There’s nothing wrong with Arsenal’s progressive passing

5th in xG this season, 5th in xG last season – Arsenal overperformed xG by 12 goals last season. The numbers are actually 16 goals but we got 4 own goals and they don’t count as shots or expected goals. So, it’s 12 goals. Which was 2nd best overperformance in the League, behind Man City. This season we are 2 goals below our non-penalty expected goals.

6th in progressive passing this season, 5th in progressive passing last season – however… Arsenal are actually making more progressive passes per90 this season (2722 total yards) versus last season (2648). There are just more teams that are playing more progressively this season. We were 2nd in progressive passes per90 last season (53.9) and we are 1st in progressive passes per90 this season (57.1).

This season we are 2nd in final third passes and 1st in passes into the penalty area. Which is exactly like last season and eerily the numbers are virtually indistinguishable from season to season. Meaning: we are getting the ball forward and into scoring positions in the exact same way – or better than – we were last season.

Arsenal are also taking the same number of shots as they were last season, actually slightly more, 15.9 this season and 15.4 last season. And our shot creating actions per90 are also up in most areas over last season: from live passses, dead balls, and even from other shots. Where they are down, and down quite a bit, is shots from being fouled and shots created from our own defensive actions. These numbers are small however and should be viewed with a jaundiced eye.

The story is the same for touches in the final third and penalty areas. We were 2nd and 1st in those two stats last year and we are 2nd and 1st in those stats this year. In terms of progressive yards carried per90, Arsenal were 2nd in the league last season (1163 yds per90) and we are 6th this season but before you say “AH HA, we need Thomas!” I’ll just say that this season’s progressive yards carried numbers are functionally the same as last season (1149 yds per90). Our number of carries per game is the same, carries into the final 1/3 are down by 1 per90 and carries into the penalty area are up from 7.39 per90 last season (1st in the League) to 7.95 this season (3rd in the League).

The total number of miscontrols and dispossessed was 24 last season and it’s 24 this season. And one area where we are significantly worse this year over last year is in our dribbling. Last season we attempted per90 19.8 and won 9.24 – almost 47%. This season we are attempting 18.6 and winning just 7.55 or 41%. Not to pin “blame” on any one player but Gabriel Jesus’ numbers in terms of dribbles are down this season and especially over the last 6 matches. Jesus has only even attempted 6 dribbles in the last 5 matches which is a rate of about 2 per90, he was 4.85 per90 at Arsenal last season and is still almost 4 per90 this season. As I’ve said in my posts, more than any other player it looks to me like Jesus is carrying an injury or in some type of slump. Arsenal need him to be the agent of chaos in the middle. If he’s not doing that, then a lot of the good stuff in our attack breaks down and becomes predictable and easy to shut down with double-teams.

Trossard’s dribbling numbers are also way down and he also looks like someone who isn’t playing at his best. Martinelli is trying more dribbles but is losing more of those duels than last season. Ødegaard is also losing more dribbling duels this season than last. And Saka’s carries into the final third and penalty area are slightly down from last season, even if he is winning slightly more dribbling duels.

Here are the possession stats from last season:

And the ones from this season:

I believe that this should match what we are all seeing. That Arsenal are getting the ball forward, that Arsenal are then facing opponents who play with two banks of four, very tightly packed into the box, and that our main method of attacking that formation isn’t working at the moment because the center forward either cannot dribble (Nketiah/Havertz) or for whatever reason isn’t dribbling as much this year. That makes it easier to play against Martinelli (who is failing at dribbling more) and Saka (who can’t get into the box as much as last season) and easier to stop Ødegaard as well. The wide players also don’t have adequate competition/backup and many players aren’t getting the rest it looks like they need.

We are, of course, also not finishing our shots very well but that is a function of the opposition defense. Our expected goals per shot is down from 0.12 last season to 0.10 this season. And while that doesn’t seem like much on a per-shot basis, over an entire season where a team like Arsenal will take 590 shots (589 last season) it’s the difference between 71 expected goals and 59.

