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Arsenal defensive conversion at five year low

One of the hallmarks of Arsene Wenger’s tenure at Arsenal has been a remarkable consistency. Consistently hailed as one of the best attacking teams in England from nearly the moment that he set foot in the marbled halls of Highbury to this very day. Consistently in Europe from his first full season onward. And consistently considered (at the least) a title hopeful. That is some achievement, especially considering the changes that the Premier League has gone through over the last 15 years. Not to mention the changes that Arsenal have undergone in that same time.

And even in the last six seasons, a time when Arsenal have been at their most inconsistent under Wenger, that consistency still shines through. You need only look at Tottenham and their travails under various managers during Wenger’s tenure to see evidence of this. If you examine the tenure of Harry Redknapp, Tottenham’s greatest ever manager, you see a club which has spent a considerable amount of money and yet finished in and out of the top four — and also failed to win a trophy.

Arsene’s overall approach to the game shows in the numbers, again, even in the most inconsistent periods, Arsene’s approach to the game is clear. Here’s a chart of Arsenal’s shots created (red), shots allowed (blue), and the difference between the two (in gold):

Since the 2007-2008 season Arsenal have consistently hovered below 11 shots allowed per game and around 17 shots created per game.

Oddly, that dip in the chart for the 2007-2008 season was easily the most volatile period for Arsenal over the last few years. The club lost Thierry Henry, Reyes, and Flamini and brought in Eduardo. Despite that, many still feel that had Taylor not broken Eduardo’s leg, Arsenal had their best chance at a Premier League title that season. A feeling which we will back up in a second.

I suspect that part of the reason Arsenal fans felt that 07-08 was up for grabs was because the club seemed more clinical than at any other time since the Invincibles last won Wenger a title. Looking at the number of shots on goal per game, that feeling is supported as 2007-2008 is the high water mark for that metric.

After that season, though, Arsenal have never recovered to that height and in fact, in terms of both creating chances and in terms of allowing chances have flatlined. This flatline over the last four seasons is what I suspect people are seeing when they say that Arsenal have become stagnant. Almost as if Arsenal have become too consistent, perhaps missing the flair of an Henry or Eduardo.

So, what has happened this season? Arsenal are generating roughly the same number of chances per game, they are remarkably consistent over time, and they have a flair player in Robin van Persie?

The Arsenal defense got worse. Much, much worse.

What you are looking at above is the conversion rate for Arsenal and her opposition over the last six seasons. “Conversion rate” as I am defining it is simply goals allowed or created per shot. Defensive conversion, then, is the goals Arsenal have allowed per opposition shot, while offensive conversion is the goals Arsenal have created per their shot. And difference is the, erm, difference between the two. I include blocked shots in this metric so if this differs than some other stats guy’s numbers that could be a reason why.

Arsenal’s 2007-2008 differential was the highest it has been since the Invincibles. In other words, we were scoring more goals per shot and allowing fewer per shot than at any time since 2004. This is one factor that gave Arsenal supporters so much hope in terms of possibility for winning the title.

Since that season, what you should also see is that Arsenal have been somewhat consistent offensively with their average around 11.5%  of shots scored. But you will also notice that defensively Arsenal have gotten progressively worse over each of the last four seasons to the point where, for the first time in Arsene’s tenure, Arsenal have a negative differential.

Arsenal averaged 11.71% offensive conversion from 2006-2012 and 10.43% defensive conversion in that same time. This season, Arsenal’s offensive conversion is 11.46% and defensive conversion is 12.96%. That means that the negative differential is entirely down to the 13% defensive conversion rate teams are holding over Arsenal right now.

Player injury, especially to Arsenal’s defensive line have clearly taken their toll on the club this season. In addition, the early wobbles and the 8-2 and 4-3 scorelines both really hurt this metric because Man U and Blackburn scored 12 goals (of Arsenal’s total 35 goals allowed so far) on just 32 shots — 37.5% conversion.

