For Arsenal, Trusting The Process Means Looking Beyond The Results
Trust the process. . . It’s a phrase that has been thrown around for much of Mikel Arteta’s 16-month reign at Arsenal. Derided by rival fans during the club’s dire start to the season, by November they looked set for a relegation battle, after a string of poor results. Following the FA cup success at the end of the 2019/20 season, and the addition of Gabriel and Thomas Partey in the summer window, Arsenal fans had expectations of improvement on a disappointing 8th placed finish. Asked if they would take sitting in 10th place with ten games left to play, the vast majority of Arsenal fans, myself included, would have categorically said no. So why do so many of us feel so inclined to accept it?
Signs of Improvement?
Whilst the results do not reflect the fact, Arsenal have improved under Arteta in terms of controlling games and generating chances. Toward the end of Unai Emery’s reign, and at the beginning of Arteta’s, the north London outfit were being out-gunned, a situation that was most obvious in their 2-2 draw with Watford in September 2019. The Hornets, having lost three of their opening four games of the season, registered a staggering 31 shots on the Arsenal goal, of which 10 were on target. The Gunners, by contrast, had just seven shots, with four on target. Although they drew the game, it was clear that the manner of playing was not sustainable if good, consistent results were the target.
This game was not an anomaly. In the final 13 games of Emery’s tenure, Arsenal conceded an absurd 219 shots on target, at an average of 16.8 shots per game. By contrast, they only took 162 shots, an average of 12.5 per game. The importance of this was not lost on Interim Head Coach Freddie Ljungberg, who said after a disappointing draw to Norwich that “we played very well offensively but had a problem transition-wise and so they got shots on target.” He continued that “if we play a transition game like we did, we won’t win any games.” Despite the positive words, however, the side barely improved under Ljungberg, the side conceding 81 shots across his five games at an average of 16.2 per game.
Things have improved; across the first 20 games of Arteta’s reign, this average had dropped down to 13.75, and has continued to drop so far this season, currently sitting at 11.4 per game. This general downward trend can be applied both from 2019-20 season and from a comparison of Arteta and Emery’s respective reigns, as the graphs below show (the vertical green lines indicate the changeover of managers).
“If You Don’t Shoot, You Don’t Score”
Arteta has solidified his side’s defence. Only Aston Villa, Chelsea and Manchester City have conceded fewer goals than the Gunners in 2020-21, while Arsenal are yet to concede more than three in any game to date. The issues this season, however, have been going the other way, with the side’s 37 goals ranking just 11th in the Premier League, and the lowest in the top half. The Gunners had scored just 12 league goals by Christmas, and were breaking all kinds of unwanted records. This has improved immeasurably since what was a season-changing victory over Chelsea on Boxing Day (marked with a red line on the graphs below). Before this, Arsenal had registered two or fewer shots on target in 7 of their opening 14 games, a feat which has only been repeated once in the fourteen games since.
As the above graphs show, both Arsenal’s shots, and shots on target, are trending upwards from a dire beginning of the season.
Of course, much of this coincides with Emile Smith Rowe and Martin Odegaard’s additions to the side, both of whom provided much needed creativity and life to Arsenal’s previously stale attack and have rightly drawn praise. However, there is also a suggestion that Arsenal are taking chances that they were unable to take in the first half of the season. Before the Chelsea victory, Arsenal had scored a measly 12 goals from an expected goals (xG) of 15.5, whereas since the Boxing Day game they have scored 23 goals from an xG of 23.6, meaning both that they are creating more chances and also that they are finishing those chances more often.
xG is a metric that must be taken with a hefty pinch of salt. It will be of little solace to relegation-threatened Brighton to hear that they have the eighth most expected goals in the league, and should be comfortably mid-table, for example. What it does demonstrate, however, is that there are clear shoots of progress across this season alone.
As The Athletic’s Tom Worville demonstrated on Twitter, Arsenal’s “expected goals” metrics are beginning to trend in the right direction, with opposition expected goals getting consistently lower. On the other hand, the Gunners are increasing their own “expected goals”. In fact, Arsenal’s ‘expected goals against’ in recent weeks have been as low as they were during Unai Emery’s 22 game unbeaten run at the beginning of the 2018/19 season, whilst their “expected goals for” are at an eighteen-month high. Unlike Unai Emery’s sides, this feels more methodical and sustainable. Again, whilst the results on the pitch are not yet coming, the numbers are all trending in the right direction.
Trust the process: Mikel Arteta edition pic.twitter.com/Z0RGGkTyaa— Tom Worville (@Worville) March 5, 2021
This can be seen in real terms too. Despite disappointing recent results and manners of conceding, Arsenal have still been one of the better sides in the league since Christmas. In fact, if you just take the results from their win against Chelsea onwards, the Gunners would sit in fourth place, only behind the Manchester clubs and Leicester City. Although they would have a game in hand in this hypothetical table. Their 11 goals conceded would be the joint second best defence, behind Manchester City, whilst they have also scored the fourth most goals in this period. Of course, this means little in real terms for a season that runs from September to June, but it is further evidence for the progress that Arsenal have already made this season under Arteta.
