The international break provides a good opportunity for statistical analysis of various teams and players. To begin with, let’s look at macro level stats for the big six. I will also try to cover some player comparisons before Premiership resumes on the 19th.
The following table lists passing, dueling, and other figures for Arsenal, City, United, Chelsea, Liverpool, and Tottenham. These are Opta stats taken from Epl Index (@eplindex), an excellent resource for those who like number crunching.
I wanted to look at Arsenal’s performance as compared to other teams and with the Gunners’ efforts from the last campaign. And since City have shown a remarkable improvement over their Champions League spot clinching run from last season, it was interesting to look at their numbers over the two periods. For the other teams only this year’s figures are included.
In the table, Passing Accuracy includes goal-kicks, throws, etc. OPP Accuracy is the passing success from open play passes. Other rows are fairly self-explanatory.
It is very interesting to note that the Gunners have uncannily similar numbers over the two seasons despite wholesale changes in personnel. Passes per min are very similar. Duelling success rates are virtually identical as are interception figures.
One significant difference is in the Minutes per Aerial Duel or 50-50. In 2011-12 Arsenal are getting into an aerial battle once every 4.78 minutes. This is almost a 40 percent increase over the previous year’s 3.43 min figure.
Part of this could be down to opponents launching fewer long balls into the Arsenal half. Since this was perceived as one of the Arsenal’s main weaknesses, it would be surprising if opponents suddenly stopped using this tactic. Some might think that Arsenal’s defenders are doing better against the long balls, and that might be the case to an extent, but overall the Aerial success figure of 50 percent is not very different from previous season’s 49. These numbers provide an opportunity to pause and reflect.
The bigger difference, in my opinion, has come from a change in Arsenal’s tactical approach and the shape of the team. In many of my match reports I have noted that the midfield is playing a lot deeper – a point also mentioned by Arshavin in his recent interview (translation needed) – and this has led to better support for the back four. Opponents no longer find it easy to punt the ball into the Arsenal half and push numbers forward as Arsenal are doing much better on the second ball.
Gael Clichy was one of the most troubled left backs in the league and was often a target of such long balls last season. But after his move to City, their left side hasn’t suddenly become vulnerable. If Clichy was as bad as some Arsenal fans proclaimed, why is Mancini’s defence so solid? It again reiterates the point that it isn’t so much about individuals being good or poor but more about the system exposing certain players or zones on the pitch. Since City are well organized defensively, teams have not been able to target Clichy.
Another noticeable difference is in the minutes per loss of possession figure. With two direct attacking players on the wings, Arsenal are losing possession more frequently. Ramsey too has contributed to this decline which results from a bad touch or a player over-running the ball in an attempted dribble.
Nevertheless, Arsenal have improved the Passes/Min value – which means they are making more passes per game – despite losing a tika-taka player on the wing for a more error-prone but higher impact player. I had looked at these stats in the context of the Sunderland game and Arteta’s performance stood out. It seems Wenger has given the Spaniard a tactical role of linking play all over the pitch. Subsequently, this seemed to be corroborated by @whoscored,
Mikel Arteta: The only PL player in the top 10 for Average Passes per game from the top 5 leagues, with 76.7 passes per game
I will try to look at further details when I get to player analysis and I will return to the Arsenal numbers again later in the post when comparing all teams. Next, let’s look at City’s effort over the two seasons as there are interesting insights to be gained.
Man City Year-on-Year
Most Gooners and City fans will agree that Arsenal were by far the better side when the teams met last season. However, Mancini has taken his team up by a couple of levels this time around and the results are not down to luck.
The Blues from Manchester have improved on almost all parameters. They are passing more and with higher accuracy, their crossing is better, their tackling and duelling success rates have gone up, chance conversion is superior, and so on.
Last year Mancini created a strong defence but his side didn’t move the ball around as effectively as the Gunners. Their jump from 5.49 passes per min to 6.11 has brought them almost on par with Wenger’s side. More importantly, they have overtaken the Gunners in the three Min/duel ratios (ground 50-50, aerial 50-50, and tackles). That means they are engaged in individual tussles less frequently.
