The catastrophic decline of chances created
Before starting to analyze the PL games under Emery, Ljungberg and Arteta, let me share a few claims and disclaimers:
Claim 1: Arsenal is topping the chart of dropping points after leading. The common consensus is that this is a mentality problem – leading to many pundits proposed replacing most of the team. I strongly oppose this narrative. I think it happened, because by shifting the focus of the defence, we gave up on the ball-possession and chance-creation play signature to Wengerball, and when playing for a 1:0 victory (successful against Newcastle, Bournemouth, Leeds, Olymoiakos and West Ham this season), this is a risk impossible to eliminate.
Claim 2: Playing for 1:0 is unattractive, and is a mid-table strategy. I know – zero irony used – that nobody is playing literally for 1:0 at Arsenal. Yet, when prioritizing the defensive midfield at the expense of pressing, and shifting to counter-attacks instead of the trademark possession game, that might still not be playing for the 1:0, but ’not minding’ if the score remains unchanged.
Disclaimer 1: While the number of goals or assists could be intuitively a fine indicator of „attacking intent”, I discarded it along with the ball possession percentage. The one and only KPI used in the analysis below will be the number of key passes. This is good for individual statistics (shows who is capable of consistently providing them), disregards unproductive ball possession like back passes and side balls, and doesn’t care about excellent goalkeeping or poor finishing. For the sake of this post let’s consider the number of key passes as the equivalent of (half) chances created.
Disclaimer 2: This is not an anti-Arteta post. I love the guy. I admire what he did with many of the players. I have no difficulties in sharing his vision or values. Yet I might be challenging whether we are going in the right direction. While the goals conceded did improve (and there is a lot of space for further development) we paid the price of scoring less goals – especially against mid-table opponents.
Sorry for the long introduction, so let’s get started.
In the paragraphs below I will show 6-6 games (5 PL + 1 other) from Emery, Ljungberg and Arteta, the scoreline, the key passes of the opposition and us, distinguishing from the chances created by the starting line-up (unless there had been a substitution in the first half). There is no intentional pattern which games I chose. All data are from WhoScored. And – spoiler alert – I will show how many key passes were performed by Mesut Özil. (If TA could make a table out of it, that would be perfect.)
Arsenal 2:1 Burnley
KP: 15 + 0 (-) vs. 12
(Legend: 15 key passes from starting players [including substitutes before 46’], 0 KP from other subs, Mesut didn’t play so no KP provided, 12 key passes by the opposition.)
Arsenal 2:2 Tottenham
KP: 15 + 3 (-) vs. 9
Arsenal 2:2 Southampton
KP: 8 + 1 (4) vs. 15
Leicester 2:0 Arsenal
KP: 15 vs. 6 + 0 (1)
Arsenal 1:1 Wolves
KP: 7 + 0 (3) vs. 16
Arsenal 3:2 Vitoria de Guimaraes
KP: 11 + 2 vs. 11
Norwich 2:2 Arsenal
KP: 11 vs. 8 + 0 (4)
Arsenal 1:2 Brighton
KP: 8 + 1 (2) vs. 16
West Ham 1:3 Arsenal
KP: 6 vs. 7 + 1 (2)
Arsenal 0:3 Manchester City
KP: 3 + 0 (1) vs. 11
Everton 0:0 Arsenal
KP: 5 vs. 5 + 1 (-)
Standard Liege 2:2 Arsenal
KP: 7 vs. 10 + 1 (-)
Bournemouth 1:1 Arsenal
KP: 8 vs. 12 + 0 (4)
Arsenal 1:1 Sheffield United
KP: 7 + 1 (4) vs. 6
Arsenal 4:0 Newcastle
KP: 12 + 1 (4) vs. 8
Arsenal 1:2 Olympiakos (120’)
KP: 9 + 2 (2) vs. 11
Arsenal 2:1 Liverpool
KP: 1 + 1 (-) vs. 19
Aston Villa 1:0 Arsenal
KP: 7 vs. 3 + 2 (-)
- Arsenal created more chances under Emery (possible legacy from Wenger).
- After Özil missed the first 3 months of the campaign he became an integral part of all 3 managers’ first team and was the main source of key passes.
- The best games we played under Arteta he was the orchestrator of the attacks: 2:0 against MU (H), 2:2 against Chelsea (A) with 10 men, 4:0 vs. Newcastle (H), 3:2 vs Everton (H), 1:0 vs West Ham (H) – his last game.
- Even when the attackers don’t shine, Özil delivers.