It would be tempting for one to argue that those two games are outliers and that as such the metric is invalid. However, since Per Mertesacker went down injured at the Stadium of Blight, Arsenal have conceded 7 goals on 36 shots* for a conversion rate of 19.4%.

The alternative view here is that Arsenal’s defensive scheme has been sussed out over the last four seasons and teams know precisely how to exploit Arsenal’s defensive weaknesses. Balls over the top and set plays have been a problem for a long time.

Of course this all raises a lot more questions about Arsenal and why the defensive record is the way it is this season. Could Arsenal’s possession-based game have changed in a way that exposes the defense more than before? Have teams figured out how to exploit Arsenal’s high line better? Is there a change in football this season which puts a premium on counter-attacking? Is it simply down to injury? If it’s simply dismissed as an injury nightmare, why didn’t the club buy players to cover or change tactics to help?

Regardless of how you explain it, the fact remains that Arsenal’s defense is suffering and needs some attention.

Meanwhile, let’s hope that the offense stays healthy or that conversion differential could plummet.


*Includes AC Milan match

30 thoughts on “Arsenal defensive conversion at five year low

  1. +2 Vote -1 Vote +1critic

    “Meanwhile, let’s hope that the offense** stays healthy or that conversion differential could plummet.”


  2. Vote -1 Vote +1Ssinderias

    Wow Tim! The defensive frailty seems so obvious seeing these stats. How do injury numbers relate to conversion differential by season? I mean it only took 2 matches at Sunderland to take out 4 Arsenal players, one with a season ending long term injury. How did we fare at the rugby pitches in the last few years?

  3. +1 Vote -1 Vote +1Tino

    You know what leaves me scratching my head about our teams defense? Last year we got up to as high as second place in the league with Djourou and Koscielny. Djourou had never given us a full season while Kos was new to England. This year Wenger has brought in Per and Like a New Signing Vermalean and we are worse off.

    On a related note, I had doubts about Per being the first choice CB, but his absence is very worrying. It’s clear to me the manager was correct in choosing Kos and Per in the center.

    1. +1 Vote -1 Vote +1vancouvergooner

      @Tino, its the mid field which invites oppositions to bombard our back four(defence). When the back is under constant pressure, you eventually concede. Arsenal has the worst mid field make-up this season, which really creates all the problems, whether offensively or defensively.

      1. +5 Vote -1 Vote +111cannons

        @vancouvergooner, I think the point of this article though is that it isn’t taking ‘constant pressure’ for us to concede. It is taking fewer and fewer chances for the opposition to convert, many times it would appear with the first shot.

        Over the past few years our attack gets stymied by well-organized defenses and we tend to narrow our attack down the middle, trying to pick out more and more impossible passes in congested areas. When we lose possession we are vulnerable in the channels because our forward players have shifted centrally. In the last 3 months we’ve operated with CBs as full backs and their tendency is to revert to their instincts and drop inside. So we have no width attacking or defending, no shape, and no balance. All it takes is a ball over the top or towards the corner flags and we are badly exposed. Thus easier chances, thus better conversion rate. Our midfield isn’t doing itself many favors at the moment, but I don’t think they are solely responsible for our poor defending.

      2. Vote -1 Vote +1amishhaircutters

        @vancouvergooner, Aye. When you consider last season we had Cesc, Wilshere, and Song in the middle of the park. And then look at who we’ve got this season…

        Song, struggling to do his defensive duties and fill in in an attacking sense. Ramsey running round ineffectively and doing squat of value. Arteta passing and passing and passing, very well, but with little substance.


      3. Vote -1 Vote +1Eurazian

        @amishhaircutters, the Arteta conundrum is very interesting to me. He is undoubtedly performing very well in a particular role, providing stability and ball retention in midfield. But I wonder, is having someone in that role holding us back?

        This season we have excelled at passing it fairly tidily around midfield, but have really lacked the incision needed to score consistently. Arteta is essentially an improved version of Denilson. Is he taking up a spot in the lineup which would be better filled with someone who is more creative and attacking? Or equally, could he play a different, more creative and attacking, role in the team and be of greater value?
        I think it’s okay having someone in that role only if the attacking players around him are scoring a lot, and right now they aren’t. Wilshere is better alongside Song for me because he has the extra bit of unpredictability and eye for a penetrating pass.

