This season has left a lot of Arsenal supporters wondering what happened. The fanbase seems fairly divided over whether Arsenal had a somewhat good season or a somewhat bad season. Well, as I have written about numerous times and and many different ways, it’s a bit of both. Just the other day I literally wrote an article where I said X stat was nice (for example, we took a lot of shots) but Y stat wasn’t (for example our defense got worse despite considerable investment) and this doesn’t seem to be sitting well with some people. But I’m sorry, I just write what I see! And what I see is turbulence at Arsenal over the last two and a half years.
I think for a lot of Arsenal supporters they are used to the Wenger years where things weren’t always great but we were incredibly consistent. The consistency seemed to revolve around an attacking philosophy which was often defensively a bit soft. You knew how Wenger was going to set up. How he was going to approach almost every match. For his 1000th match in charge, Arsenal faced Chelsea and I remember just begging him on this blog not to play right into Jose Mourinho’s hands and play his usual high line. Please! Play deep, hit THEM on the counter. But he played his usual game and Arsenal were embarrassed.
As Wenger’s tenure slowly ground to a halt, the defense got worse, we became incredibly error prone (leading the League in errors for goals, for example), but Wenger was still wedded to his attacking philosophy so we at least still had that. And it was in that way at least predictable.
Unai Emery’s tenure was weird right from the start and he did a lot of things that Wenger would have never done. He brought in a DM and played a double-pivot. We learned how to play out from the back and at first things seemed to be going well. But the underlying data wasn’t great and soon, teams figured out Unai’s overlapping fullbacks-dragback scheme and by the end of his tenure, he too had become predictable with his substitutions, game-plan, and almost craven approach to matches. So, we had to let him go.
And along came Arteta and frankly it’s been a wild ride ever since. First he played Ozil, then he fired Ozil. His system was incredible defensive for the first 6 months – and also we were TERRIBLE at defense. Then we tried his version of playing it out the back. We tried to make Willian into our creator. We had the David Luiz experiment. We tried a double pivot. We had Auba on the left. We had Auba in the middle. We even tried “pay Auba to score 11 goals for Barcelona”. None of it worked.
That said, at various times under Arteta Arsenal have hit on something for a few months which gives the fans hope. Only for that hope to be dashed on the rocks. In two and a half years under Mikel Arteta the only consistency has been that we makes mistakes, then we try to fix them. 2021/22 was no different in that regard.
2021/22 started out with Arsenal paying two ageing forwards, needing to replace them, needing an upgrade in midfield, and instead of any of that, they brought in a new center back and new starting keeper, and tried to buy some quality backups in several positions. It should also be noted that Arsenal did do very well to buy a number 10 in Martin Ødegaard. But at the time, I thought that the center back money should have been spent on a forward and that it was weird thinking on the part of fans arguing that Ben White would be a really good addition “because his progressive passing would help the attack.” My very basic logic was “if you want to improve the attack, you buy attackers”.
I’m not stupid. I get that we had two forwards who were under contract and probably past their sell by date and on massive salaries, so kind of hard to shift. So, I think I get why we didn’t buy a forward. Maybe? A bit? And I can say now that I guess I sort of get it. Maybe it wasn’t the collasally bad mistake I thought it was at the time. Ben White is fine. I like Ramsdale’s personality. And I give the club huge credit for buying Ødegaard. He’s a gem. I also give the club credit for at least trying to address the depth problem at Arsenal with Tomiyasu, Sambi, and Tavares. I will go as far as to say that IF (big) Arsenal buy a world class striker this summer, and IF Tavares and Sambi can get better, then I think that last season’s purchases will be considerably better than they seemed this season.
And how bad were they? Well, all year I’ve been talking about Arsenal’s problem being depth. It seemed plain to me watching the games but now that the season is over I think I have statistical evidence that the depth at Arsenal was the main problem.
To set this up, I need to first show you what Arsenal’s stats have looked like since Wenger’s final good year (2015/16) to now. I think that big chances for and against are a pretty good measure of how well a team is playing. The best teams create a ton of big chances for themselves and concede few big chances in return.
Wenger’s 2015/16 team probably should have won the League. Injury to Santi Cazorla (which we would later find out was actually a life-threatening infection) destroyed that team because his partnership with the ludicrously maligned (I won’t have any Coquelin slander on this blog) Coquelin was actually the perfect midfield duo for a Wenger team. Cazorla was the rock in Wenger’s stream, dictating which way the game flowed. Coquelin was the policeman, the handiman, Wenger’s water carrier. Doing everything in his power to protect Arsenal’s back line. This midfield freed up Ozil to have his best ever Arsenal season, one in which he alone created 28 big chances for his teammates. Ironically, it was actually his finishing, along with Walcott and Ramsey*, which would kill Wenger’s final title hopes.
After that season, Wenger’s defensive plans seemed to fall apart. He abandoned the DM role for Coquelin and purchased Granit Xhaka to play, I dunno, some sort of dopey version of Pirlo? Arsenal finished 5th the season after losing the title to Leicester and no Arsenal manager has finished top four with Xhaka in midfield since.**
Wenger’s final season (2017/18) saw Arsenal put on at least something of an attacking display (95 big chances) but one of the worst ever Wenger defenses, conceding 51 goals (and 69 big chances). Arsenal finished 6th.
