A hopeful frustration

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.



  1. Haven’t we also scored more goals from set-pieces? That’s a plus.

    We went into the season with the 5th highest payroll. I think after the January cull, we dropped below Spurs into 6th. So we punched above our weight in that regard. Spurs sound like they’re going to just go ahead and buy Kulusevski and Romero, so their wage bill will climb.

    I’m positive for the future. I think Gabriel Jesus would do well on our team, he won’t be challenging for the Golden Boot, but I think he scores more than Lacazette and Nketiah combined. Plus he has a point to prove – City have gone with Haaland and Alvarez and at times chose to play without him in the line-up, so he will want to make them regret the lack of trust and he’ll want to cement his spot for the world cup in December. And his best 5 years are ahead of him, not behind him.

    I’m reading Bellerin might be returning (adios Cedric) and I think Reiss-Nelson comes back to help with homegrown quota numbers, plus he’s willing to put in a shift defensively (adios Pepe), Saliba comes in (I hope) and I’m not all that down on Tavares given his age. And it sounds like we’re in for this Hickey kid who sounds perfect – ambidextrous and can play either LB or RB. It’s all positive right now for me, but I reserve the right to get sour in mid-August when we haven’t signed any targets.

    1. “Haven’t we also scored more goals from set-pieces? That’s a plus.”

      Yet another one that people see two ways.

      Yes, we scored 13 goals from set plays this season versus 6 last season (according to Whoscored.com) but then we’ve also only scored 32 goals from open play this season and scored 40 last season.

      We also have 6 counter attacking goals this season versus 1 last season.

  2. I like this analysis. Balanced and level-headed, without the reactive swing from game to game that we get elsewhere. There’ve been games we’ve lost where Ive come here and said not to over-react. There’ve been games were frustration spilled over too much. It’s the hope that kills. We’re football supporters… we’ll never lose hope and optimism. Hopefully we’ll stop being as mercurial as we are. Well coached teams like Brighton can beat you. We’ve always had trouble with Crystal Palace. Defeats like those you have to take your stride as a supporter, because even the Invincibles were held by teams lower down the table.

    The things that frustrate me are our management culture, and the result self inflicted problems we cause ourselves. Maybe the young coach will learn that a Don Corleone style of management has its limits. Im not saying that he must, as we say in the Caribbean, “kiss ass before you can kick it”, but I want to see a manager giving more attention to squad strength than total control. When push came to shove — 4 points clear with 3 games to go — the effects of that approach came home to roost… a too-thin squad with which you placed expulsion over replacement, the hardline over a more pragmatic approach. You don’t gamble with squad depth in the way that we did. And for what? Certainly, for the players involved, not for anything remotely resembling what Mason Greenwood did. Arsene had the managerial humility to realise that he needed his boozer-in-chief, Tony Adams. Arteta’s cocksure-ness about the purity of his approach is out of all proportion to his demonstrated abilities. Hopefully this collapse is a teachable moment for a guy who is whip smart, by all accounts.

    Long story short, we’ve got to give ourselves the best chance of weathering the downturns in football, because boy, they do come. And when they do, you cant put out a starting XI for a must-win game in which 3 of your back 4 — White, Gabriel and Tomi — are carrying injuries, as James McNicholas (an Arteta sympathetic journo) reported in The Athletic. Meanwhile Mavro is out on loan and now being eyed by Bayern, Saliba is making a name for himself as one of the best footballers in France, AMN is out on loan, Mari is out on loan, and we sell Chambers. Dont even get me started on the midfield. That is unacceptable squad management.

    I wasn’t sold on Gabriel Jesus, until Tim pointed out his high chance creation. Now if he comes to us even after we’ve missed out on CL, Im personally going to throw a parade in his honour. Hopeful optimism.

    We talk about the attack needing fixing, but as this analysis shows, the defence has actually regressed, even after an injection of approx £110m in the back line and keeper. We’ve shipped 8 goals more than last year with a game to go, and scored 1 more. I like all of the players to varying degrees, but as a collective, we’ve gone backwards.

    Plus column… our set-piece attacking is MUCH better, but as this analysis has shown, set piece defending essentially hasnt improved.

    Word on Saka. Good as he was, he needed sitting down for a game or two. He’s targeted, and I reckon is one of the most kicked players in the league. Coaches also overload on his side, to nullify his threat. This comes back to the question of squad depth and rotation. Sure, Pepe is a bust and has looked awful in his last few cameos, but 1 year ago, in this space, we were lauding Mikel for improving him significantly in the last months of the season. He finished strongly. What happened? We need to learn the art of using/managing our reserves, in a way that they’re ready to contribute well when called on.

    Let’s see what the market brings… who goes in, who goes out, and what shape we are in for the challenges of next season. Meantime, for Europa, Tblisi here we come. The Bernabeau will have to wait. And wait…

  3. Don’t want to be a thread hog, but another thing…

    I saw an analysis somewhere about 2 things that defined this season…
    (1) we rarely show the tactical flexibility (or spirit, more debatably) to win games or even get a point from losing positions. I don’t have the time to go nail this down with the supporting stat, but that certainly seems to be case.

    (2) when we lose games, we tend in the end to lose pretty handily. 3 at Spurs, 5 at City, 3 at Liverpool. All of them eased up. And in too many of those big games, our discipline fractures.

    Managing those 2 things are worth what?….. 5 points a season?

    The green shoots. We roused ourselves to beat Chelsea and United after 3 deflating losses to beatable opponents. That’s not nothing. Also Mikel, in his first year or so, showed an ability to be a better match for the big sides, the best example being our tough FA cup winning run in 2020. The prime protagonist on that was Auba, but it does not alter the fact of it.

    Another green shoot. The 0-0 cup draw with Liverpool when we went down to 10 men was one of our best and most resilient displays of the season, and probably the proudest Ive been of the team this season. It had everything… heart, resilience, tactical smartness. Problem was, there was a Round 2. But see the recurring theme? A big game sending off. Who? You’ll never guess 🙂

  4. Congratulations to Saliba voted best youngster in France. Whoever scouted him deserves a pat on the back. I think Mount or Foden will win the English nomination but Saka deserves recognition.

  5. Long time reader, seldom commenter. This is an outstanding post. Great data and perspective I don’t see how elsewhere. Hope you are correct in the last line! (Still don’t know what the Qq means …)

    1. There have been a lot of theories and some of them I really love (such as it stands for me and my child) but the reality is that Qq is a legacy from when my computer was so old that it was missing the Q key so I had to copy and past Qq into every post so that I had some Qs to use if I needed them.

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