Category Archives: Arsenal

Arsene knows

Arsenal top the table once again but could have Achilles snipped this weekend

Every season since I started blogging about Arsenal, which coincides with Arsenal moving to the new stadium*, the Gunners have topped a different table. In the eight years I’ve been doing this Arsenal have won the Fair Play table, the Injury Table, the money table, the “over-achieved for total spend” table, the “Referees have done one on us Table” from Debatable Decisions (defunct), and the Total Shots Ratio table. Sometimes Arsenal have been so good that that have done the double or triple and topped multiple tables in a single season!  But all those tables pale in comparison to the new table Arsenal top. I am proud to announce that thanks to the international week Arsenal are still top of the table, baby. The “Expected Goals Table” that is.

I’m being cheeky but the Expected Goals table is actually not a bad table to top. The “xG Table” as it is known is the logical outgrowth of the Total Shots Ratio table and xG is a damn fine tool for predicting how many goals we would expect a team to score and concede over a given number of shots.

If you’ve been around my blog for any amount of time you know that I am a fan of total shots ratio. It’s not a perfect analytic tool but it makes a lot of sense, has a high rate of correlation, and it’s really simple. Basically, the best  teams shoot more and simultaneously limit the opposition’s shots and the result is that they tend to win more. This, however, isn’t always true.

The Invincibles had the lowest Total Shots Ratio (0.63) of any Arsenal side from 2000-2013. The only Arsenal side that had a lower TSR was last season’s Arsenal side, which had a TSR of just 0.60. Meanwhile, the Arsenal side of 09/10 had the best Total Shots Ratio I’ve seen in a long time at .69. If you remember, that was the season Arsenal leapfrogged into… third place. Arsenal probably could have finished better than third except that Arsenal allowed the opposition 13% conversion rate and as a result, shipped 41 goals that season. Up until that season, Arsene’s Arsenal had only allowed 40+ goals twice. After that season, 40+ is the new normal.

So, how did TSR not predict that Arsenal would finish 3rd? 2009/2010 was the first season, if you remember, that the opposition started to figure out how to play against Arsenal’s high defensive line and take advantage of Arsenal’s lapses in concentration at the back. Conceding against corners, set plays, headers, in addition to the route one counter attacks were all hallmarks of that team and remain the main method teams employ to beat Arsenal now. So, while we know that Total Shots Ratio is a good measure, it’s also flawed. Some shots are simply better than others!

This is a drum I have been beating for years. Shots in the box are converted at a higher rate than shots outside the box and shots in the “prime areas” are converted at an even higher rate. Moreover, headers, even in prime areas, are converted at a lower rate and, unless you’re Luis Suarez**, headers from outside the prime areas are almost never converted. We also know that crossing the ball is not as effective as playing a through-ball for an assist, that corners are a low percentage shot, and that one-on-one’s with the keeper are terrific chances. This is something you’ve probably heard me say here and on Arseblog News: all key passes are equal, but some key passes are more equal than others.

This is where the newest metric, Expected Goals, comes in to play. What folks like Michael Caley, have done is taken the idea that some shots are better than others and created a much more detailed version of the Total Shots Ratio. By analyzing where the shots are taken, not just how many, and where the teams are allowing the opposition to get shots and using them in a ratio, Caley is able to come up with a much more accurate predictor of League Performance.

And if you even take a cursory look at Caley’s tables, Arsenal are tops: they top Total Shots Ratio, they top Danger Zone Ratio (DZR), DZR minus crosses, Expected Goals, Expected Goals Against, Expected Goals Ratio, Strength of Schedule (actually they are third), and Adjusted Expected Goals Ratio. So, why are Arsenal in 6th place? Well, several reasons.

First, I have no criticism of the work that Caley has done. This is a tremendous boon to the stats community and something I have wanted to do for years but haven’t been able to put together the time. His model isn’t wrong, his model shows that Arsenal are generating great shots in great areas while limiting the opposition to fewer of those same shots. On average, we expect that Arsenal would score more goals and concede less goals than other teams who are taking fewer and allowing more of those same shots. The problem is that Arsenal often buck stats trends.

Like I showed above with the Invincibles and with the 09/10 Arsenal side the peculiarity of Arsenal is that while the boss plays the averages and uses them in his analysis of the game, the particulars, the Achilles heel, of Arsenal continue to be exploited.

crosses It’s not always the same heel that teams nip at. As you can see from the 7amkickoff Index, this season, the thing that teams are picking on is crosses. In the 11 matches Arsenal have played in the Premier League, Arsenal have conceded 6 goals off crosses and a further 5 of those crosses have been headed. Arsenal have conceded 13 goals in 11 games when the xG numbers say we should have conceded about 8. I mark that increase down almost entirely to headed goals conceded off crosses: a low percentage shot that Arsenal seem vulnerable to this season.

