Something about Big Chances

I posted a stat from the Premier League on Twitter yesterday which goes like this:

“Arsenal were 17th in Big Chances created this season (37), 12th last season, 12th the season prior, 5th in 2018/19 (created 72), 2nd in 2017/18 (81), 3rd in 2016/17, and lead the League with 88 in 2015/16. That’s not great.”

We need to unpack this a bit.

First, the important part is “created”. Created big chances means chances that were generated by a teammate’s direct pass. If I took a shot, the keeper saved it, and Eddie Nketiah scored off the rebound, that would be a big chance, but it wouldn’t be a big chance created because there is no key pass.

Similarly, if I score a penalty. Technically there’s no key pass in penalty shots, so penalties are never created. If we are trying to be logical about all this, it makes sense.

Arsenal only created 37 big chances but if we count all their penalties and the rather prolific ability to get rebound shots or shots off loose balls, Arsenal had about 80 big chances last season. I say “about” because I had to hand count them by looking at shot maps on Understat, a task that took me about an hour.

80 big chances total ain’t bad. It’s somewhere in the top 5. I say “somewhere” because I didn’t look at every other team’s total number of big chances because I didn’t happen to have 20 hours lying around that I wanted to spend on this nonsense. But I do know that Liverpool led the League in big chances created with 97, Man City were 2nd with 87, Spurs were 3rd with 84, Chelsea were 4th with 72 (and they had 9 pens so that’s at least 81), and Man U were 5th with 66. So, if I were to make an educated guess (based on the fact that we were 5th in xG!) I’d say that Arsenal were probably 5th in total number of big chances.

That said, if I want to know how good a team is at creating chances then I would want to know how well they directly create those chances. Penalties aren’t directly created – there is no causation between time in the penalty box and penalties won – they are won by the faulty actions of your opponent (in theory). Similarly, with the rebound shots. It’s fantastic to have a player like Eddie who gets into those positions – a fox in the box – but it’s not a reliable method of scoring goals.

Teams who can directly create their own big chances seem to me to have more control over matches, and a better chance of winning games. This is a perfectly logical fact about football: it’s a low scoring game, so the more control you have over big chances that you create and that you allow, the more likely you are to have the game go your way. I think that all coaches know this (either explicitly or inherently). And I think that because they always talk about how important it is to create these chances. In fact Mourinho’s entire coaching philosophy is down to this one type of stat: he wants his teams to play deep and not make mistakes because that limits his exposure, and he wants to hit on the counter because that maximizes his shot efficiency. Guardiola is interested in the same thing but with a different method: they control possession and tactically foul on counters to limit exposure, and try to create big chances through clever ball movement, overloads, and getting players and ball into the best places to score.

As for the Arsenal defence well, you’re not going to like this. Arsenal conceded 71 big chances last season. And because you probably don’t have much context, the first season I started collecting this data was 2015/16 and that season Arsenal had 97 big chances (88 created) and conceded just 35 (and only allowed 13 goals off big chances)!

Now, 69% of those 71 happened in just 11 matches and 25 of the 71 were in single game blowouts against Man City (8), Liverpool (6), Spurs (6), and Chelsea (5). And we started the season out with a 15-1 deficit. But that’s also a problem, it’s not an excuse as some would have you think (which they will also say about red cards). In the 2015/16 season, Arsenal only had two games where we gave up 3 big chances. TWO. Total. Whereas we would only have this happen to us once in a while and conversely we would pile on against a lot of teams, this season the following teams created 3 or more big chances against us: Newcastle, Wolves, Palace, Leicester, Man City, Man U, Spurs, and Liverpool.

And just to illustrate how important this one stat is, last season Arsenal had 19 matches with a +1 big chance difference (at least 1 more big chance than the opponent). Arsenal won 16, drew 2 (Palace and Burnley) and lost 1 (Brighton). And Arsenal had 14 matches with a -1 big chance difference. Arsenal won 4 and lost 10 (no draws). And in the 5 matches that Arsenal had an even number of big chances with the opponents they won 2 (both home, Spurs and Watford), lost 2 (Liverpool and Southampton), and drew 1 (Brighton, our Bogeyman this season).

A lot of big chances created and conceded are simply down to the quality of the players at the team. So, getting in more quality players is going to make us better in both attack and defense. But I don’t think that Arteta’s systems are helping, in fact we conceded fewer big chances last season (57) than this one (71) – which again shows up in the xG stats against us – and we spent 200m on defensive players last summer.

