Mikel Arteta is almost a year into his reign as Arsenal manager. Many had expected a clear plan to be in place by now at the Emirates, but the team appear to be struggling with a bit of an identity crisis. The stats back this up.
Using Twenty3 Advanced Metrics, we’re able to paint a picture of Arteta’s Arsenal side in possession. For starters – at the time of writing – only Manchester City have longer possession cycles. The Gunners, on average, retain possession for almost 26 seconds. Other than Pep Guardiola’s team (27.41), no other Premier League outfit surpasses the 24.5-second mark.
They also rank fourth for the number of ten or more pass sequences, averaging over 15 per 90. Only Man City (21.75), Chelsea (18.62) and Liverpool (18) can better that average in the Premier League. Two of those teams currently sit in the top six, and the other is City.
Oddly, however, Arsenal rank last for possessions per match (92). On one hand, this could suggest that they’re looking to control the match and there aren’t that many turnovers. It’s all about wearing the opposition down. We know that Arteta-ball is about maintaining possession and working the perfect opening. They’ve perfected the former, not so much the latter. They rank 16th for shots taken (118) in the English top-flight and this particular subject was touched upon by Sam Tighe in the second episode of Twenty3’s Laptop Gurus.
By comparison, Manchester City lead the way having taken 181 shots. Arsenal are one of only five teams to average fewer than ten shots per 90, the other three teams being Newcastle United, Burnley, Sheffield United and West Brom.
Arsenal see a lot of the ball, but it generally tends to be in their own half and this is evidenced in their passing network. It’s safe possession and this could explain why ball dominance isn’t resulting in shot superiority as it does with other sides.
City progress the ball to their full-backs more often than Arsenal do. The most striking thing when looking at these passing networks side by side is that the Gunners lack a real focal point in attack, whereas the Citizens tend to have two. Guardiola’s side are just as patient, but they always appear to have that goal threat. The Gunners, however, have their centre-forward dropping really deep to link play.
Liverpool often utilise their No.9 in deeper areas. So it might be fairer to compare their passing network.
In many ways, these are much closer yet they remain so different. The champions do push their wide attackers into advanced areas, but they remain fairly compact as a team. There are always passing options for the Reds and they attack and defend as a unit.
Jürgen Klopp’s side are well balanced as a team and their passing network backs that up. No players are isolated and if there’s a turnover in possession, Liverpool are well placed to counter-press. They rank third for fewest passes allowed per defensive action (PPDA), another one of Twenty3’s advanced metrics. The opposition are managing just 8.92 passes before a defensive action against the Reds. Arsenal are seventh for this metric, allowing the opposition 12.52 passes.
In many ways, this directly clashes with Arsenal seemingly wanting to be a dominant team in possession – you can’t allow the opposition to have the ball. Not only are Arsenal stand-offish when counter-pressing, but they’re also passive during long-periods when without the ball.
When looking at the number of ten or more pass sequences against, Arsenal allow considerably more than City, Liverpool and Chelsea. Opponents are racking up over 12 of these sequences on a per 90 basis against the Gunners, almost the same amount Arteta’s side are averaging themselves. Teams who average similar numbers: Leicester City, Crystal Palace and Burnley – all counter-attacking, direct sides.
Arsenal profile as a possession-based side and a counter-attacking outfit, but excel as neither as things stand. Arteta needs to commit to one way and build towards that.
All the graphics and visualisations in this article use Wyscout data and were produced in the Twenty3 Toolbox.
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