That brings me neatly to the weekend’s match against Man U. Arsenal are the most prolific crossing team in the League and Man U are just 1 cross per game average less that Arsenal. Man U get almost all of that crossing from just one player: Angel Di Maria. ADM is 1st in the League in crosses attempted, he’s 3rd in accurate crosses, he’s 2nd in accurate corners, he’s 3rd in the League in generating shots off crosses, and tied with Fabregas for 1st in the League with throughball key passes. If there was any player Arsenal don’t want to face on Saturday, it’s him.

Those who see the cup as half full will see that statistically Arsenal are doing the right things to prevent goals and to score goals. As Wenger would probably point out, the Premier League race is a marathon and this one statistical aberration of headed goals conceded off crosses should revert to mean. Thus, if Arsenal just keep doing what they are doing they should be a shoo-in for the top four.

Those who are cup half empty, spilling out into the streets which run red with Achilles’ blood, will probably point to Arsenal’s vulnerability to the same old faults and say “statistics don’t tell the whole story.”

 

*Kick 7amkickoff out of football!
**Scoring headers from this distance is almost unheard of. I would bet that there hasn’t been a header scored from the top of the box in 10 years. I know that Wilshere’s goal was beautiful to watch but given the rarity and skill on display here how this goal wasn’t even nominated for goal of the season is beyond me.

dirty luiz

Ramsey, Wilshere, and Sanchez could all heed Wenger’s advice: simplify and conquer

Shall I compare thee to Ramsey of yore?
Thou art more likely to misplace a simple pass
or attempt a dribble between two defenders.
Thou eschewer of shots within the box
Thou splitting pass not maker any morer!

As you can see, I watched Aaron Ramsey play for Wales against Belgium this weekend. Ramsey had what looked to me like a shocker. Maybe he’s unfit, as he himself suggested, but yet he was asked to run the offense from his perch at the #10 position. Up front for a Welsh side that had Gareth Bale’s Alice Band in the forward-ish role, Ramsey looked a shadow of his former self: he couldn’t dribble, couldn’t pass, and ran with all the pace of a man stuck in treacle.

Of course, that kind of performance always gets me wondering what, exactly, has gone wrong in Aaron’s game this year. We all know that he’s come in for a lot of criticism, most notably from Arsene Wenger himself, and he responded the other day making claims that he isn’t 100% fit. So, I looked at his numbers and you know what? I agree with him, it looks like he’s playing at about 90%.

Ramsey (per 90) 2012 2013 2014
Shots 6 yard 0.2 0.2 0.3
Shots inside 0.7 1.2 0.6
Shots outside 1.1 1.2 2.5
Tackles 3.1 3.9 2.8
Dribbled past 1.4 1.9 1.6
Errant Short Passes 7.7 10.4 9.7
Good SP 57.3 61.1 69.8
Errant SP Percent 11.85% 14.55% 12.20%
Interceptions 1.9 1.2 1.2
Good dribbles 1.5 1.5 0.6
Failed Dribbles 1.6 2.1 2.3
Through ball KP 0.1 0.4 0

You only need to look at two numbers to see what effect the injuries have had on Ramsey: dribbles and tackles. Both dribbling and tackling require confidence, quick bursts of speed, good touch (especially for dribbling) and good timing.

If you’re carrying an injury, or even harboring worries about getting re-injured, you’re far less confident in your ability. This will often lead to the kind of weak dribbling attempts I’ve noticed from Ramsey lately. The same for confidence in the tackle. You’re hardly going to go flying about the pitch looking to mix it up with the opposition midfielder if you’re worried about pulling a groin muscle. Football is a game of millimeters and any hesitation in almost any skill is going to be exposed.

The same with timing, touch, and speed. If you’re not playing every day then your timing and touch goes sour. And if you’re carrying an injury, you certainly aren’t going to have those bursts of speed needed to get by a defender with a dribble.

Simply put, players need to be 100% match fit and confident in their abilities when they step on the pitch. The Premier League is a brutal playground where any weakness is ruthlessly exploited. Ramsey’s drop off in tackles and dribbles is consistent with his story that he’s lacking match fitness.

