Since beating Bayern in Munich, Arsenal have put together a string of impressive performances based on a game plan which limits the opposition to shots from distance while patiently waiting to capitalize on their own chances from the danger area right in front of goal. And while plaudits have been raised to Everton for earning a draw through an all action display, I felt Arsenal were a bit unlucky in fact to concede a goal and to not score more than one. Even more pointedly, if you’re one of the folks who complained about Arsenal’s performance and about how they didn’t create enough or how they sat back at home, I would like a chance to change your mind.
Arsenal’s overall shots per game have been on a steady decline since the breakup of the Invincibles. Over the last three years, that decline has not only been steady but shocking: 16.7 shots per game in 2011-2012, 15.7 in 2012-2013, and 13.8 this season. But while the shots numbers have declined, Arsenal’s goals tally has remained steady, 72, 74, and 72 goals in each of the last three years and Arsenal are scoring on average 2 goals per game this year which will probably see them finish in the 70+ range once again.
What’s happening is that instead of going for bulk shots Arsenal are becoming more efficient, especially this season where they are at an all time high converting 14% of their total shots. I wanted to know why Arsenal’s conversion rate was so high so I went back through the shot charts for both Arsenal and their opponents from 2012-2013 to the match against Everton and ranked shots as one of three types: outside the 18 yard box, inside the box, and “prime areas”.
The first two categories are probably self-explanatory but I define “prime areas” as shots in the six yard box and in the area directly in front of goal extending to the penalty spot. I included penalties because what’s more “prime” than a penalty?
What I discovered is that since the Bayern match Arsenal are converting shots in the prime areas at over double the rate that they are from just anywhere in the box and over 10x as much as shots from outside the penalty area. As much as we like to see a long range goal, and Giroud’s shot which rocked the crossbar against Everton would have brought the house down, the reason we love them so much is that I think we inherently know how rare they actually are.
In numbers, this season Arsenal have only scored 2 goals from 74 attempts from outside the penalty box. That’s 2.7%! From mid range Arsenal have been performing exceptionally well and have scored 15 goals off 97 shots for a 15% conversion rate. But from the prime areas, Arsenal have scored 13 goals from 36 shots, for a 36% conversion rate.
Obviously, and if you’ve played football you know, this is why teams like United whip crosses and corners in to the penalty spot. The conversion rate from all passes in that area is low, but if they get a header there, it’s a really dangerous shot.
Arsenal are taking fewer shots from distance as a percent of their total shots than they did the season before. Last year, Arsenal split their shots pretty evenly — 42% outside 18 yards, 42% inside, and 15% in the prime areas. And the Gunners converted 2.8% from distance, 11% from mid-range, and 37% from prime. You may have noticed somethings already; shots from distance are converted at about the same rate this year as last as are shots from the prime areas but shots from the mid rage seem to have a greater variation. This is true for Arsenal and, as we will see in a second, her opposition.
A huge reason Arsenal are so much more relaxed in front of goal is that they can afford to be. The Gunners have opened the scoring in all but four of their last 24 League games (going back to the match after Bayern, Swansea). It’s a lot easier to be patient and wait for the goals to come when ou are taking the lead in every match.
Every team is trying to get the early goal, that’s not an innovative tactic. Likewise, every team is trying to get shots in prime positions. Because everyone knows that shots in prime positions and taking an early lead makes the game so much easier. What does look innovative is that Arsenal’s defense is keeping the opponents from getting shots in the mid-range areas and is defending those mid-range shots at an exceptional rate.
This season, nearly 60% of Arsenal’s opponent’s total shots came from outside the penalty areas and those shots were converted at a mere 2% rate. To give this some context, the opposition took only 45% of their overall shots from distance last season and even during Arsenal’s big 10 game run from Swansea to Newcastle the Gunners only forced the opposition to take 54% of their shots from distance. Forcing the opponent to take 59% of their shots from 2% range is kind of a big deal and goes a long way toward explaining why Arsenal’s defense is the best in the League.
But what’s even more impressive, and perhaps even unsustainably so, is that Arsenal’s mid-range defense is only allowing the opposition to convert goals at a 6% rate. If you remember, Arsenal are converting those same shots at a 15% rate. In short, Arsenal are forcing the opposition to take more shots from distance where they convert shots at a ridiculously low 2% rate and when the opposition gets shots in the box, Arsenal’s opposition can only score 6% of the time. However, in prime positions, Arsenal’s opposition do score at a much more respectable 25% rate.
All of this data simply begs more questions. For example, how are Arsenal forcing the opposition into long shots? What role does the first goal play in allowing Arsenal to sit deep and defend? And how does this shot superiority in prime areas compare to other teams in the League and across Europe? Those are questions that I don’t have the answers to and without an intern to help gather that data I doubt I will ever be able to completely answer them.
But I do know that Arsenal are forcing their opponents to shoot from distance. I also know that this is a change from the first 28 games of last season to the 24 games since. And knowing this is why, when I was watching Arsenal play Everton yesterday I felt like the Gunners were in control of the game: they were dictating where Everton would shoot from and keeping the Toffees from getting shots in dangerous areas, As I wrote in my By The Numbers piece on Arseblog News, Everton finished the match with 0 shots in prime areas and the bulk of their shots came from outside. In fact, it took a wonderstrike from Barcelona loanee Deulofeu to get the Toffees their goal. On the other side of the coin, Arsenal took zero shots from distance and four shots in the prime area and Özil scored one of them.
When I’m watching games now I look for where the opposition get shots. A lot of shots from distance tells me that the defense is doing a great job keeping the opposition quiet. That’s what Arsenal did yesterday against Everton. So, while I get it that people complain about Arsenal not playing beautiful keep-ball football. Arsenal do seem to have a plan to keep the opposition speculating rather than converting. It’s a game plan which has Arsenal at the top of the table, with the best defense in the League.
PS – Contest update: Yesterday, we gave away a free print from @11Cannons. An awesome print of Jack Wilshere. The random number generator did its thing and Jake K won. Fret not! I have another print to give away, this time, Özil!
To win, all you need to do is send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject “Ozil Contest” and answer this simple question: which game was Ozil’s first Arsenal goal?
Meanwhile, don’t forget to take advantage of 15% of all prints at the Artillery until December 19th, 2013 with the offer code 7AMKO15.