      4. +3 Vote -1 Vote +111cannons

        @Tim, A much better Denilson. When Arteta was out recently, any semblance of team shape went right out the window. He has the understanding of when to sit, when to cover for Song, when to join the attack, etc. It took a while for me to warm up to him but I realize he is a pretty essential cog to our game.

        The problem is that we now need 3 in midfield to do what used to be covered with just two. Granted those two were world cup winners [Vieira/Petit or Vieira/Gilberto] but still.

      5. Vote -1 Vote +1craig

        +1 to Cannons. I think the biggest issue the team has is the players are less balanced than previously. Songinho and Arteta are having to do the balancing for the whole team, and when they get caught out, it’s all over. Ramsey doesn’t have Cesc’s all around game, and our makeshift fullbacks don’t have the same combined offensive and defensive punch that Sagna and Clichy offered (Clichy with runs and short passing, obviously his crossing and shooting were lacking). Without those 3 positions helping out to the same degree, Arsenal’s shape gets bad in a hurry.

        Dos Santos did a great job of providing on both ends, but without him Arsenal haven’t been the same. It’s just been too much to account for: Ramsey doesn’t do a lot defensively, the stand in fullbacks have their various glaring weaknesses, and the team can’t make up for all of it. The result is having to push too many men forward to create chances, which leaves you wide open to easy counterattacks.

    2. Vote -1 Vote +1Eurazian

      @Tino, last year’s fullbacks were probably important in this respect. Sagna was unquestionably the best right back in the league last season, and Clichy was, if not quite as good, at least available for most games. I’m not all that sad to see Clichy go, but the value of a LB who can stay fit has been driven home this season.

  4. +3 Vote -1 Vote +111cannons

    The escalating defensive conversion rate might suggest an increase in the quality of chances as well as quantity. The 4-3-3 has left our fullbacks increasingly exposed. It’s notable that the last season we ran a 442 was our peak in terms of conversion differential [2007-08] and we had Sagna and Clichy in the PFA Team of the Year. The midfield four of Cesc, Flamini, Hleb and Rosicky swarmed opponents in a very Barca-ish manner and protected the fullbacks. They in turn provided better attacking width than we have seen this season.

    I don’t think the goalkeeper roulette of recent years has helped either, nor has the selection of personnel in the wide positions who don’t carry their weight in defensive work [Arshavin, Walcott].

    Also worth noting that in 07-08, our best year since silverware, RVP had his second lowest total for appearances and his lowest ever total for goals. Not an argument for or against him in terms of his contract situation, but interesting. Of course, we had a much, much better supporting cast then than we do now.

    1. Vote -1 Vote +1TSAVO LION aka man eater

      @11cannons, i thot that midfield quartet prior to the mystery rosicky injury was to me the best in europe that season.the stats would have been even more staggering if there was a better striker than the hit n miss adebayor.disappointing that they won no trophy.

      1. Vote -1 Vote +111cannons

        @TSAVO LION aka man eater, Haha, yeah Adebayor probably skewed the numbers that season with his misses.

        That was a tremendous midfield and a fantastic side really. If you look at the departures from the squad since then it’s truly amazing we can even consider Champions League football next season. We are getting by with the most minimal squad in terms of players.

      2. Vote -1 Vote +1Masterba...ker

        Adebayor was wasteful. Eduardo didn’t start to come on until December’ish, and then got hurt. Bendtner was Bendtner. RvP was hurt. I remember that season we played Hleb in the hole behind Adebayor for Champions League games for cryin’ out loud – Hleb! The man never saw a shot he wanted to take.

        Our goal production was poor because our options up top were poor. If only we’d bought a striker…

        Wait a second. I’ve heard that before.