Bottom line is that the chances created stat for Arsenal this season is very bad. We can’t concede 71 big chances and only be able to intentionally create 37. But even more clearly, we can’t concede 71 big chances and only get a total of 80. We saw what happens at the sharp end of the season when your team has that kind of overall weakness.

We can’t keep having big chance deficits. So we either need to tighten up the defense or strengthen the offense (for me it’s still both) and I think that means that we need to buy more players in several areas of the pitch. But it’s also true that the manager needs to find ways to maximize his team both offensively and defensively and while there are some great patches of football where it looked like that was going to happen, I don’t think that he did that overall this season.



      1. Liverpool supporter
        Wenger admirer
        Reader of this blog

        Some thoughts from an outsider that you didn’t ask for. If I recall correctly arsenal pulled the ball out their net 9 times before scoring their first goal. You lost your captain as well. Some unfortunate calls cost you against Everton, a match I attended. The list goes on.. There were periods of time this season where nobody in the league played worse. As well, times where nobody played better. I’d be downright confused about the future of this club under Arteta, and I’m not convinced he’s your long term answer. He’s rigid and cold. I find him polar opposite of Klopp. Clearly I’m biased as to my preference of styles.

        I was certain Arsenal would land 4th and play in CL football next season. They cooled off at the wrong time and Tottenham got hot. But that may be a blessing. I don’t know that this team has the engine for CL. Europa is still attractive for potential signings and less of a strain on resources. They can attack all competitions from this spot.

        All said, from an outsider, this was an entertaining squad and they pulled off one gutsy draw against Liverpool in the League Cup.

        You’re fortunate to have this blog as well.


        1. ” I don’t know that this team has the engine for CL. Europa is still attractive for potential signings and less of a strain on resources. They can attack all competitions from this spot.”

          I really like this comment because it rings true. It’s easier to play Europa because we can start Charlie Patino for example rather than playing our top midfielder for every game. Good point!

        2. 👏🏽

          Dont want to usurp Tim’s guardianship, but please come back, mate. That is as good and fair a distillation of AFC as I’ve read. And it comes from a place of true neutrality.

          We agree on the league up draw. Said so about 2 posts or so ago.

  1. Is it possible that a better centre forward, that makes better runs off the ball and has more pace to get in behind defenders will improve the chances created? Thinking that right now our best movement into space and off the ball is done on the wings (Saka, Martinelli, ESR) and also we don’t have that Ramsey-esque midfielder showing up in the box to strike on net.

    No idea what to do defensively. I’m just hoping it’s an experience thing. If only we had David Luiz back.

    Speaking of Ramsey, if we “peaked” in 2015-16 that was the year we finished 2nd to Leicester and we had Ramsey, Giroud, Sanchez, Ozil, Cazorla, Arteta, a young dynamic Bellerin and Theo Walcott in the line-up, with Kos and Mert anchoring. Besides having better more experienced line-up, that was also a down year for the league overall; City, Liverpool (finished 8th!), Chelsea (that was the Mourinho – female physio year), United (the Moyes year) had all collapsed that year. That might have helped our stats.

    1. We also had Coquelin who is a player who didn’t get his due respect.

      I think a better forward should help but if you look at the BC stats for all the teams in the League (linked below, it appears mine are off a bit) you can see that we are WAY behind some of the big teams.

  2. Interesting analysis but I’m confused.
    How come we looked so much better and ended up higher in the table with these awful stats. It reenforces the impression that we didn’t look as ‘dangerous’ as the teams above us sometimes looked in their attacking play but we did look good at times, scored more than previously and conceded less.
    But without control? How to reconcile the stats with the results?

    1. How we ended higher in the table: same number of losses as last season but we turned 4 draws into wins.

      Why did we look better? I think we had some really good games where we looked great and some games where we looked just as bad as last year. The good games outnumbered the bad games by a few more this year than last but we still have major problems.

