So Arsenal crashed to a 3-1 defeat to Liverpool over the weekend. Despite my colleague Andrew Nicoll’s optimism that eventually “Arsenal: We can work it out” I detect an air of over-reaction from among even the most resilient. One of my loyal Twitter followers made the following tweet:
“A strong action is needed or all what we have built in the last 12 yrs will collapse. We will have to start from the bottom.”
While the sentiment is from a good place, in my opinion it is insufficiently rooted in reality. If we base our opinions on the unbiased data, Saturday’s result was not really surprising.
In my last blog “Who Will Replace Santi Cazorla”, I shared with readers the results of my analysis of the Squawka data on Arsenal midfielders demonstrating, in no uncertain manner, that apart from Ozil and Cazorla there is a serious deficit in quality midfielders at the club. This I argued explains the club’s significant decline in Points Per Game (ppg) since Santi suffered his long term injury last October. Why then would any rational, objective football fan be overly surprised we failed to win the game. We came close to drawing with the ultimate goal bound shot by Alexis, but it was blocked and in the subsequent counter-attack, with Origi beating the offside trap by a hair’s breath and setting up Wijnaldum, the result was put beyond doubt.
Unlike the Robbie Earle’s and Kyle Martino’s of this world who, on my tv feed, engaged in the most hysterical anti-Wenger diatribes, blaming the manager’s failure to start Alexis Sanchez as cause for the defeat, as serious supporters of the football club we need to look beyond the headlines. Fortunately for us whoscored.com maintains a database of some key performance indicators for all clubs in the Premier League.
|Indicators||Arsenal’s Season Avg
||Arsenal vs LFC||Difference|
|Shots on target||5||3||-2|
|Aerial Duel Success||56%||58%||2%|
In all statistical categories, except Aerial Duel Successs, Arsenal was substantially below its season average. Key failures were in making Dribbles, maintaining Possession and taking Shots at goal. Pundits engaged in sensationalism, such as Earle and Martino, “act” totally innocent of the fact there were two other key players missing from Arsenal who are vital to the overall success of the team especially in the key data categories.
As great an individual footballer as Alexis Sanchez has been at Arsenal this year, in scoring goals and making chances, he has way inferior statistics to Ozil and Cazorla in Passing Accuracy and retaining Possession. These were the key areas where AFC lost the game on Saturday. Clearly, when brought on in the second half, he added dynamism to the team assisting in one goal but ultimately it was not enough to swing the game decisively in Arsenal’s favor.
|Avg Performance Score||27||25||41|
|Avg. Pass Accuracy||87%||91%||73%|
|Avg. Pass Length||15m||16m||16m|
|Avg. Chances Created||2.68||1.25||2.5|
|Avg. Goals Scored||0.23||0.25||0.65|
|Avg. Defensive Actions||1||2||1|
|Avg. Duels Won||53%||28%||52%|
Repeatedly I have had sceptics pushing back at the data, not acknowledging that by failing to identify the objective reasons for Arsenal’s current struggles they will never find the correct solutions. In fact those sceptics are bound to become even more despondent if Arsenal fails to adopt the conventional option of changing the manager. Many I have seen eventually join the bitter anti-Wenger mob because they fail to grasp real solutions and and thus fall for the usual bread and circus most other clubs provide their fans.
Here is a “shocking” revelation. My analysis of the data reveals Arsenal is still some distance from becoming a dominant team in the ever increasing arm race among our top-6 rivals. The moneyed clubs are spending big not only on top-top players but experienced, talented managers. The ignorant muck and dreck of English football management have been replaced by the likes of Guardiola, Mourinho, Klopp and Conte, all of whom have won top titles in big domestic European leagues and if they have not won the Champions League have recently gone to the finals. Pochettino is the exception in terms of titles, but being a disciple of Bielsa, an innovative coaching legend, has transformed Spurs into a serious outfit who press relentlessly.
While Wenger was the innovator in bringing possession football to England, most of his competitors are building teams aimed at countering Arsenal’s strategy. Pressing and counter-pressing is the main strategy designed to disrupt and regain possession, quickly break on Arsenal’s high line, create overloads and create good scoring chances. As a result, Arsenal’s results this season, except for the win over Chelsea achieved with Santi Cazorla, have been pathetic.
|Shots on target||5||4||-1.5|
|Aerial Duel Success||38%||47%||9%|
While the data set is very limited, only one game with Santi, based on six other matches between the top-6 the reality is very stark. Creating only 10 shots per game and 4 on target is not going to win many games against the top clubs in the PL. A measly average possession of 51% and a 78% passing rate is not going to cut the mustard for a possession oriented team. Scoring barely over one goal in these games is not a margin that guarantees a high probability of winning. Absent a player of Santi’s quality over a prolonged period, with the next best midfielder being a 21 year-old with less than two years experience in the league, is a recipe for repeated frustration.
It is arguable that the current squad may be good enough to consistently beat the other 14 teams in the league, but given the vagaries of form and the impact of injuries/fatigue while competing in four competitions annually, it is a virtual miracle Arsene Wenger has steered Arsenal to an average of just under 4th in the league over the last 10 years. The Board, quite rightly, made a big song and dance in the notes to the most recent 6-month financial statement of spending over £90 million on new talent while the wage bill increased by over £40 million.
However the data is speaking loudly; the club is excessively reliant on two top-top quality midfielders and it isn’t working. Seems to me the Board has no choice but to push the boat way out this Summer to land the right player who can make a difference in central midfield. Failing this I could see Arsene Wenger’s legacy being trashed by the usual suspects at the approaching twilight of his career.