    2. +2 Vote -1 Vote +1Caribkid

      @11cannons, You do make a solid case and I agree with your observations. I also think That one of our major defensive problems is that we are now dropping off and allowing the opposition space in Mf when we lose the ball rather than press.

      This allows the opposition to pick their long passes and crosses and put more pressure on our back line. In previous years we would harry our opponents, unsettle them and give them little attacking space.

    3. +1 Vote -1 Vote +1Masterba...ker

      You kind of stole my thunder… but we don’t even play a 4-3-3 do we? It’s more of a 4-1-1-1-2-1, with the three midfielders expected to assume responsibilities for zones across the field in succession; Song the DM, in front of the back four, Arteta the holding midfielder in front of Song, linking the defense and forwards, Ramsey the attacking midfielder, supporting the wingers and RvP.

      I’ve simplified it, because obviously there is movement between them, but when I watch the team it appears that we lack width of defensive coverage in midfield, and it ends up creating holes for other teams to exploit in front of our fullbacks, behind the wingers.

      With the young midfield talent in the system (Miyaichi, Coquelin, Frimpong, Lansbury) and on the team already (Ramsey, Wilshere, Song), we need to think about going back to a 4 midfielder system. Maybe we keep the three up top, and adopt a 3-4-3, maybe go to a 4-4-2.

      1. Vote -1 Vote +1Eurazian

        @Masterba…ker, the conventional wisdom holds that the 4-4-2 is currently dead, spurned in favour of systems that focus on midfield possession. Yet Spurs and Newcastle have been successful with variations on a 4-4-2 this season. Man U have a famously underwhelming midfield, yet they have also played such a formation and done pretty well.
        So perhaps this is what we have to move back to in order to change up.
        Playing two strikers also allows for new options of attack. Our current formation is good at making RVP into arguably the best striker in the world, but it’s not necessarily best for the team overall.

  5. Vote -1 Vote +1James

    Don’t quite understand this line – “Oddly, that dip in the chart for the 2007-2008 season was easily the most volatile period for Arsenal over the last few years. The club lost Thierry Henry, Reyes, and Flamini and brought in Eduardo.”

    Arsenal lost Henry in 07, yes, but Reyes went after the 05/06 season, and Flamini’s ‘breakout’ season next to Cesc was 07/08. He didn’t leave til that summer (08).

    This is debatable, but I think it was the loss of Rosicky (not Eduardo) that trigged our instability that year. Eduardo’s injury was just more obvious to everyone because of its horror.

  6. Vote -1 Vote +11NilToTheArsenal

    This is quantitative analysis for saying:

    “We suck” (in North American English)
    “We’re rubbish” (In British english)
    “Nous sommes de la merde, we are sheet!” (In Franglish)

    I don ‘t know where Tim get the time and talent for this stuff, but this kind of nerdiness needs to be celebrated and appreciated.

    Seriously though, Tim ends by asking some good questions.

    Could Arsenal’s possession-based game have changed in a way that exposes the defense more than before?
    I don’t think so – we just suck, i.e. our midfield frailties have let us down as others point out.

    Have teams figured out how to exploit Arsenal’s high line better?
    You betcha. To borrow from basketball, when teams go all full court press on our ass, our shape gives out.
    Is there a change in football this season which puts a premium on counter-attacking?
    I don’t think so – because we lack the quality of previous Arsenal sides, opponents tactical adjustments work far better.
    Is it simply down to injury? If it’s simply dismissed as an injury nightmare, why didn’t the club buy players to cover or change tactics to help?
    Ah, yes, the never ending 45 million pound question.

    Where the quantitative analysis for that?

    1. +1 Vote -1 Vote +111cannons

      There is a good article that touches on the possession game issue here:

      As for the 45 million pound question, I think comments from Wenger recently and over the summer would indicate there’s a lot going on behind the scenes we don’t know. I’m more and more inclined to believe that’s the case, especially considering the situation with Park. It’s hard for me to accept that Wenger went after him and then hasn’t played him. I think he was forced on Wenger and that is at least part of the reason that he doesn’t play [the other of course, is that he’s not good enough].