  3. So the bottom line is that we … suck. Gotcha. Thanks for the analysis, Tim :). Kidding, of course, but the numbers are worrying, to say the least. To my naked eye we looked worse defensively last year than we did a year before. This basically confirms it. Offensively, we were all over the place. Some good, some bad, and some really ugly. I think resigning Eddie was a good first step but we still need another forward (preferably someone who’s strong in the air, in the mold of younger Giroud who was grossly underrated, IMHO), mid, and a full back. So Arteta and Edu definitely have work cut out for them in the summer. Hopefully, they can deliver. With extra games in Europa League, it’s gonna be much tougher to get top 4 next season, and we definitely need extra bodies as our squad is paper thin as well as injury prone (Tierney, Tomiyasu, Partey, and White have all missed some significant time). I don’t know what Kroenke’s expectations are for 2022-2023 but for me personally, it’s do or die for Mikel, especially if he gets to spend another significant amount of cash on HIS players. Top 4 or BUST!

  4. A couple of thoughts and BTW superb analysis….

    For many games we were lumping crosses into the opposition box. These rarely yield big opportunities.

    Likewise in many games where we took the lead we sat on the lead and ceded possession and attacking opportunities.

    What the team did very well was to beat all the teams in the bottom half. What wasn’t so good were the four defeats by 3+ goals and until the recent games against ManU and Chelsea, the top 6 head-to-heads.

  5. Excellent summary.

    The defensive regression is confounding. But our chance creation stats are encouraging, and there may be reason to be less doom laden than Ive seemed of late. More quality at both ends may be the answer, as you say.

    This caught my eye: “69% of those 71 (big chances conceded) happened in just 11 matches and 25 of the 71 were in single game blowouts against Man City (8), Liverpool (6), Spurs (6), and Chelsea (5). And we started the season out with a 15-1 deficit. But that’s also a problem, it’s not an excuse as some would have you think (which they will also say about red cards). In the 2015/16 season, Arsenal only had two games where we gave up 3 big chances”.

    That might be the ballgame right there.

    We have to be more competitive in big games, and games in which we are outmatched. We have to stop falling apart when we fall behind. We almost never win or draw from behind; we lose our heads, discipline and shape when we’re up against it qualitatively; and we let defeats become thrashings. All of this led to a very poor GD, in which we didnt come into the black until December. Even we’d ended up level on points with Spurs, they were miles ahead of us on GD. Nevertheless, I keep thinking about Jack’s comment after the Spurs game. Our job on the day was simply to contain them… check our egos, forget about rubbing their noses in it by qualifying for CL at their stadium, and come to take a point. Draw ugly, if need be.

    What Conte brought to Spurs that I wish we’d acquire somehow is the lack of an inferiority complex when taking the field against Liverpool or City. Yes, they have Kane and Son, but you also need to not concede. Gabriel became this nervy guy when Gabriel Jesus ran at him. White doesnt know if to stick or twist. Rob Holding gets bamboozled by clever forwards. Xhaka can look up to the level of quality opposition one game, and do something rash the next. We dont seem to have a Plan B when the opposition bottle up the right side and mark Saka out of the game.

    Squad depth, yes. Firepower, yes. Defensive stopping ability, yes. Tactical flexibility, yes. But also less tangible stuff like toughness, on-field leadership and in-game management of problems when the going get tough when teh quality is highest.

    Trying to be hopeful here.

    1. Using Opta data from Sofascore I got the same as Benjamin – 69 for 67 against.

  6. Not to be too Goldilocks but how many big chances did our “starting 6” (ramsdale, tomi, white, Gabriel, tierney, partey) give up? No need to calculate if you don’t have it easily available.

    Not to say they will play more next season but we didn’t have 5 of them for the first 3 games and were down 3 or 4 of them for the last 10 games too). When we had them (and xhaka) fit, it felt like the team had way more control of games defensively. Hopefully a little more injury luck with timing (spreading absences out where 1 or 2 starters are out instead of getting 3 key ones at once) helps.

    I also think adding a good center back back up (hopefully saliba) and slotting elneny in for partey instead of trying crazy stuff like Odegaard as a 6 improves resiliency next year.

    1. Saliba is not going to want to go from starting 40+ matches a season at a Champions League team to backup at Arsenal.

      However, to your main question.

      I removed the first three matches where we didn’t have Tomi, Gabriel, Ramsdale, Tierney, White, and/or Partey and the last 10 matches where we lost Tierney, Partey, and Tomiyasu and the difference in big chances is incredible.

      ———————— Big chances for– Big chances against
      With first choice 11——2.24 1.36
      Without first choice 11—1.77 2.69

      1. Thanks for pulling that!

        I do think if we are missing 1 or 2 players for more games instead of 3 or 4 all at once we could see improvement in the numbers next season.

