Well good morning to you, this will be a BIG week of writing and podcasting. I have a VERY special backroom guest lined up on Wedneday and I just know it’s going to be a banger. We’ll be powering on with a lot of writing because no doubt, because there will be a lot of people trying to take things off track this week.
First port of call? xG statistics.
There’s a table doing the rounds… sorry… a few tables doing the rounds that indicate Arsenal are the worst at everything this season.
We have two tables here. The bottom one is xG for the season, which has us in 16th. The on the top is Sky making a fuss of our attacking statistics this season.
So how do we react?
Firstly, on the xG table and data in general.
Statistics are there to point you in the direction of problem or an opportunity. In the world of football scouting, data tools allow analysts to drill down into a profile of player they are hunting, which gives finite scouting resource sharper direction so they get to what the club needs quicker.
In football, a statistic is rarely the ‘thing’, because it’s a nuanced game that is chaotic and difficult to measure.
INTERNET HOT TAKE: Aaron Ramsdale has been relegated 3 times. He conceded over 120 goals in his last two loans. He must be shit.
Ok. What contextual reference points do we have that might counter the above?
He won Fan Player of the Season at three of those clubs. Ok, interesting, so clearly, if fans of relegated clubs love a player, there must be something there. Especially if it’s the goalkeeper.
Sheffield United had 400 centre back combinations in a season that was ravaged by injury. Ok, so maybe the players in front of him weren’t that good?
There are hardly any 23-year-olds regularly making starts in the Premier League in that position. Ok, maybe he has something about him that is so unique, managers with weak squads keep going out of their way to have him as the first name on the team sheet?
He’s played for progressive managers and clubs, even if they have been poor. Ok, what are those guys interested in about his game? Maybe his passing is special?
If you scouted Ramsdale by his xG saves number, would you have bought him? If you scouted him based on goals conceded, would you have bought him? If you scouted him based on team success, would you have bought him?
No. Because context and the eye test are VERY important.
The xG table makes for grim reading this season, but only if you are an xG junkie that watches highlights of Arsenal. Remember, xG is a stat that is designed to give you a deeper understanding of results. Weaponising it when we’re 5th in the table isn’t sharp unless you have a good angle of attack, especially when context would say fans that actually go are very happy, and pundits were asking Arteta if Arsenal were a title threat before the Liverpool game.
Our start was brutal. We had a covid outbreak that wiped out 5 players, plus 4 injuries. We lost to Brentford, then had to play the European Cup finalists back to back. That was not good for xG. We deserved to lose, but there was context to those failings, and I think we’ve all accepted them now.
So a bad start for xG.
Arsenal then went out and rebuilt the defence, got injured players back to fitness, and covid patients recovered. We started Phase 2 of the season with a team that had 5 new starters. By the Spurs game, we’d finished with 6 new players in the starting 11.
What was the football trend? We started very fast, scored goals, then sat back to absorb the pressure.
Did anyone watching the Spurs game (eye test) come out of that thinking we were unlucky not to lose? No? Well, we lost on xG. If we’d won that game 5-0, no one would have thought us lucky. But xG had it as a loss despite the control and ease of the afternoon.
The Leicester game was the same. We should have won 4-0, we started majestically, but we let our foot off the gas and they had a few nice chances. Was the game ever out of control? Were we ever really in danger? No. But xG doesn’t record the context of the game or how we played it.
What is the reality of the season right now?
We’re 5th. Even after getting spanked by Liverpool this weekend.
We are 5th after our worst start in Premier League history. This position been earned.
We are 5th after reengineering our starting 11 with 6 players under the age of 24. These players have had 9 games together.
We are 5th after playing Manchester City and Liverpool away from home.
The xG sample size is small, it lacks context, and the eye test isn’t really telling us the things the Emery eye test was.
If we’re going to use context, let’s be fair here… let’s look at our performance since Arteta had all the players he wanted available for games.
Arsenal since Phase 2 of the season started (Norwich)
We haven’t scored a lot of goals, it’s true. But we’ve scored 2 less than Manchester City in the same period. Even with the absolute drubbing we took at the weekend, it’s safe to say our defence is going to be pretty good: Liverpool, West Ham, and an in-form Wolves have all conceded more than us. We have the 3rd best record defensively over that time period.
United has conceded 19 since Phase 2 started.
Attack is a worry, but again, only 4 teams have scored more than us. We have some problems here. Auba and Lacazette aren’t the full ticket. We know that. The coaching team know that. They have a very delicate political situation to deal with. How do you deftly deal with a captain that isn’t doing it? Eddie wants out, you can’t use him. Balogun is too young. Martinelli has been dreadful since the start of the year. Something has to give.
