Zeros To Heroes in One Week – The Arsenal Story

“The force of habit that is Arsenal football club has been restored.” – Andrew Nicoll

There is an unwritten rule at Positively Arsenal that we don’t do tactics, team selections and line-ups. We are kept in line not only by George’s very firm gaze (across land and sea), but, as well, most of us are experienced enough to know the importance of letting professionals, like Arsene Wenger and Steve Bould, do their job without interference and second-guessing.

Only in football do you have the views of non-experts given more prominence than a manager who has had 30-years of success at the very top level. It’s like a passenger on an airline, just because he has flown on the jump-seat in the cockpit, thinking he can advise an experienced captain how to fly. For heaven’s sake, that passenger’s job is to support the pilot as he safely lands the aircraft despite having to make some difficult in-flight decisions. Only in football are the passengers/pundits, especially those who had the privilege of “flying jump”, given a privileged media mouthpiece to have a go at captains/managers infinitely more qualified and experienced.

This is precisely the situation at the start of the 2015-16 campaign which took-off nearly 10 days ago. No surprise, after our first day loss, the back-seat experts had their gun-sights firmly aimed at Wenger. Take the supposedly Arsenal-supporting, Ms Sarah Winterburn, for example. In her post West-Ham “Winners and Losers” column for F365 she referred her readers to a pre-season hatchet job she did on the boss:

There is a reason why we find ourselves Googling ‘infuriating synonym’ when we write about Wenger – he is a man that infuriates, exasperates and aggravates. I sentimentally tipped Arsenal to win the title last season, but I will not be listening to my heart and repeating that mistake.

But despite the doubts and lack of belief in his judgment and ability, the manager led the team back on the horse at Selhurst Park, one week after being unceremoniously dumped on the floor by West Ham. It didn’t require a brand-new striker or holding midfielder, the team simply did a few things better than the prior week.

Predictably the mainstream media and blogs have singled out Ozil for most of the plaudits at the expense of any serious analysis. I would be the last one to begrudge our bug-eyed genius his kudos after another demonstration of midfield mastery; creating 5 chances from open play, and successfully completing 54/55 passes, 37 of them in the Palace third. But by now we should be wise to the ways of the media; Ozil is only as good as his last performance. For commercial reasons, it is good to ride the wave after a clearly world class performance, and conversely, to create an artificial meltdown when he has a less than stellar game, hence the infamous accusation of “nicking a living.”

But contrary to all the extra-bandwidth and reams of paper given to Ozil, the biggest improvement over West Ham was down in the trenches, doing the real dirty work, to protect that lead after we finally wrest in from the Eagles. Take a look at the following data from Squawka comparing the last two games.

Key Metric vs West Ham vs Crystal Palace
Total Shots 22 21
Shots on Target 6 8
Blocked Shots 8 7
Corners 5 6
Pass Comp 87% 86%
Tackle Success 34% 64%
Possession 58% 56%

The most startling difference between the two games is the remarkable upgrade in tackle success from 38% to 64%, almost doubling within a week. No other metric is remotely close. To the contrary, despite the team appearing sharper and busier, the only other statistical category that improved over West Ham was in Shots on Target. Mind you, scoring 2 more goals than was achieved on opening day trumps all other statistics. But the fact that the team was was more diligent doing the un-glamorous, dirty work of tackling suggests that this was the difference between conceding at least two goals as was done at the Emirates one week earlier.

It should be no surprise that the greatest improvement was by those whom the pundits criticized most after the first game, i.e. Coquelin and Ramsey. Zeros to Heroes in one short week.

Coquelin infinitely improved his tackling success from a big fat zero to 75%. By the way: we read and hear our own fans and pundits slagging his ability to pass the ball, especially after West Ham. Yet the Squawka data indicate in that game it was a decent 85% and at Crystal Palace improved to 93%. I remember two cross-field diagonals in particular which were Ozil-esque. Yet I heard for myself, senior football correspondents for national newspapers in the UK on a TalkSport forum two hours after the game, declaring Coquelin is not good enough if Arsenal is to win the title. Being that stupid they shall remain nameless.