  7. Tim, this is excellent analysis.

    I think these big chances stats align with the eye test. Sometime ago I asked myself: How many tap ins did we score in the just concluded season? How many one-on-ones did we have?

    Even though people talk down tap-ins, it’s an evidence of good attacking play. I remembered the Liverpool game that we lost 4-0. I think 3 of their goals were from big chances.

    I think it’s a critical aspect we need to improve upon.

  8. It starts with a solid defense. We have not sorted this. We should play 5 at the back againt big teams that play 5 and we should play 5 selectively when it’s a good match up, to close games out, or to manage the table.

    We will have, I hope, at least 3 exceptional defenders next year. We need rotation and starting positions based on form. We need a strong what have you done for me . . . lately mentality when it comes to picking starters.

    When other teams chase the game is when we get BC creation differential. No one chases when they are already ahead. Tightening things at the back can jump start our attack.

  9. We made one final, 16 years ago. But on a day like today, one can’t help getting Champions League withdrawal. Arsenal FC belongs in this competition. Call me entitled all you like. I don’t know if the Kroenkes understand this deeply enough to single-mindedly and ruthlessly plan our return there as quickly as possible. Yet to be convinced that they understand our DNA.

    And I don’t want to hear that it should only be for league champions. It’s a CUP competition, and the Top 4 in England qualify. Liverpool, Spurs and Chelsea are all recent finalists and/or winners, without winning the league. It wouldn’t be the same competition without Villareal knocking out Juventus and Bayern.

    btw, chatter aroud Gnabry being put up for sale by Bayern, and gooners are saying that we should go for him. He’s an Arsenal fan, has never hidden that he still loves the club. Doubt whether he loves it enough to drop out of the Champions League. Him or Gabriel Jesus. We’ll see (providing it’s true and that we pursue Gnabry).

  10. Tim Thanks for the post. I think we all appreciate the time and effort you put into this blog and we all benefit from you efforts.

    I have to admit that I always have a tough time knowing what to make of the cornucopia of stats that are available. I suspect most fans believe that we played better this season and I looked back and you wrote 4 posts that commented on how much better this year has been and on April 27 you provided stats to confirm that we have been much better. However todays post suggests we did not play all that well. It can’t be both ways and we were either better or we are not. It almost feels like there are a couple stats which will support any conclusion we want to make.

    The big chance seems on first glance to be on which should be more useful but I struggle with the predictive value of the big chance stat when we look back at some of our teams historical data. The team was a stat sheet superstar in 2015/16 but that season was our lowest goal total in any of the 11 years between 07/08 and 18/19. 07/08 74 goals, 08/09 68, 09/10 83, 10/11 72, 11/12 74, 12/13 72, 13/14 68, 14/15 71, 15/16 65, 16/17 77, 17/18 74, 18/19 73 goals. 2015/16 was also arguably the most disappointing season since we missed the title in 07/08. We were in first place by goal differential after 23 games in mid January and then we collapsed and Leicester outscored us by 10 points in the last 15 games. Its hard to accept the true value of the big chance stat when one of our best seasons in big chance creation was our lowest scoring season in 11-12 years.

    I think its unfair to compare Arteta’s big chance creation stats to Arsene’s and its probably not realistic to blame Arteta’s tactics for our drop off in big chances the last couple years. Arsene’s teams had Mesut Ozil in his prime, Santi Cazorla, Ramsey, Wilshere, Sanchez, Giroud, Nacho, Kos. Most of those players are arguably better then any of the players we have now. Saka, ESR, Martinelli Odegaard are all good player but not at the level of the players Arsene had in his last 5-6 seasons. Our overall star power is not what it was but the rest of the league has improved. No way to prove it but I suspect if you gave Arteta the players Arsene had in his last 4-5 seasons and give Arsene the players we have now the situation would be reversed. Arteta’s would be the teams with lots of big chances.

    To me the reason we have not finished in the top 4 in the last 6 years is not because our managers but we have not had the quality of players to compete with the big spending clubs in our league. We have spent a lot of money but this season we had to rely on a group of young players who had almost never scored in their entire careers to carry the scoring load. To me that shows we have not done of good job of acquiring the right players especially in terms of replenishing the attacking talent. The key to our long term success will depend on spending ta lot money but buying the right players. We need to invest in better players but can’t afford mistakes like Pepe.

    1. You’re leaving out important context. All those seasons you reference is with us being involved in European competition, and going deep into domestic cup competition, even winning a few. Youre showing disrespect to Arsene, who got us to Champions League with players like Senderos, Djourou, Chamakh, Park and Andre Santos.