Every season presents a problem and this is the problem that Arteta needs to solve this season. It’s not just poor finishing (though 4 big chances missed against Liverpool is pretty poor finishing) but also how do we break down opposition defenses when they sit back and soak up our pressure. This is a problem that all of the big teams have. This is what we bought Havertz and Jesus for. Hopefully, over the next mini-break, Arteta can work it out and get Arsenal firing up top again.



  1. Great analysis here Tim. Seems to jive with the eye test. I imagine our numbers last year were also reflective of a first half of the season when teams weren’t always sitting deep against us. Some of them actually tried to play football instead of parking the bus, so there was more space for dribbling in and near the box. Our finishing just hasn’t been there and we’re back to fine margins games like earlier in Arteta’s tenure. Hoping some sunshine and time off will get our heads clear.

  2. This mostly lines up with what I’ve seen in the matches. Two big questions/problems that will decide the likely success in the second half of the season. 1. To what extent was the team exceeding xG last due to the attackers significantly overperforming their long-term? City have pretty consistently been above their xG. Was last season a one-off for Martinelli/Saka/Ode in terms of finishing? 2. The Jesus issue…not only is he not scoring, but as you point out, he’s not dribbling anywhere near as much. This has been been apparent visually. The chaos he caused last season with dribbling opened things up for everyone else. If he can’t do that, and he can’t score, the case for him being our main striker is pretty poor.

  3. all of the numbers you mention that vary compared to last year have a common denominator…and i touched on this in the previous thread. arsenal advance the ball forward too slowly.

    how many chances has arsenal had this season similar to the one reiss nelson got on the end of on sunday, when he hit the side netting? damn few. why? because that was an aaron ramsdale thing; he’d play that early ball out to auba or martinelli three to 4 times a game. raya only plays that ball once every three or 4 games. those are chances to get behind the defense. raya may be more technically gifted but i’m more impressed when your tactical effectiveness matches your technical talent. ramsdale’s tactical skill put food on the table.

    how about the balls jesus or martinelli would get on the end of BEHIND THE DEFENSE after a first time ball from granit xhaka? what about the balls over the top that bukayo would get on the end of BEHIND THE DEFENSE from thomas partey? arsenal aren’t getting those chances this season because they can’t get BEHIND THE DEFENSE. sure, the progressive pass and dribble stats are similar to last year, but they’re developing too slowly this year season, which is why the quality of arsenal’s chances is so poor. they’re allowing two banks of 4 to get back before they begin an attack.

    raya, despite his talent, doesn’t release the ball behind the back line as quickly as ramsdale does. the same goes for when you compare rice to partey or havertz to xhaka. why? because they all hold the ball too long compared to their predecessors.

    1. no, jesus, martinelli, bukayo, and odegaard haven’t gotten worse. the counters are diminished because the forward balls take too long. in fact, the counters are essentially nonexistent this season. sometimes, arsenal will take 20-30 seconds to get a ball won in their 3rd past midfield.

      even when you consider the dribble success or the attempted dribbles into the box, are martinelli and jesus more willing to dribble into two banks of 4 or a 1v1 counter attack with runners along side them? dribbling against a team that’s parked the bus is likely to result in you losing the ball and getting countered.

      is it likely that last ditch defending of a counter attack is what led to the own goals last year? even if the number of shots are the same as last year, do we believe arsenal will score with the majority of the shots they’re taking this season? no, not against two banks of 4. someone is almost always going to rotate over and get a foot in.

      here’s a stat i would like to know compared to last season. when games are tied, how long does it take arsenal to get the ball into the opponents final 3rd after winning possession. if that’s an actual stat, i think it tells a more accurate story as to why arsenal have struggled to create good chances and score goals.

      1. So this is entirely on Arsenal and opposition defences have no effect?

        “dribbling against a team that’s parked the bus is likely to result in you losing the ball and getting countered.”

        Any time you attack the opponent, whether it’s a cross, a dribble, or a pass and move, you’re likely to lose the ball and get countered. Teams like Arsenal have possession in and attacks in the opposition final third hundreds of times a game and only take 15 shots a game. Yet we still do it, City still do it (they lead the League), Liverpool still do it, Spurs do it. Every team that faces two banks of four has a couple of options – break down with passing and movement (which we try), dribbling (which we also try), and crossing (which we also try).

