One of the first things we (stats nerds) look for in a goal scorer is number of shots. I use total number of shots as a quick way to “scout” young players. If they can get 80-100 shots in a season, regardless of how many goals they are scoring, then there’s a good chance that player will turn out to be a big talent.
If I look at U21 players in the big five leagues last season the top three in number of shots were: Haaland (93), Mason Greenwood (67), and Lil Chili (61). In 4th place is Fabio Silva with 48 which is a good return considering that he played 1357 minutes. And when I sort for shots per90 (with a minimum of 10 matches) the top players are Youssoufa Moukoko (BvB), Pellegri (Monaco), Haaland, Greenwood, Silva, Bialek (Wolfsburg), and Gabriel Martinelli.
It’s a stone-cold fact that to score goals you need to take shots and that the best players in the world get the most shots (Messi took 197 shots last season, and CRon took 168). Arsenal, the football club, took 455 total shots last season. That’s 90 more than Messi and CRon combined. As an aside, Barcelona “only” took 583 shots last season and shooting in general is down a little because teams have figured out that shots from outside the box are low percentage and shots from that area have dried up.
Back to the topic at hand: like I said, I often look at total number of shots first as an indicator of club health and of whether a player is doing well. If I see a player whose shots numbers are in a steep decline, there’s a good chance that player is ageing out. Though.. it’s also possible for a player’s team to be failing him. Goal-scorers can get their own shots but they also need teammates to help them get shots.
Last season Arsenal took a grand total of 455 shots (source: FBREF. Other sources vary). That was an uptick from Arsenal’s nadir the season before where the Gunners took 407 shots – the fewest total number of shots I’ve seen from an Arsenal team since 1995. And returned us to Unai Emery’s halcyon first season where Arsenal took 467 shots.
Because I know you’ll ask, in Wenger’s annus horribilis Arsenal took 593 shots. And it’s important to remember that Wenger was one of the first to drill his teams in shot selection so that season Arsenal took 369 shots in the 18 yard box and last season Arteta’s guys took 293 shots in the 18 yard box. The drop in shots and shot quality at Arsenal is astonishing: Arsenal’s expected goals number last season was 52, for Wenger’s final season it was 72.
What we see with Arsenal’s two main forwards mimics this massive drop in chance creation and in total shots.
Last season, Lacazette took 42 total non-penalty shots (45 shots total). That’s his fewest shots taken since 2012/13 at Lyon. Meanwhile, Aubameyang got 55 non-penalty shots last season. That’s his fewest total number of shots in a season since 2010/2011 when he was at Monaco. Arsenal’s shots leader last season was actually Bukayo Saka. I hate using “actually” because it’s an adverb but in this case it’s there to add emphasis as in “holy crap, actually”. Pepe is 3rd on the team with 48 shots, one less than last year, and less than half the number of shots he took in his final season at Lille (100 non-penalty shots, 110 total).
It could be the case that all of these players are losing shots because we have too many good players on the team. If that were so, we would expect to see the total number of shots stay high and the player’s individual shots numbers take a hit but what we see at Arsenal is a decrease in the total number of shots and a decrease in the player’s shots. This is happening because Arsenal don’t have enough creative players.
Bukayo Saka not only led Arsenal in shots, he also led Arsenal in key passes (passes which lead to a shot) with 38. Last season, Pepe led the team with 39 and Ozil was 2nd with 36, despite only playing 16 full 90 equivalents. One of the reasons why Arsenal spent so much money to get Willian is because he’s been a pretty good chance creator over his career, averaging 73 key passes per season over his last three years at Chelsea. That number dropped to 29 last season as his legs fell off in front of our eyes. Which goes some way to explaining why Arsenal are desperate to offload him this year and why no one wants him.
In Wenger’s final season, Ozil had 79 key passes with 7.4 expected assists. Chipping in at 2nd was Alexis Sanchez who played 16 matches for Arsenal but he had 48 key passes. Even Granit Xhaka had more key passes that season than Bukayo Saka had this season (41). It’s incredible how far the club has fallen since firing Arsene Wenger. Us fans often talk about how the club have failed to replace certain players but for my money the biggest failure of the last three years is that the club haven’t properly replaced Arsene Wenger. Maybe Arteta can turn out to be a great attacking coach but given the results of the last 18 months he’s got a lot of work to do.
One more wrinkle to all of this: a lot of folks want Arsenal to sell Lacazette but I noticed that in the stats it’s looking like he’s a striker who is just about to enter his prime. If I look at how many goals I would expect from Lacazette if he were to get 100 shots, taking his non-penalty expected goals per-shot and multiplying it by 100, it’s 24.
Now… I cannot guarantee that he would get 100 shots, nor that he would score 100 goals. But his shot selection is improving and at 30 years old his expected goals per shot is peaking. Meanwhile Aubameyang’s numbers are dropping.
Aubameyang looks like he peaked in 2017/18. Since then it’s been a steady decline in shot quality and a steep decline (this season) in number of shots taken. A forward can suffer from one or the other and still get a decent return but decline in chances and chance quality is a big problem.
That said, I’m not sure if I would advise Arsenal to sell or keep either player. Both players are over 30 and there will be diminishing returns if we keep them. But also both players will be difficult to sell because of their age and salary. I suppose it would come down to whether either player received an offer from another team.
However, it looks to me like Arsenal are going to keep both. In that case, it’s possible for Arteta to find a formula which gets his team back shooting 14-15 times a game while also maintaining our defense. Emile Smith Rowe is a huge talent, one who will only get better. And Arsenal should be looking to buy another attacking midfielder. If Smith Rowe has a full season in the forward parts of the pitch, I think we will see Arsenal getting back above 500 shots per season. And if we see an increase in chances created we should see an increase in chances for all of the forwards which should mean more goals.
In the long-run Arsenal will need to replace both Auba and Lacazette. I expect that the plan there is to grow Balogun and Martinelli into those roles, and both players look very tasty. We should also expect to see more from Pepe this season. I love that he’s been working on his two-footedness over the last year, that shows me a player who takes his craft seriously.
So, with all of that said, my formula for getting Arsenal into the top four again is simple:
- Get Smith Rowe a full season
- Keep Saka healthy and playing forward (no more wingback)
- Get in another chance creator
- Get Pepe plenty of chances and time on the pitch
- Develop Martinelli and Balogun
- Get Lacazette and Aubameyang more chances and maximize the money we are paying for them