Similarly Ramsey’s tackling made a similar dramatic improvement, from zero to 67%. It is mathematically impossible to measure the importance to the team of Ramsey’s increased defensive output especially for a man, who disclosed in a post game interview, that his main task, as instructed by the manager, was to get between the lines and take the game to the opposition. No surprise he was an offensive force creating 4 chances and putting 4 shots on goal. Yet he easily fitted in a more defensive role especially after Coquelin was substituted and together with Arteta help us defend the slim lead to the end, with smart, timely tackles.

Yet, pre-game, there were those in the mainstream media as well as fans on twitter and blogs seriously arguing that Ramsey be dropped from the starting XI. On a personal note, I am yet to see in my middle-aged lifetime a football team succeed by not playing its best players. By extension, not playing a fit Aaron Ramsey in an Arsenal XI is tantamount to not playing your best team. No wonder I am happy to be among those PA agnostics who leaves team selection and lineups to the professionals who know best, specifically Arsene Wenger.

Before closing, it would be remiss of me to not mention the importance of the improvement in Shots On Target which went from 6-8. In absolute numbers that is only a gain of two, but statistically it is a 33% gain. For a sport which is low scoring and having fine win margins, getting more shots on target is a key indicator of offensive output.

None of these boring statistics make good reading for those who have already built a narrative that Arsenal cannot win the title without spending significantly on a brand new striker and holding midfielder. But the evidence is compelling. With marginal improvements every week, Arsenal should prevail over almost all opposition in the EPL, just as the club did between January and May this year. I want to remind you of my pre-season blog with the statistics to prove the importance of increased defensive intensity to reduce the Goals Against column if we are to win the title. This was the key to Chelsea’s and United’s success over the past ten years. Hopefully we should see more of that effort when Liverpool comes calling next week-end. Until then, later.

29 comments on “Zeros To Heroes in One Week – The Arsenal Story

  1. I was going to write a tactical piece on Ramsey today. I best not bother now !

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Good stuff shotts, thank you.

    For the first goal it was the pressing from Coquelin and Ramsey which led to Palace giving up the ball which led to Coquelin beating an opponent with some skill and speed on the right side touchline before returning the pass to Ramsey who’d moved infield, who passed to Cazorla who passed to Alexis eventually finding Özil on the left,a sweeping move across the pitch.


  3. Another excellent piece Shotts, a pleasure to read on a wet, miserable Norfolk morning.

    I agree the “Tackles Success” is a killer figure although, to some extent, part of that MAY rely on the fact that Palace played an attacking game. Palace brought the ball at us and therefore invited more tackles, whereas the Ammers were more controlled and defensive, them having bagged the lead. If you look at the comparative data there were 43 tackles at Selhurst Park, just 29 against the Ammers.

    Teams who want to play football against us – watch out.


  4. Good day PA,

    This is my first comment on any post on this site. I just couldn’t keep quiet.

    I regard this blog as the best Arsenal blog out there. Not just because of its positivity, but also for the intelligent piece I read here. You all here understand the Arsenal very well and coming here to read articles is a relief to the poison being put out there daily about our beloved Arsenal.

    The articles are well crafted, balanced…and very object and sane. I come to this page daily like I have to take a medication or something.

    I appreciate everyone here who are contributing to the awesome articles being written here and also those who give some really excellent comments. The articles and comments are a pure satisfaction.
    Long may this continue.