What isn’t consistent is the shots from distance. I always think of a player taking too many shots from outside the 18 yard box as lacking in confidence, patience, and/or going for glory. Balotelli, for example, is the long-shot king and despite the cool exterior and the swagger I think he’s a player who lacks true confidence in his abilities. He’s also the kind of player who loves the spectacular and seems like he’s the impulsive type.

Ramsey’s shots from distance could be a sign that he is rushing things a little bit and maybe has been sapped of his confidence by the injury. This would explain why Arsene Wenger has urged Ramsey to simplify his game, to return to basics, and do what he does best: pass and move. A little bit more patience (from the player and us*) will pay off in the end for Ramsey. He will get the ball closer to goal and will start scoring again. Trying to force the issue through ill-advised long range bombs, silly dribbles, and back-heel passes is not going to cure anything.

Giving the ball away too much

Here’s the deal, Arsenal have literally never had a player like Sanchez, at least not in the modern stats-era. Even trying to define which position he’s playing in is difficult. Is he a wing player? Is he an attacking mid? Is he a second striker? Is he Arsenal’s main man at the moment? He’s all of those and more, which is why his stats are so weird.

(below the goals and assists lines are per90 stats)

Sanchez 2014 Cesc 2009/2010 Van Persie 2011/2012 Walcott 2012/2013 Ramsey 2013/2014
Goals 8 15 30 14 10
Assists 2 13 10 10 8
Short passes 39.7 53.2 21.1 17 61.4
Errant short passes 11.9 13 5.4 3.3 10.4
Err. Short pass % 23% 20% 20% 16% 14%
Key passes 2.8 3.9 2.5 1.6 1.6
Throughball KP 0.3 0.6 0.3 0 0.4
Dribbles 3.6 2.1 1.1 1.8 1.5
Failed dribbles 3.1 1.3 0.6 2.4 2.1
Shots off 1.5 2.2 2.5 1.9 1.1
Shots on 1.8 1.3 2.2 1.5 1.4
Shots from distance 1.5 1.8 1 1.1 1.2
Shots inside the box 1.8 1.7 3.7 2.3 1.3

As you can see, Sanchez isn’t an outright forward like van Persie and Walcott. He doesn’t just receive the ball the way that they do. He is involved in the build-up phase as well as the final phase. That’s why, on a Per90 basis, Alexis passes the ball about twice as often as Welbeck or Giroud (54 v. 29).

Still, his errant short pass rate is alarmingly high for a midfielder. He leads Arsenal with 103 errant short passes and that’s dragging his pass completion rate down to 77%. If he was a forward, like Giroud, that wouldn’t be too bad. Giroud, last season, averaged 9.8 giveaways per90 from short passes. That was 31% of his attempted short passes which went astray.

Sanchez is not just a pure forward. Instead, he’s a hybrid of forward, wing, and creative midfielder. The result is that he’s leading Arsenal in goals, assists (tied with Welbeck), key passes, dribbles, being dispossessed, turnovers, and errant short passes.

When I watched Sanchez play for Chile in the World Cup this summer, I noticed that he has a tendency to try to do everything on his own. This led to several matches where I thought he dribbled too much, passed poorly, dwelt on the ball too long, or made a silly turnover. For example, in the match against Brazil, Alexis scored the goal, had 2 key passes, dribbled 6 times, was fouled 7 times, turned the ball over 4 times, and was dispossessed 14 times — each of those stats led his team. Great players do this; when they feel the team is lacking a bit they will try to take on everything in order to will the team to win.

I suspect that Sanchez is giving the ball away so much because he’s still trying to get to know his teammates. And while he may be topping Arsenal in that category it’s important to note that on a per90 basis, Jack Wilshere and Aaron Ramsey are second and third, averaging 10 errant short passes each and with Wilshere missing about 16% of his short passes while Ramsey is missing about 12% of his. Interestingly, I think Sanchez, Wilshere, and Ramsey could all take on a little of Wenger’s criticism of Ramsey and try to simplify their game.

Qq

*Part of Ramsey’s problem is that Arsenal fans are expecting more from him this season. His total drop in numbers isn’t really that bad, but compared to where some folks expect him to be it probably looks horrible.

ARMSTRONGcover-510x726

Book review: Geordie Armstrong – on the wings

By Les Crang

The recent release Geordie Armstrong On The Wing by Dave Seager (in collaboration with Geordie Armstrong’s daughter Jill Armstrong) was unveiled at The Tollington Arms prior to the Hull game, I wrote about the event previously here, and now have had a chance to write a review of the book.

