By Tim Todd, chief Stats Don’t Tell The Whole Storier
Let’s imagine that Arsenal had three periods of development this season. There was the early run where everyone at the club was struggling to find form. Arsenal were mixing in Alexis, trying to keep Özil healthy, working in Wilshere, and incorporating Ramsey into the lineup. From opening day (Crystal Palace) to the Chelsea match, Arsenal won 2, drew 4, and lost 1. It was the worst start in Arsene Wenger’s tenure as manager.
After that, the club went through a bit of a rough patch: Özil, Wilshere, Giroud, Arteta, and Ramsey all went down injured (for various periods) and Arsenal played the next 13 matches just bumping along and doing the minimum. The record at that time wasn’t great, but there were signs of green shoots and Arsenal won 7, drew 2, and lost 4.
Then, just around the turn of the year, Arsene drafted Coquelin in to the defensive midfield and started getting players back: Özil and Giroud key among them. Since January 11th Arsenal played 10 matches, won 9, lost 1. And we can actually see this transformation for Arsenal very dramatically when we look at the numbers for the 13 games between Hull and Southampton and compare them to the last ten matches.
Why did I choose the last 10 matches? Because I originally wanted to look at the impact that Özil had on the team. I assumed that since Özil returned, Arsenal would have a lot more key passes per game, and much better offense. That’s somewhat true, but what’s even more impressive isn’t the key passes (which are down) it’s actually the defense and I think, again, that’s down to Coquelin and (believe it or not) Giroud.
First here is the chart:
One other thing, people will complain that Arsenal have had an easy schedule lately and that’s true. The last 10 matches, Arsenal have only played Man City and Spurs, in the previous 13 matches, Arsenal played Liverpool, Man U, and Southampton (twice). I suppose an enterprising young stats guy could modify the numbers for strength of opposition but I suspect it would only make Arsenal’s last 10 games look even better. Let’s not forget that in those previous 13 games Arsenal lost to Swansea and Stoke as well as a 2-2 draw with Hull. Those were three of the worst matches of the season. And the Man U game, Arsenal shouldn’t have lost, while the Liverpool match we probably should have lost but drew. So, I’m comfortable with the weirdness of my sets (one being 10 games, the other 13) and their relative strength of schedules. After all, I’m not making some ground-breaking analysis here, it’s just a blog post. And mainly just a blog post about the importance of teamwork, a point that will probably be lost as someone delves into the minutiae and side-tracks the comments.
Back to the chart, as you can see, everything at Arsenal is up, except key passes! This is funny because I went into this thinking that Özil’s return would increase the number of key passes per game, but he hasn’t!
What he has increased is the number of assists. In the period since the new year, Özil in second in the League with 4 assists. Guess who is first? Cazorla, with 5 assists. Neither player is putting a lot of key passes numbers up — they combine for just 33 (that’s fewer than David Silva who leads the League in that same period with 39 key passes — but crucially, instead of just shots they are creating a ton of assists. This indicates an offensive efficiency at Arsenal since the turn of the year.
What we see for sure is a huge increase in the defensive efficiency at Arsenal as well. The clearances number is absurd. It’s almost double what it was in the previous 13 matches. That workload is being handled by Koscielny, Mertesacker, and even Coquelin who averages 4.5 clearances a game.
An increase in clearances numbers is simply indicative of game state: Arsenal are taking the lead earlier in matches and defending to hold on rather than chasing matches as they did in the previous 13. This also would be a reason why Arsenal’s key passes numbers are down rather than up, despite the inclusion of Özil and Cazorla. This is a key point to remember when looking at individual player stats: just because a player is creating a lot of shots for his teammates doesn’t necessarily mean that he is a “better” player or even that he is helping his team. The same with clearances and tackles and pretty much every single individual stat. They are almost all dependent on how the team is doing at a specific time rather than an indicator of the relative quality of a player.
If David Silva creates 39 key passes and Özil creates just 18 in the same time period, against similar opponents, but Silva has 1 assist and Özil has 4, and Özil’s team has won 9/11 matches while Man City has won just 5/11 (all these stats are true) — which player is having the better performance?
The other defensive stats have increased as well and that also makes sense when we consider that Arsenal have been winning for most of the time in these matches. Still, I have to give special mention to Coquelin who (as you already know) leads the league in interceptions since the new year with 42 (Koscielny is 3rd with 37 and Monreal is 4th with 35). Coquelin also leads the League in duels won since the new year with 40/77 tackles (52%), 17/17 dribbles, and 42/69 (61%) aerial duels. Koscielny is also now winning 59% of his aerial duels (42/71) and big Giroud went from winning just 41% of his aerial duels in the previous 13 matches (the ones he played in) to winning 59% of his aerial duels. Just having Giroud in the team seems to have a protective effect on Arsenal’s ability to defend corners and headers. In the previous 13 matches, Arsenal conceded 5 headed goals and in the last 10, just 1. A much more thorough analysis of Giroud’s impact on corner defense is warranted by the data I’m seeing above
I don’t want to discount the impact that Coquelin has had on the team, I think he’s more than pulling his weight in midfield and in fact I think he covers Arsenal pretty well from the DM position. But I do want to point out that it’s the inclusion, in my opinion, of Giroud, Özil, and Coquelin which is making up the difference between the three periods of play. The team looks more balanced with these three players in the spine. Özil is playing efficiently (and driving people crazy), Giroud is doing his big man up front thing, and Coquelin is killing off opposition plays.
Plus Koscielny! That man’s just a beast! He’s leading Arsenal’s clearances and is second in interceptions since the new year.
The spine of this Arsenal team has put in a series of impressive performances. Knock wood that they put in another this weekend against Liverpool.