Arsenal’s lack of fightback: a perusal

Gunnersaurus keels over in disgust after seeing his teams shot rate drop after falling behind yet again

What is keeping Arsenal from winning the EPL title? There is always a stretch during the season where they play the best in the league. The offensive teamwork produces several of the best goals every season and some of their performances are simply stunning: Napoli at the Emirates in the 2013 UCL was one of the most impressive 15 minutes I’ve ever seen. Arsenal haven’t challenged for the title in the past few seasons, and while I don’t view this as a failure at all, I wondered why. There are a host of options at the Arsenal-cliché buffet: sold van Persie, naïve tactically, Wenger is a specialist in failure, try to walk it in, don’t have enough steel in the midfield, Mesut Ozil (pro or con you will hear about him), smoking in the showers, smoking in the clubs, Oliver Giroud, Yaya Sanogo and under-18 Frenchmen, an overmatched medical staff, Abou Diaby, Kim Kallstrom, losing focus when leading, not spending in the transfer market, trying to win on the balance sheets and not on the field, and I feel like I’m missing one but that’s enough. The point is there is no shortage of reasons why Arsenal haven’t pushed on the last few years and while there is probably some truth to many of them, I will ignore those and fling another one of my own into the mix: Arsenal have not been good playing from behind the past 3 seasons.

First, let’s look at the cumulative stats of the 15 teams who have been in the Premier League for the past 3 seasons (12-13 through 14-15). This is over 100 games worth of data for each team. The first chart we take a look at offense, with goals and expected goals for each team when the game is tied. Expected goals is calculated by distance from goal, angle from goal, and whether the shot comes from the head or the foot.

Arsenal are 4th in offense, no surprise. They are competitive with the top 3 (Chelsea scores 1.80 G/90 and Arsenal score 1.65 G/90) and get great shots as seen by their exp G/90. Defensively, they are even better:

They are 2nd in both goals/90 and expected goals/90 in tied situations. Arsenal, along with City and Chelsea, are part of a group of 3 defenses set well apart from the rest of the league, which coupled with their competitive offense makes them right near the very top when the game is tied, as the next chart makes clear.

Arsenal score a higher % of total goals than Man City at even game states, and expected goals make them look even better than Chelsea.

So why have Arsenal been at a remove when it comes to fighting for the titles that both City and Chelsea will have one of at the end of this season? Lets look at offense, defense, and % of total goals while behind to get a fuller picture.

Chelsea and Man City remain at the top when playing from behind. They have the best offenses and defenses by some distance and where Arsenal was right with them at even games states, now they slip well back when trailing. The Gunners go from playing like Man City and Chelsea when tied to playing like Swansea when trailing.

What is leading to these numbers? We look at Arsenal’s defense first.

Remember, these ranks are out of 15 teams that have been in the EPL each of the last 3 seasons.

They don’t block shots when even or behind but each of these stats sees a significant negative trend when Arsenal falls behind. They give up almost 2 more shots/90, which stands out as most teams allow fewer shots when they are behind. Arsenal go from the team that forces the most headers to below-average at forcing headers when they fall behind. Shots from the foot come from about 6 feet closer on average and shots that aren’t blocked hit the target at a much higher rate.

Now, the Arsenal offense.

Once again, strangely Arsenal’s shot numbers go in the opposite way as the rest of the league. Unlike most teams, Arsenal’s shot numbers drop and drop significantly when they go behind. The rest of their rate stats don’t change much, except that they take essentially no headers playing from behind. To show how strange their shot rates are both on offense and defense, lets look at the rest of the top 5:

As you can see the general trend is for teams to increase their share of shots when they go behind. Arsenal certainly buck that trend.

Why is this?

The quote that always stands out is the famous Fabregas line about Arsenal never studying opponents “We look for ourselves and that’s it.” Does that apply here? Is it Wenger’s insistence on playing the same way over and over revealing itself in Arsenal not being flexible to adjust their play when they go down? It’s possible that is true, as maybe Arsenal continues to play a heavy midfield passing game against teams that are clogging that area of the pitch more with defenders who are then able to break out on the counter. Arsenal average 5 through balls per game to lead the EPL over the past 3 seasons, maybe there is simply less space for them to get through balls through when they go behind. Their average shot quality does drop from 4th in the league to 7th when they fall behind so maybe there is something to that.

Why is the defense so much worse when Arsenal is behind? ‘I don’t know’ is the right answer but I can make a guess. Arsenal lead the EPL in interceptions per game and have been 19th in each of the past 3 seasons in fouls per game. Does that indicate a defense that gambles too much looking to step into passing lanes and steal passes to kickstart their offense instead of staying compact and stopping the attack? Probably not. Southampton and Manchester United have similar interception/foul numbers, but it’s an interesting tidbit.

We’ve been talking 3-year total numbers, which I feel are fine to use in Arsenal’s case as they have had a very similar team and the same manager the entire time. I wanted to make it clear however, it wasn’t just one bad season that has deflated all these numbers.


Maybe it’s the schedule?

Maybe Arsenal aren’t bad when they fall behind per se, they just fall behind specifically against tough opponents. I tested their ratio of minutes played while behind against the two teams who played a similar amount of trailing minutes (between 17-18% of the time) in Liverpool and Manchester United. What I did was group the opposition into quartiles. The first quartile is the best teams, so for example nearly 50% of the minutes Arsenal have trailed have been against Liverpool, City, Chelsea, or United. The second quartile has Everton, Saints, Spurs, West Ham, and Stoke. The 3rd has Sunderland, Swansea, West Brom, Aston Villa, and Newcastle. The 4th is the rest of the Premier League teams.

Share of Arsenal minutes played vs opponents while trailing

We can see Arsenal trail against tougher opposition than Manchester United. They have both trailed the equivalent of 18 90s, and Arsenal’s schedule includes 2 games against Liverpool and United instead of Everton and Newcastle. So they have trailed against tougher teams than United, but not Liverpool (and Liverpool actually have the most similar even/behind profile to Arsenal). As you go further down the table, the strength of schedule goes up (for example Stoke can’t play themselves but can play Arsenal) so I don’t think strength of schedule can fully explain Arsenal’s struggles playing from behind. It does play some factor though. The other thing is the blowout game. The 5-1, 6-0, 5-0 type losses that have been too common for Arsenal could really hurt the goals allowed numbers. This is not that convincing however, as Arsenal do even worse in the expected goal numbers and even huge routs like those generally do not lead to lopsided expected goal numbers.

It’s an interesting problem and one I will keep an eye on watching Arsenal games in the future. If I was a journalist able to ask Wenger one question, I would like to show him these numbers and see what he makes of it and how he has been adjusting his team when they fall behind. If Arsenal can figure out how to avoid this big drop-off, I think the Gunners will win a league title in the next few seasons and Gunnersaurus will be upright again. It’s certainly not out of the grasp of Wenger, as in 2011-12 and 2010-11 Arsenal were the 2nd best team in the league at playing from behind.

Bonus Chart

Game states breakdown of all 15 teams who have been in the EPL the last 3 seasons


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