        This whole system is why Arteta plays defense from the front and actually why we are so slow in attack.

        Guess what?

        Arsenal ARE one of the slowest teams in attack but you know who’s slower? Man City.

        Liverpool are the fastest but so are Everton and West Ham. It’s just who plays countering football and what defenses they face. It’s a pretty moot stat. Liverpool is a bit of a surprise to be at the top but then I think they are there because of game state (i.e. they are often winning and able to use countering tactics).

        1. i’m talking about arsenal and i could care less about opposition defenses because you can’t control what they do, but you can control what you do. i simply highlighted the differences i see in the team this season as opposed to last season.

          likewise, i don’t know where you got evidence of city playing slower in transition than everyone else but my memory of our defeats against city involve them lighting us up on the counter. with that, what city eats doesn’t make arsenal shit so i don’t care what city does either. like everyone else, they do what works best for them. i’m only focused specifically on the way arsenal plays.

          as for dribbling a team who’s parked the bus; the likelihood of you collapsing their defense is exceptionally low. that’s why you seldom see people try. sure, you may beat the first guy but he’s got at least two guys close enough to rotate over and win the ball. i challenge anyone to simply watch an arsenal game from last season and see how much faster arsenal got the ball to the attacking players. it’s just easier to attack a team before they park the bus than to wait for them to park the bus and try to break them down.

          1. lol, you ABSOLUTELY can control the opposition defenses. That’s literally what juego de posicion does. Pulling teams into positions that they don’t want to be into, causing overloads, setting defensive traps, and so on.

            I got the evidence for City’s speed of play from the data that’s freely available if you Google. They DID play countering football against us last year, yes. And it was incredibly unusual. So weird that I mentioned it multiple times. And, I just need to point out that your hero Thomas Partey was hugely at fault for their ability to play right through us. That’s why Arteta dropped his useless ass.

            As for dribbling, it’s super weird again that you can’t see that many coaches who play juego de posicion have creative, chaotic dribblers in the team. Pep had Jesus, paid a ton for Grealish, and now has Doku. It’s why Saka and Martinelli are at Arsenal. It’s one of the things we need from Jesus.

    2. Hi JoshuaD
      You seem to have played or coached at a pretty high level.
      That was the fish neatly deboned.
      Delicious 😁

  4. I’ve wondered why we’re rumored to be looking at LB and RB options in the transfer market and I think it’s because both Martinelli and Saka are also suffering from the drop in form of our backs.

    Teams are learning to ignore Zinchenko on the ball and not get drawn into leaving Martinelli 1v1 with a defender… this also stymies Zinchenko, as he’s not typically going to take a crack on net or drive into the box or make a killer pass- he’s brilliant at keeping possession in midfield but when teams back off him and let him have it, he ends up holding the ball and slows everything down. And then the stand-ins for Zinchenko, Kiwior and Tomiyasu, are not any threats either offensively but are even worse at keeping possession ticking.

    And on the right side, Ben White doesn’t seem to be rampaging down the flank as much as last year and his interplay with Saka and Odegaard isn’t pulling the opposing backs away from Saka.

    I’m pretty sure if Timber comes back soon he gives us a Stones-like CB (dare I say, Beckenbauer-esque) that can come out of the back line, or can play LB or RB both and maybe then draws attention away from the #8’s or even the wings.

    Tactics always get found out after a year or so. Everyone is using either the inverted fullback (Zinchenko, Alexander-Arnold, Udogie) or the CB that ventures into midfield (Stones) to create the box midfield. Now teams are learning how to defend this. It’s the next evolution that Arteta needs to find out to take that jump over City, because Guardiola is constantly evolving.

    1. Tomi overlaps pretty well I think, so would give us some different options in combination with Martinelli. But he has to be A. Present, B. Healthy, C. Instructed by Arteta to play that way.
      Completely agree that the Zinch inverting thing is not working nearly as well as last season and is mostly slowing us down.
      With White I’m less sure what’s going on. Is it a drop in form, a minor injury being carried, or instructions not to overlap? In any case, it’s hurt us.

Comments are closed.

Related articles