      1. Vote -1 Vote +11NilToTheArsenal

        @11cannons, Thanks for the link. It’s good piece. Worth a read for anyone who hasn’t seen it. O’Neill figured it out – he’s smart guy, but others will do.

      2. Vote -1 Vote +111cannons

        @1NilToTheArsenal, Some already have. Ferguson has been setting United up against us very similarly. Any good team can essentially sit back, absorb our slow possession game, and hit on the break. And many poor teams can do the same.

        The sad thing is, with this blueprint teams don’t even have to kick us any more to win.

      3. Vote -1 Vote +1amishhaircutters

        @11cannons, Aye. When you consider that dross like Cygan and Stepanovs got games under Wenger’s tenure it’s really surprising that Park has played almost no part. Basically, that says to me that Wenger said he wanted a striker, and the club went out and found Park, without properly consulting Wenger. When Wenger finds that this guy is who he has been given he doesn’t play him, because he is too piss poor. All speculation though.

      4. +1 Vote -1 Vote +1GoonerNC

        @11cannons, Haha… I love the picture and caption. Ramsey is “pressured.” If by “pressured,” you mean “rugby tackled,” then yes. He was pressured.

      5. Vote -1 Vote +111cannons

        @GoonerNC, Right? If I recall correctly that was Turner on Ramsey when Ramsey was just about clean through. Just a foul. Djourou does the same thing, but instead of spinning around to appeal to the ref, Gardner went down in heap and got Djourou booked.

  7. Vote -1 Vote +1DF

    The possession game that Arsenal play means that the offensive always exceeds the defensive, except this year, esp the smaller teams. They usually sit back to allow the ASN to attack them and then hit back with a counter attack. If they succeed in getting 1-0 against the Arsenal, they sit back and do not do much attacking. Very few teams open up to attack the arsenal like Barca. In previous seasons, teams don’t need to when they are in front. They usually beat us by 1 goal. This season, they tend to get another goal,like Sunderland.

  8. Vote -1 Vote +1Cliffy

    I guess..Arsene could do nothing different when it comes to defenders…

    Over the last few years, he has brought to Arsenal best of defenders in Koscielny, Per, Sagna, Verm…
    Now that they dont ever get to play together consistently is an issue…

    I dont think Djorou, Jenk, Gibbs, Squil are bad back ups…
    not to forget guys like Miquel, Coq who could come back and slot in..

    When we get injuries its Sagna and Jenkinson together..
    Its Djorou and Verm together… its Koz and per together..
    Its Gibbs and Santos together..

    For all the hue and cry..we are seeing how much pants Cahill and Samba are where defensively the teams they feature are..

    ManU’s and Chelsea’s success has been primarily driven by their defensive stability. For a change this season, they have been pulled down by consistent injuries and for a case ManU is out of all 3 major competitions..

    The solution is not in buying more defenders, but in changing the style which allows the opposition to not exploit the situation. How many times have we seen this season, where we take an early lead and end up losing the match..??

    13 points lost while winning the the league..a season high at this stage for the last 5 seasons..!!!! Infact we have lost at most 15 points while the last 5 seasons..

    At times I wish we are not naive enough to play the same unidimesional way and once having secured an advantage..stick to it and play less flamboyant and win it ugly..

    Perhaps couple of experiences where even we could not hang on to 3 and 4 goals lead is playing on the minds of the players…we are done by our fear that scoring goals is not enough…

    Agree on most peoples general opinion that we are not good at sitting back..but the point is we wont learn it without doing it again and again..and getting out of that fear..

    Also another point which Tim’s stat should take into account is that in general the oppositions have got stiffer and smarter to play a good counter attacking game…

    I love stats…and articles like this are absolute gems!!!!! Thanks Tim..

    I would love a 1-0 on Sunday..and a 4-0(9-5 AP)on Tuesday with Chezny saving Ibrahimovic penalty after extra time…but clean sheet from Arsenal is what will turn me on than 7 goals against Spurs…

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