Arsenal made a run at 4th place this season and had 4th place in their own hands, only to drop the trophy at the final hurdle. In this context many folks are happy with the team and have seen a lot of progress. I have even made that argument. But just as many folks are unhappy with the team and see the progress as minimal or at the very least are disappointed with the team. So, what do the stats say? Is Arsenal significantly better this season over last season? Is it one or the other or are both things possibly true at the same time? And what should Arsenal do next to improve (further)?
I wrote an article on April 27th in which I lauded Arsenal’s new found attacking numbers. I pointed to Saka and Odegaard as bellweathers of a new attacking prowess at Arsenal. And sure enough, at that time, Arsenal were one of the better attacking teams in the League.
But one of the hallmarks of this season at Arsenal, and even over the last three years, is that we’ve had these almost violent swings from one extreme to the other. From a team with a smooth attack to a team with almost nothing going forward. From a team who defends so well that we can count on it as one of our strengths, to a team which suddenly ships goals and looks soft. This is, in fact, one of the main problems I also identified this season in a post on April 18; Arsenal lack consistency.
Partly that’s down to youth. We have a lot of young players on this team and while they have been brilliant at times they have also gone through long fallow periods. That happens to all players but it seems to be more prevalent in young players. It’s also true that Arsenal’s problems really started with the injuries to Kieran Tierney and Thomas Partey. We have been over this so many times that it’s not really worth repeating but I guess I will anyway: Arsenal need to either purchase or mold better quality backups. This is going to be especially crucial in the 2022/23 season, when Arsenal play two times a week most weeks.
The Arsenal supporters meanwhile argue with each other about basic facts and I have to say that both sides make good points. For example, Arsenal have 21 wins this season. That’s a very good stat and we haven’t had that many wins since 2018/19. But we also have 13 losses this season. And we haven’t had 13 losses since.. oh wait, since last season. We have also come pretty far in two seasons. If you remember 2019/20, Arsenal went 14-14-10 that season. Adding 7 wins in two seasons is pretty good and indicates progress. But just the same, losing 13 times two seasons in a row is painful and shows a certain lack of progress.
And the thing is, the more that I look at the data the more wild we seem to be as a club. Here are some highlights:
- Take 15 shots a game, up from 12 last season (good!)
- Non-penalty expected goals are only up from 49 to 51.7 so far (means while we have taken over 100 more shots than last season, they are mostly from distance or are low xG)
- Final third passing is down 4.7 passes per game and passes into the penalty area are the same as last year
- Shots on target are up by 1 per game, but expected goals per shot are down from 0.11 to 0.9
- Red card games stayed the same for Arsenal (Arsenal got 5 red cards last season in 4 matches, we had 4 red card matches this season also)
- And Arsenal actually got 3 points this season from red card matches, while they had just 2 points in red card matches last season
- Arsenal allowed 39 goals last season and 47 goals allowed this season (uhh…)
- 5 goals from set plays allowed last season, 4 goals from set plays (non-pen) this season
- 2 pens allowed last season, 5 pens allowed this season (bad)
- 4 own goals last season, 1 own goal this season (good)
- Post-shot expected goals plus or minus: +6.4 last season, -6.2 this season (incredibly bad, especially since Leno faced more difficult shots last season, it’s also a fact that Ramsdale’s shot stopping has fallen off a cliff since the big win over Wolves – though he does launch the ball better and kicks it on average 10 yards further)
These data points pretty much match what I saw with my eyes. Arsenal at times were boring and methodical and other times we were a good attacking outfit. Arsenal’s defending hasn’t been great this season but its also been hurt by injuries, especially injury to Partey and Tierney. Though it’s also the case that Ramsdale hasn’t helped the team defensively, despite facing easier shots to save. And Arsenal’s supposed work on defense from set plays hasn’t really paid off with Fbref saying that Arsenal allowed 4 goals from set plays this season versus 5 last season (all 9 goals were corners, btw). But it’s also true that we put in some tremendous defensive performances and the defense helped us secure points when maybe we shouldn’t have (for example, the Wolves match).
This is the thing that I think we all just need to accept: Arsenal have been good and Arsenal have been bad. People who are saying that they are frustrated are probably right to be frustrated and people who are saying that they are hopeful are probably right to be hopeful. That right now is the identity of this Arsenal team.
I find myself in each of those categories almost every time I watch Arsenal. And sometimes I can swing wildly even in a single match or even a half. I even found myself feeling this way in pre-season when Arsenal spent 100m on defenders when we needed a forward! Well, guess what, we still need a forward and I’m still frustrated. But you know what else? I’m also hopeful that if we get a forward, even someone like Jesus who is going to frustrate us further with all of his missed chances, Arsenal will improve enough to be a challenger for the top four again next season.