka next season. Coquelin and Ramsey are useful contributors. I think it’s time to move on from Wilshere and El-Neny. The former at least deserves a chance to shine in preseason but basically Keita is the player Jack should’ve been but probably never will be.

  4. Arsene needs to be quiet about teams fighting, or not. Boro owe Arsenal nothing.

    Guardiola’s rebuke was on the money.

    “I don’t understand how the managers speak for the other clubs and the other teams. The people who are hired are focused on their teams, they do what they have to do. I never saw one player in my life go to the pitch and not try to win the game. Okay, when the target is done, it’s done, but even so, if you don’t want that, then win more games yourself.”

    If you don’t want that, then win more games yourself. Exactly. Plus it’s bloody whiny and undignified.

    The comment about top 4 suddenly mattering is childish too. That’s his own benchmark, not ours.

    1. I don’t think it’s whining. I think it’s a (subpar) attempt at “mind games.”

    2. Ok, so the whole making fun of him and Arsenal for their “top 4 trophy” didn’t happen? That was another stick to beat him with: you only care about top 4, big clubs have bigger ambitions, blah blah blah (as if, as Guardiola says, he didn’t try??). Now that we are looking unlikely to get the top 4, the stick has become the fact that he didn’t get it (as he points out, for the first time in 20 years). That’s not hypocritical to you?

    3. Oh please.

      Top 4 trophy is HIS benchmark. We, the fans, thought that it wasn’t enough. So no, he doesn’t get to whine about the rest of us noticing that he’s falling short of his own standard.

      Pass the stick around, please.

      1. How is that his benchmark? When did he ever say that? What are you basing this conviction on?

        1. “For me there are five trophies every season: Premier League, Champions League, the third is to qualify for the Champions League. The fourth is the FA Cup and then the League Cup.”

          “When you look to sign a player, he does not ask if you have won the League Cup recently. He asks if you are in the Champions League.”

          “The first trophy is to finish in the top four.”

          Said at two points during a faltering, excuse-riddled campaign, in 2012.

          You’re welcome.

          1. Yes, the acrimonious 2012 AGM meeting and the famous Top 4 trophy quotes. I see it continues to be interpreted as Wenger’s only aim, rather than one of his aims.

          2. Ah. The pivot. I wondered what exactly you were taking so long to come up with 🙂 Question answered. And straw man built. No one is arguing/has argued that it’s his only aim.

          3. And thank God for Google, eh Doc? I’m genuinely surprised (being such a staunch defender of Wenger) that you did not know that he’s said that top 4 is trophy that till you (clearly) looked it up just now.

          4. If it’s not the only aim, why are you slating him for saying it? Why was it widely interpreted as his excuse for failing to win the PL? Why are you continuing to use it as an example of.. what exactly? I’m trying to be careful not to build too many straw men. Please explain it to me so I don’t misrepresent your opinion.

            Yes I did look it up. That’s what I do when I don’t know something. I wanted to know the context.

          5. I’m done. I stand by my original comment, about us having the temerity to evaluate him on his own benchmark.

          6. I’m trying to be gentle here because I try to be a nice sort of bloke… but tapping out because my questions are too uncomfortable hardly helps your cause, especially after trying to call me out just a few minutes ago for building “straw man” which has quickly become my least favorite pseudo-intellectual buzzword. It seems like you’re not sure what your own position is on those quotes or what you even mean by “benchmark.” I want to have a good faith debate with you because I respect you and your views, but you have to be willing to play ball.

          7. lol.

            I do not normally respond in this way, but I know that no other that is appropriate.

            No doctor, you didn’t Chris Wallace me. I just handed you what you med types would describe as your gluteus maximus.

            Do yourself a favour not stop being such an unthinkingly reflexive defender of Arsene. I expect you to KNOW that he called a Top 4 finish a trophy before asking whether he had said that.

          8. We wouldn’t describe it that way, but that’s neither here nor there.

            This little conversation got us absolutely nowhere and that’s a disappointing use of time. I wish you would engage in debate instead of trying to “win.” If you think you’ve “won” then good for you! I’m happy for you. Let me know when we can get back to talking about football.

        2. It was always about football 🙂

          You just didn’t like what I said about our manager. Be well, Doctor.

  5. Chelsea’s switch to a back 3 gave them a title…..ours a chance of top four; our trophy. Hope we pull it off and once more hope for a better next season as always

  6. You can approach systems in any sport two ways; either a) you have a system and buy/develop players that fit into that system or b) you customize your system to fit your best players. But with b) you still have to customize the roster a bit once you’ve decided what system is going to make the most of your best players.