Unai Emery came in and the defense got worse. He was fired half-way through the next season (I called for him to be fired after Baku) and Arteta was installed. Arteta’s first thing he did was strip down the Arsenal attack, take the ball away from Xhaka, and tried to shore up Arsenal’s defense. It sort of worked? The goals allowed were down, but the expected goals were not. And the big chances allowed were absolutely nuts. In 2019/20 Emery’s Arsenal allowed 28 big chances in 18 matches (1.6 per) and Arteta’s Arsenal allowed 44 in 20 (2.2 per game). We didn’t concede as many goals as our xG suggested that we should, overperforming by almost 10 goals. We finished 8th.
Arteta’s next season, and his first full season in charge, with a full summer transfer window, wasn’t great. Again we finished 8th and as you can see above, the defense got slightly better (3rd in goals allowed, 5th in xG and again we overperformed) and the attack seemed to get better as well, but again, not great. This was all buoyed by a second half of the season in which we looked better (especially if you discounted the three hard games).
And then this season. A season of almost two halves, or a season of many what I would call “two different Arsenals”. The first Arsenal is the Arsenal with the full complement of players. I’m talking a back line with Tierney, Gabriel, White, and Tomiyasu and a midfield with Thomas Partey. The second Arsenal is when two or more of those players were out.
This 2nd Arsenal is actually how the season started out. And Arsenal lost their first three matches. BADLY. That second Arsenal is also how the season finished. After the Nationalism break – which only serves to line the pockets of FIFA and their criminal gang – Arsenal lost Tierney and Partey to long-term injury. Arteta was forced to scramble and make lineup changes that in many ways made sense but only because they were sort of desperate. And the stats there are mind-boggling.
To give this some sense: if Arsenal had played all season with the first choice 11, we would have created something like 73 big chances. Not great, but not terrible. But the defense would have been VERY good and conceded just 49 big chances. That’s somewhere around 20-25 goals from big chances and overall something like maybe 30-35 goals. This season Liverpool conceded 26 goals, Man City 26, Chelsea 33, Tottenham 40, and Arsenal conceded 48.
Arsenal’s 48 goals are almost all from the 13 matches (3 at the start, 10 at the end, 26 goals conceded, 2 per game, on pace to concede 72 goals, in the other 25 matches we conceded 22 goals, 0.88 per game, on pace to concede 33) where we were missing our starting 11. In those matches, our big chances against went up to almost 3 per game. That’s 102 big chances conceded over a 38 game season. And the big chances for drop to just 61.
So, what does all of this mean? Well, I think it depends on where your mind is right now. If you’re inclined to be angry with Arteta, then you look at his backup team and say “see, he didn’t do enough to make Arsenal better, his systems aren’t good enough and he needs goldilocks players to make his system work”. If you’re inclined to give Arteta a break you’re probably saying “see, he needs better players”.
Go ahead and get your pitchforks out but I actually think both are right.
Arsenal absolutely need better players and we need the ones we have to get significantly better really quickly. Arsenal need a forward. It’s glaringly obvious. Even a forward as profligate (he will miss a ton of chances) like Gabriel Jesus would immediately make Arsenal a lot more of a threat up top, which would immediately relieve some of the pressure on the defense. A real left-sided MFer who can actually start the Arsenal attack and can press and tackle (would also help if he’s 7′ tall, quick as a whippet, and a tactical genius) is also a huge target this summer. I’m on the fence about whether we need to buy replacements for LB and RB but I think if a really good one comes up, we need to take it because our first choice FBs are both injury prone.
However, I also see the point that people make about Arteta failing to maximize his assets. He had a huge hand in picking his players this summer. We payed Auba to go away so that we could have salary free this summer (this is the new line) and that’s on him. There really shouldn’t be such a huge disparity between his starting 11 and backups. And injuries shouldn’t completely eviscerate the team structure. At least not at the level which we are seeing here.
But I’m probably not alone in being hopeful. Another year of experience for Tavares and Sambi are crucial. We really have to get a forward this summer, just re-signing Eddie on 100k a week isn’t enough, and I can’t see this team not doing that business. It would be suicidal. We also really need to get out from under Xhaka (finally). So, I’m hopeful that those things will happen and if they do, then I will look forward to next season. I can’t fathom this club not doing those pieces of business. It would be crazy. It would be “only buying Petr Cech in summer of 2015” crazy.
So, when I’m asked how I can seem to be down on the team in some articles and up on the team in others. My answer is this is just how Arsenal are right now.
*Most folks blame Giroud but Ozil, Walcott, and Ramsey were incredibly profligate that season. Arsenal were 12.5 goals UNDER their expected goals for the season and Walcott and Ramsey accounted for 7 of those goals with Ozil adding another 2 goals missed. And Ozil’s goals were in key moments of key losses/draws as well. Giroud actually overperformed xG by almost 2 goals.
**I’m obviously showing my preferences here but I think a real DM – like what both Liverpool and Man City have in Fabinho and Fernandinho and like Arsenal used to have in Gilberto – is critical to Arsenal’s success. But in the meantime I’ll take Partey and a really good number 8.