In some games we hear commentators describe the play with words like, “They’re chasing shadows here” or “They just can’t get near the ball”. When taken alongside a high passing rate, the decrease in duel frequencies seems to imply that opponents are finding it hard to get near City (and therefore there are fewer individual battles) and provide a more tangible expression to what may sound like platitudes from the commentators. It then forces opponents out of shape and leads to more chances for the team on the ball which correlates well with City’s extraordinary chance creation and goal tally thus far.
It remains to be seen when Mancini can keep his team performing at this level and sustain their defensive solidity but thus far they have performed at a level even Wenger and Ferguson would envy. Of course, there is also an argument related to the financial approach of the clubs, but in a purely football related discussion that should be left out.
Comparisons across clubs
Arsenal pass the ball more frequently than any other club – even with what some fans call the worst team ever – but Chelsea, with a very positive approach under AVB, and City, with significant improvements over last season aided by major acquisitions, are very close to the Gunners.
There isn’t a big gap between the sides when it comes to success ratios in various duels. City have a fair lead in tackle success but others are all thereabouts. Ground duel ratios are eerily similar with a slight edge for Liverpool and Tottenham. Aerially, Arsenal and United (!) have some catching up to do.
Liverpool and Tottenham are engaged in Aerial duels most frequently which could be a result of additional individual tussles in the opposition half from long balls played towards their strikers.
Surprisingly, United are lagging in the minutes per chance created metric where City are in a league of their own, as discussed earlier. However, both Manchester sides have a fairly high conversion percentage which has put them on top of the scoring charts. Liverpool are really struggling on that front. Chelsea, Arsenal, and Tottenham will have to do better.
A key figure for Arsenal is ‘Dribbled Past per Game’. The Gunners are beaten more often than other teams with only Tottenham in the same ball park. For a team that wants to play a high line regularly, this is a critical number. If you think back to Koscielny’s own goal against Blackburn, Song was beaten rather easily by Olsson. There are times when one gets the feeling that the Gunners are not watching the ball closely but are beaten by the player’s fakes/movement. An improvement here will make Arsenal substantially stronger defensively.
Crossing is another area where Wenger needs to get more from his players. While it is inherently a low percentage tactic, given that the teams are making similar number of crosses per game, poor crossing accuracy – probably a result of insufficient tactical thought and practice – from the Gunners makes it easier to defend against them and negates the impact of their ball movement to an extent.
As I have said in the past, it’s hard to form meaningful decisive opinions from limited statistics. But there are definitely enough pointers in the numbers above. Liverpool just have to improve their conversion rates and whichever side from Chelsea, Arsenal, and Spurs betters their own number will likely challenge the top two.
City’s results are not a fluke and they will run away with the title if this level of quality can be sustained. It’s a big if though, so others have to keep plugging away.
AVB deserves credit for his bold, attacking approach. Chelsea are not too far from the top two and can do much better. As Wenger says, it’s in the details. They need to cut out some of the errors at the back and improve in the final third.
Arsenal are moving the ball a lot but they need to be more effective. The duelling frequency should drop and the opponents will have to be stretched more. It’s a tactical challenge for Arsene with Gervinho and Walcott on the flanks. More on this later. Le Boss also has to get more value from the crosses and improve the dribbled past figure.
All in all, City are the team to catch but the others aren’t too far apart. There is certainly food for thought for Arsenal fans who don’t support the manager and some players.
With so many interesting numbers I am sure to have missed out on something, and many points are debatable, so am looking forward to your thoughts.
No disrespect to Newcastle who have exceeded expectations thus far, but I will be surprised if they are in the top 6 at the end of the season. However, their numbers are not bad at all and consistency, if sustained, can surely see them running the top teams close. Optimistic fans cannot be faulted for believing they can better one or more of the top clubs.