    Mourinho is an example of a pure a). He’ll pursue players who fit his preferred 4-2-3-1 and ones who don’t fit/can’t fit (Garay, Tiago, Mata, DeBruyne, Schurle, Cuadrado, Lukaku) he jettisons. It’s gotten him into trouble this year because he’s got a slew of players who don’t fit his system. There will be changes this summer.

    That said Wenger is a b) manager, but a slow b), too slow to adapt systems for the modern game. We stuck with a standard 4-4-2 until 2009 when we lost Hleb, Flamini and Rosicky. He had Song and Denilson in midfield so he pushed Fabregas up circa 2011 and we went 4-3-3 with a triangle in the middle with Fabregas at the top behind Van Persie. It took almost 2 years to make this adaptation. And we’ve seen belated attempts at a 4-1-4-1, 4-2-3-1 and then 4-3-3… now it’s a 3-4-3 but months too late. It’s too reactive for my tastes. It indicts our transfer practices too the last few years, not addressing system weaknesses by buying the right personnel to support whatever system Wenger thinks we should use but instead overloading on CB’s and CM’s because that’s the flavor of the day.

  7. While I’ve advocated before for three at the back as well as 4-3-3, the slightly improved defensive performances may have just as much to do with a re-emphasis on overall defensive organization as on the specifics of the system used. Arsenal’s defensive woes have stemmed as much from poor positioning, particularly in possession, as well as poor spacing while defending and a failure to track runners, both on counterattacks and while defending on the edge of our area. Those are all basic requirements of any defensive system and we haven’t been a fundamentally sound defensive team for awhile. Nobody has every accused Mourinho of poor team organization and he’s been able to get teams to defend well in a 4-2-3-1. In learning a new system, the team would have to go back to the basics of defending and perhaps the extra practice time devoted to organizing the new system has reacquainted the players with half forgotten, fundamental defensive principles.

    1. Wenger said basically this too. That it had simply given the players something new to focus on, which I took to mean it helped them shake off some of their demons and concentrate.

  8. I see the Wenger top 4 is a trophy meme is still alive (As an aside, Guardiola said that this season too)

    Some context to when and why Wenger said it? Because since 2007 (when we lost the League Cup final) the media coined the term ‘trophy drought’ uniquely for us. Remember, this was less than 2 years since we last won an actual trophy.

    Next year Spurs won the League Cup. This (and Liverpool winning it, and FA cup victories even for Portsmouth or Wigan later) were used as further sticks to beat Arsenal with. Look, all these clubs can win trophies but Arsenal? hahaha.

    Wenger’s response was to highlight the priority of targets in which 4th place counted higher than either of the domestic cups (but lower than winning the CL and PL). I think he said, I do not consider finishing 12th and winning the league cup to be a trophy (or achievement better than 4th place in the league) Tottenham had finished 11th in 2008.

    And this was also during the years when our finances were limited. You hear Wenger talk about it now and he says playing in the CL is important for sporting ambitions rather than calling it a trophy again and again as his detractors seem to think he does.

    1. Uhm. WENGER referenced the subject. See quote in paragraph 4 of Tim’s story above.

  9. “I cannot tell you now (about my future). We have to wait until the end of the season. As I always say, it doesn’t depend on me. It depends on the club. What they like, what they don’t like.

    “I always said the same: I try to do my best, to support the team, to score goals, to win victories.And we will see at the end. If they like that I carry on, or they don’t. Whatever they want, we will see it at the end of the tournament.”

    “This is normal. I think in every team they always buy more players. Barca, Real Madrid, Bayern, they always buy more players and I think we can have the option to buy more players to be stronger every day.
    “For me, it (fan demonstrations) is very bad. He is the manager who gave a stadium to the club, won cups, and he has been 21 years in the job. He is the creator of the stadium, the players and style of the club.”

    What do we make of these comments by Alexis Sanchez?

  10. ‘Qualifying for the Champions League is definitely like winning a trophy.’

    Pep Guardiola

  11. No one said that the “top 4 is a trophy” sentiment is unique to Wenger. His response to questions asking whether Arsenal will qualify is chilldish, not least because it’s a benchmark HE recognises. It’s irrelevant when he said it — it’s an important benchmark. Arsenal has finished inn the Top 4 for 20 straight years. Not finishing there this year is a story.

    Look gooners want him/us to compete for the title. Thierry agrees. For reasons that we have exhausted to death, he has taken the club backwards in the past few years and his management has been found wanting. His stewardship of Q4/Q1 is sackable by the standards of top clubs. By his own benchmark, Wenger looks likely to have fallen short (although Im still hoping for the miracle of a last day Liverpool collapse).

    Some of Wenger’s most ardent supporters don’t like hearing that conversation.

    Sanchez’s comments are supportive of Wenger, and asks us for perspective, which is fair. Let’s see whether he willingly joins a Europa campaign.

Comments are closed.

Related articles