- The other notable victories happened without him and without convincing attacking play:
- In the 2:0 win vs Southampton Nketiah was gifted a goal, and we scored the 2nd against a 10-men team
- We managed to deliver our 2nd 4:0 victory in the PL against Norwich, with 2 gifted goals by Auba, irregular (but fine) goals from Xhaka and Cedric with only 6 key passes in the whole game
- In our surprising away win against Wolves they had 10 key passes, we had only 4. Our first ’assist’ was a lucky deflection, and 3 of our 4 key passes came in the dying minutes
- We won against Liverpool by playing Russian roulette for gifted goals – a feat that will be impossible to replicate
- We beat Man City fair and square in Wembley – the only game on this list which was a real joy to watch – yet we had 4 key passes compared to City’s 15 (KdB provided 9 himself)
- According to Premier League history Arsenal created 88 (first place) „big chances” in 2015/16, 81 (2nd place behind Man City) in 2017/18, 72 (5th place behind City, Chelsea, Liverpool and Bournemouth), and 48 this season tying 12-14 places, behind clubs like Burnley and Southampton.
- Arsenal’s main chance creators in the PL this year: Mesut Özil (2.1 KP/game) – 6th best in the Premier League behind KdB, Maddison, Grealish, Buendia and TAA (defender), while on level with Willian and Fernandes – others are Nicholas Pepe (1.3) and Dani Ceballos (1.2). Saka provides 0.8 KPs (+ 2.3/game in the EL), plus Nelson, Xhaka and Tierney have high EL key pass statistics. Ceballos is not (yet) our player, Ozil’s days are counted, and many pundits consider Pepe a flop, wishing we signed Zaha instead (0,9 KP/game) with 9 goal contribution in 3300 minutes compared to Pepe’s 17 in 2627.
- While most reviews, analyses and press conferences conclude that we have to be more ruthless in front of goal, the statistics show that we score quite many from our key passes while we concede far less from the lot of key passes by the opponent. The lack of ruthlessness is a problem only because we create so few chances.
- In fact we deliver a distressingly low number of key passes. And not only against the strongest opponents, but against peer mid-table teams and relegation fugitives. This often leads to boring, unentertaining games, even if we take all 3 points at the end of the day.
- I’m not reasoning here for Mesut Özil! I like the guy, admire his technique and charity work alike, but more is required of him. I’m arguing here to have a midfielder in the team who is capable of providing quality key passes on a consistent level.
- We have to take care of the chance creation challenge really soon, preferably in this transfer window! Especially if Özil leaves and Emile Smith-Rowe is not yet at the level of dealing with this responsibility alone.
- While we have to strengthen the midfield I wouldn’t recommend going for Thomas Partey. He is expensive, and he is a DM with a single assist in 3600 minutes.
- It’s never about splashing the cash. Arsenal is famous for making good signings: Martinelli, Auba, Holding, Leno, Cazorla, Tierney, hey even Luiz and Sanchez were great purchases. I don’t envy Barcelona’s investments in Dembele or Malcolm, or United paying top dollars for Maguire, Lukaku or Fred, not to mention Chelsea’s crazy spending spree for Kepa, Torres, Kovacic, Bakayoko, Batshuayi or Drinkwater. But paying reasonable money for a niche position shouldn’t be out of question.
- Let’s face it, we missed most of the assist-kings already. Fernandes went to MU (I demanded well ahead to sign him in this very blog), Nkunku joined Leipzig (where he assisted 15 time in the Bundesliga), Havertz seems to go to Chelsea, Szoboszlai agreed with Napoli, Jonathon David is heading to Leeds. Not too many of them remained: Donny van de Beek from Ajax, Rodrigo Bentacour from Juventus, Jack Grealish from Aston Villa, and Isco from Real Madrid are the big money players (MV around 40M), while Jesus Corona (FC Porto), James Forrest (Celtic) and Evander (FC Midtjylland) could be signed for about 10-12M.
- Still, if we believe the gossip, Philippe Coutinho from Barcelona/Bayern could be our savior (a swap deal for Guendouzi and some pocket money is rumoured); the Brazilian attacking midfielder made 17 goal contributions this season (scored 9 and assisted 8) in merely 2000 minutes. He knows the Premier League inside out, he has just turned 28 in the summer, so seems like a surprisingly good deal to me. His salary is a big issue, but hopefully could be resolved among the parties involved.
- I really like our wingers. All of them, even Mkhi. But we cannot rely on them providing enough dangerous crosses to compete for CL places without a huge striker like Giroud (or Crouch). We need players who have the vision and passing skills to assist our attackers even in central midfield. Keeping Ceballos might be a step towards the right direction, clearly not enough. Anyway, while crossing and heading is the epitome of British football (at least it used to be), it is clearly not the Arsenal way.
And let’s not forget that our key passes and big chances statistics are mediocre only because they include the last wave of Emeryball and the performance of Mesut Özil. Without him – or a proper replacement – we might be re-living the late games against Leicester, Tottenham and Aston Villa. And don’t kid yourselves, no matter how much do you appreciate youth development, you will find the Arteta-OUT train more and more appealing.
I’m not saying we cannot go down at Villa Park. But before getting used to that we should start scoring 4-5 goals against Watford, Brighton and Sheffield like Manchester City, Liverpool and Chelsea did, even in away games. Let’s aim for a 4:0 win every match, and worst case scenario we still end up winning 3:2 on unlucky days.