It’s the first new chapter for Arsenal in a very long time. Arsene Wenger is gone, and Unai Emery is in. Can the new manager lead a team that was once a perennial top four side back into the Champions League? Arsenal have lots of unanswered questions as they head into the new season, but they also have a talented squad, and new additions at key areas of need. It would be a mistake to write them off.
The tumult of Wenger’s last season obscured the fact that Arsenal were actually a very strong attacking side. On a basic level, their top line number of 74 goals was tied with Tottenham behind only Manchester City and Liverpool. That was mildly better than what expected goals would predict. Strip out the four penalties from five attempts and that leaves 70 goals and an xG of just under 64. Their xG was the fourth best in the league, with Spurs performing a little better as well as the high scoring Liverpool and City duo.
The attacking performance is made all the more impressive by the fact that they achieved those numbers while managing to move on from their star, Alexis Sanchez. Sanchez, before he left, was the hub of Arsenal’s attack. Depending on the lens he was either an incredibly creative forward or a prolific shooting winger. Either way, he ran the team.
Losing a star is hard, but Arsenal went out and replaced Sanchez with Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. By the time their new striker arrived, it was relatively clear that Arsenal were not going to finish in the top four, so Aubameyang’s star turn largely went unnoticed. Arsenal’s new striker wasn’t the creative force Sanchez was, but he was absolutely unparalleled in the Premier League at getting great shots for himself.
Nobody in the Premier League was better than Aubameyang at taking great shots. Of players that played more than 600 minutes and averaged over a shot per 90 (basically players who played a bunch and also had at least some responsibility for trying to score the ball), nobody averaged higher than Aubameyang’s 0.24 xG per shot.
It helps that Aubameyang gets to play in front of a great playmaker like Mesut Ozil on a weekly basis. Say what you will about Ozil, and lord knows everybody has, but he is consistently an incredible passer of the ball. Of players that played more than 1200 minutes last season only Kevin De Bruyne of the unstoppable Manchester City attack had more expected goals assisted per 90 minutes than Ozil’s 0.33 and only Fernandinho, of that same attack had more deep ball progressions per 90 (that’s passes, dribbles and carries into the opponents final third) than Ozil’s 11.65. Ozil’s ability to combine progressing the ball up the field from deeper areas and finding the killer pass to create great chances in the final third is absolutely unique.
Henrikh Mkhitaryan, who Arsenal acquired from Manchester United as part of the deal for Sanchez leaving, is a wonderful passer as well. While he might not provide quite enough of an impact as the lead creative force in an attack, as a secondary passer, supporting Ozil, he’s been phenomenal. He doesn’t make the 1200 minute cutoff with Arsenal, he only played a little under 850 minutes, but his 0.28 expected goals assisted per 90 would have ranked him 11th on the list. It’s a number made even more impressive since he largely isn’t on set piece duty thanks to Ozil. As Mkhitaryan supports Ozil in the final third, Granit Xhaka supports him in deeper areas. There are certainly many holes in Xhaka’s game, mostly stemming from his lack of mobility and defensive range, but his passing from deep is exceptional. He was third in the league in deep progressions with 11.35 per 90 minutes.
Put it all together and it paints the picture of a cohesive attacking squad. Ozil is a creative hub all over the pitch and he gets support from Mkhitaryan and Xhaka. Meanwhile, Aubameyang is free to destroy defenders in the penalty box. And that’s before getting to the scoring and link-up support of last summer’s big signing Alexandre Lacazette. Arsenal’s attack is simply very good.
It’s a good thing Arsenal’s attack is great, because their defense is a mess. They gave up 1.33 expected goals per game last season, the ninth most in the league. Being an average defensive team is just not compatible with challenging for a Champions League spot. Arsenal’s numbers present them as a team that cautiously tried to press last season but simply weren’t good enough at it. They gave up 11.55 shots per 90 which is, ok, but not great, the sixth most in the league, but they combined that with an exceedingly average 0.11 xg per shot conceded. Only Liverpool, Huddersfield and Watford were worse (a combination of a great pressing team, a poor pressing team and just a poor team period). It’s clear from their defensive activity map, that Arsenal were trying to press. They were over league average in defensive activities in most of their opponent’s half, and below average in their own.