      Holding Arsene responsible for his results, but arguing that Arteta isnt responsible for his is contradicting yourself. We can do all the make believe and whatifs we want, the facts of the matter are stark.

      Arteta was given all the tools to succeed in Top 4…. a light fixture schedule, the highest transfer spend in England and one of the highest in Europe (the world effectively), and one of Europe’s elite strikers and former EPL golden boot. Early exits from the cups simplified the task. He chose to spend heavily on defence and goalkeeper, and the defence got worse. He sent a ton of midfielders out on loan, but turned out to not have able deputies for his key ones. He mistrusted his reserve LB so much, he sacrificed his only fit midfielder to play him there. Who sanctioned the purchase of Nuno? He misused his forward resources, his fox in the box sometimes being required to help out at left back. Im putting money on Pepe going elsewhere and shining. His man management leaves a lot to be desired. He had better resources than some of the Wenger squads. And by jove, he spent far more.

      Bottom line is Arsenal had top 4 in their hands, and collapsed. That’s on Mikel. It’s how accountability works. Of course there were stretches where we were pleasing on the eye. But the league is a marathon, not a sprint. Do you think that Saka, for example, is going to sparkle every single game if you play him every single game? You build and manage a squad of players with the long haul in mind. Mikel didnt do that, and he hasn’t show me — at least — that he’s capable of doing so. He’d have demonstrated that by now, nearly 3 years and £300m in.

    2. “It can’t be both ways ”

      Yes, it literally can. We played better at times, winning 22 matches, we played worse at times losing 13 matches. And we collapsed down the stretch. The universe isn’t black and white, Bill, no matter how much you look at the night sky and claim that it is.

  11. Claude

    I think we all agree Arsene was one of the best managers in the world and I am not blaming Arsene for what happened in 2015/16 and I am not blaming Arteta for finishing 5th this year. In 07/08 we were leading the league most of the season and then after game 26 at Birmingham we struggled and finished in 3rd. In 2010/11 we were 1 point behind ManU in late Feb and gaining. After the Carling Cup final on Feb 27 2011 we completely collapsed and finished 12 points behind ManU. In 2015/16 we were leading the league by goal differential in late Jan and then we collapsed and finished 10 points behind Leicester. This season we were 4 points ahead of Spurs with 3 games to go and our players lost their nerve in games 36 and 37 and we finished in 5th.

    I don’t think Arsene was a different manager in the first part of 07/08, 10/11 or 15/16 then he was in the back end of those seasons when we struggled. However his players stopped executing and there was nothing he could to stop it. This season we were beaten to 4th by a team that clearly had far superior firepower. I don’t think Arteta suddenly changed into a different manager in games 36 and 37 against Spurs and Newcastle anymore then Arsene in the latter part of 07/08, 10/11 and 15/16. This year Pep had Real Madrid dead to rights in the CL semifinal but his team completely collapsed in an 8 minute stretch. The point is in all of those cases once the players go out on the pitch there is nothing any manager can do if for whatever reason they don’t execute the game plan effectively.

  12. To me the bottom line for this season is we finished in 5th which I believe clearly exceeded reasonable expectations. I am not arguing that Arteta is a 1/100 manager who can consistently outperform expectations but in my experience I think managers who can consistently outperform expectations are very rare. I think it’s unlikely there is some other manager out there we could have hired who would have done better then 5th place with this group of players.

  13. Claude

    I don’t think there has been a single team in the last 6 years who has been able to take advantage of the lighter fixture schedule of not having European football and cracked the top 4. I understand the thought process but the reality is the lighter fixture schedule has not been a big enough advantage to help teams overtake more talented teams.

    Pepe has been a bust for 2 different managers. Even the greatest managers have players who turn out to be busts. Managers can’t be held responsible for individual players production if they are just don’t fit with PL football.

    Auba had a 1 1/2 seasons of dropping production and there was nothing to suggest he was going to suddenly regain his form. You said many times that moving him was best for both sides. I can’t prove it but the moves the club has made in the last few years clearly point to the conclusion that moving high wage underperforming older players was part of the plan which I believe came from our entire management team with the goal of long term club health. They kept Auba as long as he was productive and gave him 1 1/2 seasons to rebuild his productivity but moving him in January clearly fit with that long term plan.

    The one thing I agree with is the defense conceding more goals is unexplainable

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