I had heard about Dave Seager previously by his personal blog 1 nil down two one up and also his twitter account. Just after February Dave had indicated that he was nearing completion of his book on Arsenal’s 3rd highest appearance maker Geordie Armstrong, who tragically passed away at the Arsenal training ground in October 2000, whilst training the Arsenal reserves. Geordie played between 1962 to 1977 and was an ever present in part of the Arsenal double team of 1970-1, playing as a hard working winger for the team.

As I had started supporting Arsenal since 1980, like many fans, I had little knowledge of Geordie Armstrong. Over the years though, having extensively read about Geordie, one notes the importance of him in the Arsenal team that won the European Fairs Cup in 1970 (having written about his importance here previously) and the League and Cup double in 1971.

I had spoken to Dave briefly at the Piebury Corner Art Event in June. Dave and Jill had also been extensively using twitter to inform fans how the book was coming on and releasing many unseen photo’s from Geordie’s Arsenal days and with the family. Dave also recently discussed why he had got involved with the book in a recent blog here.

First things first. This book is a testament to an Arsenal legend. From 1962 for his debut until his final game in 1977, Geordie Armstrong made a total of 621 game. The appearance record until David O’leary and Tony Adams surpassed it. In those days, Arsenal’s pitch was usually played on a quagmire from October until April, with grass more scarce than trophies. As a winger that often tracked back, Geordie had to be one of the fittest and hardest working players on the pitch.

A striking part about the book is that Geordie was held within very high esteem. I had previously read Seventy-One Guns: The Year of the First Arsenal Double, written just after Geordie’s passing. All the team came for his funeral (including Bob McNab from Los Angeles) and all said of his importance as man and player. This is underlined again by not only his ex team-mates at Arsenal, but also those he coached at Arsenal (and Norway and Kuwait) as well as his family.

A nice story from the book came from two of my personal favourite players at Arsenal in the early and late 1990’s Stephen Hughes and Kevin Campbell. Hughes and Campbell had both been playing for Everton, when news came through that Geordie had passed away. Both were incredibly affected by his passing and seeked solace in each others memories of Geordie. As both had played in the reserves with Geordie in charge, they had a deep affection for the man, who would often ring them to check on how his former charges were. Throughout the book, Geordie comes over as very much a mentor figure to his young charges, with a kind heart in a cut throat world of modern day football.

Video: Geordie Armstrong providing cross for Ray Kennedy winner at Spurs in 1971

One must say some of the photos provided by the family, fans and Arsenal are pretty extensive throughout Geordie’s career. Its also interesting the extensive amount of people who admired Geordie, from his former team mate Alan Skirton to Dennis Bergkamp, you could not think of a more divergent group of people.

A couple items in the book that I enjoyed was a recurring theme, of why Geordie never played for England. Most seem quite saddened by this, but one person (I think it might be Peter Simpson) points out that under Sir Alf Ramsey, England rarely used wingers. He points out that at Liverpool even the excellent Ian Callaghan and Peter Thompson rarely played for England, so it was not an anti-Arsenal reason Geordie gained full international recognition.

Another great thing of the book, as a supporter, is that Geordie seems an Arsenal man and fan through and through. Jill and Dave point out that Geordie, was widely recognised at the club by staff, always willing to sign autographs and remember the fans. He is ultimately ‘old school’. Approachable, unlike modern stars who leave the Emirates via an Underground car park, not by walking to there car like Geordie and others would in the day. There is a feeling of loss of a generation, in which the players had time for ‘us’ without the need of a media officer on hand.

To underline the above point, one is struck, as many fans are, that young players in the Arsenal reserves are rarely getting a chance to play full team football. It seems interesting that Jason Crowe, a man remembered for one game and the quickest sending off at Arsenal was a mute point for Geordie. Crowe is thankful to the confidence that Geordie instilled in him and helping him (and others) stay within the game. It seems sad that all the work Geordie puts into coaching the reserves few players make it (although Ashley Cole seems very thankful for Geordie’s assistance in getting into the Arsenal team).

In conclusion, it is a great biography. Dave and Jill have provided an insight into what it was like to know Geordie (which is what any biography should do). They have also provided an insight into team building, either as a player or a manager. It is also the professionalism of the man. Although Geordie would have disappointments as a player and manager at Arsenal, if things went wrong, he would redouble his efforts to do better for himself and the team. I would certainly recommend the book Geordie Armstrong On The Wing for this alone.

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Buy the book directly from the publisher: £19
Buy from Amazon.uk: £17.
Buy from Amazon.com: $19
Not available from Amazon.ca, yet