The problem is they executed that press poorly. The average distance of a defensive action from their own goal was 42.92 yards, fifth most aggressive in the league, and their pass allowed per defensive action was 9.28, the third fewest. Both good. They also held opponents to only a 75% passing completion percentage, only noted pressers Manchester City, Tottenham, and Liverpool were better. But, there was a disconnect between that disruption, and actually suppressing of shots. It’s not enough for a team to be good at disrupting possession if it’s also conceding lots of good shots the times it doesn’t win the ball back.
And sure enough, Arsenal were simply terrible at conceding counterattacking shots. That’s terrible as in terrible for any Premier League side, not simply terrible for a side that’s supposed to be good.
The problem stems directly from their pressing issues. Those counterattack woes can be linked specifically to the team trying to defend in the attacking half and failing at it. They’re one of the worst teams in the league when it comes to conceding opportunities within 20 seconds of a defensive action in their opponents half.
New Defensive Recruits
Those numbers call out for some better players, or a new approach, or both. And Arsenal seem to have opted for option both. New manager Emery has a history of being a strong defensive manager (a history which was itself an awkward fit at Paris Saint-Germain, his last stop before Arsenal), and he turned Sevilla into a Europa League powerhouse by building a strong base and grafting exciting attackers on top of that. Arsenal have the exciting attacking talent, now it remains to be seen if Emery can reverse engineer the base.
Critical to that endeavor will be Lucas Torreira, the 22 year old defensive midfield prospect acquired from Sampdoria. Torreira profiles like a good young midfielder. His creative passing may leave something to be desired, but his defensive range and ability are enough to at least hint at a big future nailing down the middle of the pitch for Arsenal. His transition will also be eased by the fact that Emery will almost certainly not leave him nearly as isolated as Wenger would have.
Further back, however, the business looks sketchier. Sokratis arrives from Borussia Dortmund, but he’s 30 and has some big Laurent Koscielny sized shoes to fill. Koscielny is still months away from recovering from an achilles injury, meaning that Sokratis arrives as more of a direct replacement than an upgrade to the team’s depth. And at keeper, as Petr Cech’s career winds down, Arsenal have looked to Bernd Leno to be his long-term replacement. But there are significant questions about whether Leno is actually a good shot stopper at all. He his hard to analyze, having played a significant portion of his career behind a Bayer Leverkusen press that redefined the limits of the possible (if not always the limits of the wise) when it comes to pressing. But, even in the more normal tactical seasons of his career, he hasn’t exactly impressed.
All in all, Arsenal seem to have addressed the positions that need addressing, but outside of Torreira there’s reason to believe that they didn’t address them well enough.
A Ray of Optimism
The good news for Arsenal is that while they have been taking steps to improve what ails them, imperfect as those steps may be, other teams have not. The nightmare scenario for Arsenal was always that after falling out of the top four, their main competitors would slam the door behind them. That hasn’t happened. United haven’t addressed any of the problems that caused them to need David De Gea to be their savior. Spurs, haven’t done anything at all and Chelsea’s managerial change has certainly ensured that they’ll be different, but that’s not the same thing as being better. Only Liverpool have unequivocally continued to lengthen the distance between themselves and Arsenal.
There are real and ongoing problems with this Arsenal squad. Despite the Torreira addition, Arsenal are trending dangerously old. Most of their young prospects have yet to develop into reliable players who can contribute week in and week out at the top of the Premier League. Those kinds of problems loom large for the future of the club, but they aren’t immediately pressing concerns for this season. Arsenal’s present looks brighter than its future at the moment. They have a lethal attack, and if Emery and his new signings can bring even a modicum of defensive stability to the side, they’ll be able to compete for a top four spot right now.
Thank you for reading. More information about StatsBomb, and the rest of our season previews can be found here.