Yesterday I wrote about how Arsenal’s attack is starting to shape up and gave good reasons why the Gunners should be hopeful that their two forwards, Lacazette and Aubameyang, will score a combined 40 goals this season. And now I turn to quite another matter, Arsenal’s defense. No matter how I look at the data I have to admit that the first 11 matches of this season give cause for great concern for Arsenal defensively.
Arsene Wenger’s final season at Arsenal was, by all accounts, a disaster. The players went so far as to leak to the press that they were upset at Wenger for not coaching defense. Along the way, the Gunners conceded a Wenger-high 51 goals, 46 non-penalty goals.
Looking at the underlying statistics for last season isn’t pretty either. Expected goals against last season was 49 and 44 non-penalty goals. But what concerned me the most was that Arsenal conceded a 7th worst in the League 69 Big Chances.
Big Chances are those one-v-one, open field, super close, or even open goal chances that fans expect a player to score. There were 986 goals scored last season and 571 were big chances. 58% of the goals scored last season were big chances. Big chances conceded and created is my number one metric for deciding how well a team is doing in a season.
Last year, Man City conceded just 32 big chance shots, 12 big chance goals and Ederson only saved 6 (TOTAL!) big chance shots. The main reason why I kept saying that Man U were a fake was because unlike all of the other top four teams, they conceded a ton of big chances (54) and relied on David de Gea to save them (18) or for their opponents to miss (16) to keep their defense tidy.
Arsenal this season are playing like Man U last season. They have already conceded 22 big chances in 11 matches (2 per match) and Cech and Leno have already made 11 big chance saves (1.0 per match). Just to illustrate how much Arsenal are overperforming at the moment: they have only conceded 3 big chance goals this season on 22 big chances allowed. Big chances are scored at about a 45% rate. Meaning that Arsenal’s expected goals allowed off of this type of shot is 9.9. And they have conceded just 3.
Arsenal’s big chance save rate right now is 11/14 shots on target, 79%. Keepers average 36% saves off big chances on target.
The other reason I like Big Chances so much is because I think they show how well your team is attacking and defending. It’s true that teams who play outstanding team defense don’t allow a ton of big chances. Last season, of course, Man City were the best defense in the League. But it was the creaky defenses of Liverpool (51 big chances allowed), Man U (54 big chances allowed) and Arsenal (69 big chances allowed) that needed improvement.
Liverpool have gotten that improvement, United have not, and Arsenal have actually gotten worse.
In terms of Big Chances allowed, Arsenal defense is now conceding 2 per game – incredibly, we are saving 1 per game but this is completely unsustainable. No team, as far as I know, has ever had 38 big chance saves in a season. And teams that allow 76 big chances get relegated.
Even if we compare like for like last season to this season, Arsenal “only” conceded 17 Big Chances last season in these same 11 matches. And that included 7 big chances conceded to Liverpool and Man City, who we only conceded 4 big chances to this season.
The problem for Arsenal is that they are conceding these big chances not just to the big clubs but ALL of the teams they have faced this season. It looks much more like a systemic problem if you have conceded 2 big chances in 7 of your 11 matches, which is what Arsenal are doing.
If I were looking at this team as an outsider I would probably say “Arsenal haven’t at all resolved the midfield and back four defensive problems of the Wenger era. That Arsenal’s midfield is still not up to the standards required to make a top four challenge. That Torreira is not fundamentally solidifying the Arsenal midfield and that neither of Unai’s double-pivot “DMs” are effectively shielding the back four. That the hype over Torreira is only because Arsenal are winning. And that Unai Emery is relying on an unbelievable saves rate from his keepers and a very high finishing percentage from his forwards, to keep Arsenal in the top four trophy hunt.”
But I’m not an outsider. And as an insider what I will say is that I truly hope that we start to see some better defensive performances from Arsenal. Liverpool was an improvement over the previous season and felt like a watershed moment (even if the defense was quite lucky on at least three major moments). So, it feels like there is no where to go from here but up! There are 27 more games to go this season and I think it’s fair to give Emery several seasons to turn around this Arsenal defense and clear out some of the players who simply can’t get the job done. Klopp made Liverpool better defensively with two (major) signings. We have to allow Arsenal that same latitude.
Until then, the stats show us that it’s going to be a bumpy ride.