    Liked by 4 people

  5. I hope these post match analyses of yours continue Shotts. A great read and a calm sober reflection well placed in the PA week a couple of days after the dust has settled. I have to say this season’s blogging line up is looking good – hope George offers you this slot permanently.
    The furore over Coquelin which I am lead to understand has been whipped up by the lazy hacks is irrelevant nonsense. The only thing anybody should be discussing where that young man is concerned is his amazing tackle when it looked like a break was on and he must surely foul to stop it. Not only did he slide in from a difficult angle and win the ball cleanly but came up with it at his feet and moved it quickly and neatly. As good a piece of football as we saw all day.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. It’s about 2:50 in on this vid if you’re interested https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z6RJjtAyARU


  7. Welcome Leki and please feel free to add to the positive jigsaw


  8. Thanks Shotta: interesting stuff. What interests me about the comments made on team selection are the black and white statements such as Ramsey is playing on the right again (lol), Ozil wasted at left wing (which proves he is a flop as for 41m he should be the most central figure) etc. But when I watch the games I see these players all over the place (in a good way). From the Palace game alone: Alexis first main chance was at inside right; Ozil released Ramsey to shoot over from an inside left position. They interchange all the time and it strikes me as foolish to pay too much attention to what it looks like on the team sheet. Just as it also makes me wonder when people talk categorically about the best 11, the best 11 being so dependent on fitness and form and tactics. Which is why I try never to say this player is better than that, or that so and so isn’t good enough. There may well come a time this season when we review a match and thank our lucky stars for the match-winning performances of Chambers, Wilshere and Welbeck due to injuries to Cazorla and Mertesacker and Giroud’s three match suspension. Or simply because we have had four matches in 12 days.

    If I had to add one player to the squad in a particular position it would be in the midfield engine room to allow for more rotation as it seems unreasonable to expect Ramsey to do the amount of running he seemed to do on Saturday every match. But apart from that I would be inclined to leave it all just as it is and hope that the injured players find their way back to health and fitness quickly.

    Liked by 3 people

  9. Great stuff Shotts,I did a comedy double take at the tackling stat,followed by a double expletive,who’d have thunk it?

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Andrew @ 9:54am – Very good point there. As observers we tend to seek the data that supports our thesis. By now it is obvious I am giving importance to defensive intensity along with our traditional Wengeresque attacks.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. If I was going to bring in player it would be a TALL, b2b midfield player, as you say FH to spread the workload.

    I have gone off the idea of a “best 11” ages ago – your best 11 depends on the game your are playing and the context of the game. It is not just the actual players Arsene picks it is the job he tells them to do on the pitch has to vary between games.

    If we are playing Bayern in the Allianz ( or Monaco last season at their place) and require to overturn a 2-0 or three goal deficit then I will have more attacking players in. Equally if we are at home against Sunlun then am I likely to waste a shirt on a midfield holding player ? Probably not.

    Conversely if we are defending a lead, or trying to construct Citeh say as we did at the Etihad early this year, then not only Arsene has in at least one holding player in but we have players putting more effort into defending, denying space etc.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Mel @ 11:26 am – By now you should know you are the yin to my yang. Banned smiley.
    Cool sah.


  13. Good stuff. Anicoll has beaten me to suggesting that in the West ham game the opportunities to make challenges were in short supply.

    While going against a bus, you’re very unlikely to get many; and on the rare breaks they make, you’re very unlikely to get any either. I’d be surprised if anyone other than Payet attempted to dribble or beat a man in the whole game.

    I feel it’s in the service of the positive cause to harp on a lot about how dramatically different the challenge was in the two games. Bus vs no bus; space to attack in vs no space to attack in; defenders who have been turned even a little vs defenders who are set the entire time; 8-10 defenders vs 4-7

    We couldn’t have played as we did against Palace vs West Ham, not unless we went a goal up and they subsequently played differently. And it’ll be the same story for the vast majority of home games.

    The bus is a different, harder challenge for us. I’d think it is surely priority no 1 for the season, and the potential silver lining of the West Ham game is that it gave a pretty immaculate template for players and staff to work with. They may have been lulled slightly by how brilliantly things had gone since the West Brom game.


  14. Excellent read Shotta…


  15. Excellent again Shotta,
    Most of the unenlightened think Aaron is supposed to be a right winger but when he is played on the right side of midfield he moves all over allowing Berlerin to have free reign down that side.
    When our players are moving and interchanging like this they are brilliant and normally only luck or our ineffective shooting will keep us out on these occasions. I’m not surprised we have created the most chances in the PL so far.