The attacking issue is also more complicated. Overall, it’s clear, we aren’t creating enough high-quality chances. But I also think part of that is because we don’t have elite quality in the final third when it comes to strikers, that is combined with having two rookie players as the focus of our chance creation in Saka and ESR. Would I change those two for anyone? No. But we have to accept they aren’t Mane and Salah… yet.
Let’s look at attempts at goal this season. The Sky stat box doesn’t have shots on goal, a number we usually use. In total, we’re at 13.25 a game. An improvement on previous years, but not amazing. However, when you take out the top 3 teams we’ve played again, the average goes up significantly to 16.3 per game. How does that look against previous seasons? Well, that number would have us higher than Liverpool for the whole of last season. That number would have us higher than Arsenal of 2014-15 when we had Santi, Ramsey, Ozil and Sanchez in the side. Take out the top 3 teams this season and our attempt production isn’t that bad. We are 9 games into the new regime, my guess is that when the cognitive style of football kicks in, we’ll see better chances, more will be taken, and our attempts on goal stat will climb.
Now imagine we had a striker in the system that could hold the ball up and make a nuisance of themselves like DCL or Ivan Toney. We don’t have anyone that can make something of all the great crosses we know we can deliver.
I know we don’t have other tools available now. We don’t need another striker to challenge for top 6 this season. But let’s be honest, it’s going to be tough against the top 2 teams until we change that.
Final point on all of this.
This is Project Youth 2.0.
We are not ready to compete with Liverpool. Our aim is to compete with everyone outside Liverpool, City and maybe Chelsea. I think this calendar year, we’re at 36 games and only City and Chelsea have more points than us, so again, when you put some noise cancellers on the drama queens, we’re actually demonstrating the sort of consistency required to be seriously considered in the mix for top 4 this season.
There will be peaks and troughs. The boys just delivered a 10+ game unbeaten run after a shocking start. This catastrophizing over bumps in the road does nobody any favours. It’s just a shame the most moronic voices on the internet are rewarded because tech algorithms prioritise confident bad takes over those grounded in reality because one is exciting and the other is boring.
These players have had 9 games together, that isn’t an excuse, it’s reality. They have so much work to do to start playing the cognitive style of football this system requires. They have so many lessons to learn until they are ready to deal with shocks to the system as a group and on the pitch. Sometimes the football will be fluid and dreamy, sometimes it’ll be clunky and tough to watch.
… but when everything beds in and clicks – and it will – this team will be ready to go to the moon.
The current strategy is the only way we make it back to the top. We spent 8 years trying to sign ‘ready-made’ players and it was a fucking disaster we still haven’t managed to get over. The simple truth is this: If you want to make it back to the top without the most money, you have to take some pain. We are going to take some pain this season, but at least it’ll be for an idea that stands a chance.
The biggest issue on our agenda right now isn’t trying to find an answer for losing at Anfield. That shit happens to the best teams in the world. The biggest agenda item is beating Newcastle, then taking advantage of a United side in disarray. Win those two games and we’re right back on track (sorry, I mean more on track, because we are already on track).
Our season works in phases. We’ve won the last two after a poor start. The objective now is to take 20 points from the next 27 in Phase 4. That’s going to be a tough ask, but so was 20 points from 24 in Phase 2 / 3, but we managed it.
Spitting distance of top 4 by January 2nd is the goal. If we’re there, I promise you, we’re going to be in with a shout of top 4 come the end of the season, because the chances are, our young players will click during those months and start delivering a more consistent flow of performances.
Finally, I know I am going overboard in answering a loud minority of people that don’t really exist in the ground, but I do think it’s important to reiterate… how we react after a defeat is important. It’s painful to watch people go to the worst possible outcome as soon as there’s a single bad moment. #ArtetaOut after yesterday? It’s so childish. If the players behaved like that, we’d be truly fucked. The great hope I always carry is that the people that go know better, as they’ve shown over and over again this season. I am so thankful for that. I cannot wait to go to some games in December and experience it myself.
So in short, I wouldn’t let xG worry you too much. We have good players, there’s a clear vision, we’ve hoovered up a lot of points, maintained a good defensive record, and hopefully our attack will kick up a gear in December.
On that note, check out our latest podcast below OR if you are feeling frisky, check out the Latte Firm video where I hang with FK, Walid and Rohan and talk xG and that ‘fight’ on the touchline.