“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|
|Shots on Target||6||8|
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.