    Liked by 1 person

  16. Great perspectives Shotta and whilst I remain wary against an over-reliance on stats, you’ve highlighted very effectively how different the two games were and how good we are against teams brave enough to actually come out and play from the off. Pardew’s ego couldn’t resist trying to put one over on Arsene and he paid a high price with the points lost, if not the performance itself, which I thought was very good from the south Londoners.

    Liverpool will be a fascinating contest; dodgy Rodgers really should shut up shop but you just know his ego also will betray greater, riskier ambitions. In some ways it’ll be easier for the ‘smaller’ clubs to steal points from us for this reason alone. Is it against the bus drivers from West Ham, Sunderland and similar that we’ll miss Jack, if he is still out for these and equivalent games? Or will Ox hold the key, with or without him?

    As Andrew rightly says, we no longer have a first eleven. It’s fortunate that, contrary to the belief of some, we have a manager that most certainly DOES do tactics. Ramsey’s role on Sunday being just the latest example of that.


  17. arse_or_brain

    Spot on about Bellerin.

    I figured there’d be a titanic battle between him and Debuchy for the spot this year. Still early days but it now looks much more likely that Bellerin will claim the spot as pretty much his.

    Remarkable ,really, as Debuchy kept out Sagna, an excellent right back, from the french team for a number of years.

    I think Bellerin is ,defensively, good, full stop, very good given his age; and, offensively, ridiculously good.

    Watched a re-run of a defeat at Swansea from RVP’S last year recently. Full backs were Djourou and Miquel. Our reserve full back are now way better.


  18. The squawka/ BBC had the Arsenal down for those amount of total shots, while the PL websites was much lower ( 14 and 12, I think…without looking again), I’m interested to know whose stats are right and whose are way out? It certainly means a difference in ratio`s…


  19. Getting behind Club Bruges – plucky Belgians


  20. Look at the Belgians! Where’s Stuart Hall when you need him?


  21. I see van Gaal is playing the Joker and leaving Schweini on the bench !


  22. A really poor goal to concede by Brugge. Just allowed Depay to waltz through them. That is not a good sign. If United can score so easily it will be a long night.


  23. Hopefully Smalling can dig out a result for the visitors – some of the Belgians going down far too easily


  24. Good second goal from Depay but still fancy Bruges to score against panicky Manc defence


  25. Didn’t see very much of the United game – the tennis was more interesting – but Bruges didn’t look like much more than an average Championship side. And I see the international United love-in continues with the ref letting the clock run over the extra minutes so they could get a third. Now they’re all lined up for their usual easy group draw.


  26. Wenger thinks too laterally for some fraction of Arsenal support (not you guys) to understand.

    The irony in him trying to outwit his managerial peers working so well to fool even Arsenal fans is kind of funny. Too often our free flowing football leads to false epiphanies about how easy managing a football side is; if you have the best players and play them in their best positions magical things can happen. But it’s just a dream, the spontaneity fans think happen is fought for and won in training and whiteboards, in the mutual expectations of the managers and players and it requires the same level of tacticality that any bus parking team can boast.

    Failures in this system is what allows us to critically examine they whys of Wenger’s tactics and only those expecting to find anything will appreciate that he does intentionally tweak with tactics. Those who don’t see probably can’t see his hand even when we do well.

    His hand is usually hidden from us, but I’m certain players (like many of our midfielders) will testify that he does guide enough of what they do on the pitch. Arsenal tactics are that efficient when they work; they fulfill our aesthetic sensibilities and get the job done. It happens so often that people confuse one for the other.

    But we’re winning again now, the clunky pieces are mostly settled; the dramatic difference shouldn’t be a surprise, the Arsenal machinery is only just warming up.

    Liked by 3 people

  27. Bruges will be very frustrated to have lost that third goal after a good defensive performance. Inexplicable error from the centre back who had played so well all night. At 2-1 they would have fancied their chances at home, 3-1 trickier.

    Two good goals from Depay, the second particularly.

    About 3.05 of time added on when the board said a minimum of 3 minutes so the referee hardly into Fergie time Dk.


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