Points Down the Drain
The great mitigating factor to the positivity created by all of the upward-moving statistics is Arsenal’s propensity to self-implode and do something to render all of their underlying numbers entirely academic. The Gunners have received a league-high five red cards this season, two of which (Granit Xhaka vs Burnley and Nicolas Pepe vs Leeds United) were for ill-discipline. These five dismissals have cost Arsenal four points, but far more damaging are the consistent and often fatal errors made. Whether it be Granit Xhaka passing it into Burnley’s Chris Wood, Dani Ceballos selling Bernd Leno short with a header against Benfica, or Cedric’s miscommunication to allow Ollie Watkins to tuck the ball home in Aston Villa’s 1-0 victory, Arsenal’s defensive mistakes have time and again cost them points. Fans of opposing sides will argue that this happens to all sides, but there is a feeling that Arsenal have a capacity for self-implosion that is strangely unique to the Premier League.
It may be an all too easy comparison to make due to Arteta’s previous role as Pep Guardiola’s assistant manager, but the mind cannot help but wander back to the City boss’s debut Premier League season, when Nicolas Otamendi and Claudio Bravo were chief suspects in gifting goals to the opposition. It would be misleading to imply Arsenal are going to reach the levels that Manchester City have since reached, but it is certainly a testament to the teething problems that new systems can have, something only enhanced by the truncated nature of this season, where players have little time to adapt and take on new information between games.
As with all other information presented here, this is not meant to excuse the mid-table malaise that Arsenal currently find themselves in. Instead, it aims to demonstrate that there has been clear progression under Mikel Arteta to the point where fans can point to individual errors costing Arsenal games that they otherwise should have won, rather than berate the team as a whole for a poor performance. There is significant work still to do on the pitch and in the transfer market for this team to make its way back into the Champions League, where Arsenal fans feel they truly belong, but, from a tactical perspective, the winds of change are blowing in the right direction.
A Changing Culture
Off the pitch, it also appears that the club is moving in the right direction; Arteta has made some unpopular and divisive decisions, including letting Mesut Ozil leave in January and loaning out William Saliba, but the performances of both since will have provided the Spaniard with a degree of vindication for these choices. Their removal from contention has lifted external pressures on the Arsenal boss to provide weekly explanations as to why they were not playing, and has improved the mood surrounding the club. Additional squad trimming, including loaning Sead Kolasinac to Schalke, and paying off the contracts of Shkodran Mustafi and Sokratis, has freed up space on the wage budget and helped to reduce a very bloated squad.
More difficult decisions must be made in the summer, with Matteo Guendouzi, Alexandre Lacazette and Calum Chambers amongst those who will have a year left to run on their contracts, and returning loanees Lucas Torreira, Dinos Mavropanos, Joe Willock, Ainsley Maitland Niles, and William Saliba all needing to be re-integrated or moved on. Reinforcements will also be needed, with full-back, centre forward and central midfield just three of the positions that Edu Gaspar is rumoured to be focussing on for the summer window, made all the harder by the financial implications of the global pandemic. For the moment, however, Arteta seems to have found a squad all willing to work for each other and pull in the same direction, something his predecessors sorely lacked.
Well that's awkward… ?— Football on BT Sport (@btsportfootball) February 21, 2021
Mukiele finishing firmly after Guendouzi goes to ground in his own box ? pic.twitter.com/9xTjjyv3sA
Plenty left to do
In Arteta, Arsenal have hitched their fortunes to an inexperienced yet incredibly highly regarded coach. Whilst tactically he shows flashes of brilliance, he can be found wanting in other areas, such as the timing and personnel of substitutions. In-game management is something that will likely improve with time in the job and experience as a head coach, however.
Equally, there is lots of work left for the players to do. No one can pretend that this Arsenal side is much better than mid-table at present due to their ability to gift goals and points to the opposition. For all their good work across the 90 minutes, it is goals, after all, that win and lose games. Despite this, the foundations and identity of a truly exciting team are being progressively laid, and whilst it hasn’t been a linear improvement, Arsenal certainly look a hungrier, more exciting side than they have in recent memory. The next, massive step is to eliminate the mistakes that they make with such frustrating frequency, which would in turn allow them more control of games.
Onwards and Upwards
When all is said and done, this will be looked back on as a disappointing season, even if Arteta were to guide this Arsenal side into European qualification. The start of the campaign made for some of the most sobering viewing of Arsenal’s Premier League lifetime. Despite this, there has been clear progression in every department since the turn of the year, and whilst it was never going to happen overnight, there is plenty to be positive about as Arsenal fans looking ahead. The side are taking more and conceding fewer shots, scoring more goals and conceding fewer. They are beginning to dominate football matches once again. Both in tangible and statistical terms, they are undoubtedly improving.