With a topical reason to do so, we started our season wrap-up journey with a look at Liverpool and how their season played out. Where they were strong (almost everywhere) and where they were tragically weak (converting shots on target to goals). I got some good feedback on how the format might be improved with the best two being:
- adding comparisons to the Top 4 to comparisons to the League Average to give a sense of what it takes to be elite as well as to be "just OK"
- in the specific case of Liverpool trying to take a deeper dive into the quality of their Shots on Target to determine if they were bad at taking good shots or good at taking bad ones.
The Arsenal Attack
What sticks out about Arsenal's numbers on the chart above is that while all aspects of their attack are green with respect to the league average, the effectiveness of their possession and their ability to convert Chances into Shots on Target are just about average. Their entire advantage is predicated on the fact that they are EXCELLENT at keeping the ball and modestly above average when it comes to converting their Shots on Target to goals.
Myth Busted: The common wisdom about Arsenal is that they need to shoot more and that they are "profligate" but what the numbers show is that they are MORE proficient than City, United, and Spurs (and equal to Chelsea) in converting Chances into Shots on Target and far better than Spurs and Chelsea at converting those Shots on Target into Goals.
The Real Issue: What the data points out is that Arsenal, for all of their possession and snappy passing, aren't much better at turning that possession into chances than are Norwich or QPR. They are, in fact, significantly worse than their peers in the table (Manchester City, Manchester United, Chelsea, and Spurs) at turning possession into something actionable.
The Bottom Line for Arsenal's 2011-12 Attack: Arsenal's huge advantage in possession did two things for them in 2011-12. The first was to throw off a high volume of opportunity for an otherwise average creative force to score goals. The second was that it helped them play defense by minimizing the liability that was their defense.
The Arsenal Defense (if you can call it that)
There is a lot of green on this chart which would lead you to believe that the Arsenal defense was better than average in 2011-12. That only tells half of the story. As mentioned above, Arsenal's strongest defensive weapon (by far) was not allowing the other team to touch the ball. Once the other team got the ball, things didn't look very good at all. All you need to know is that they go from being first in the league in possession allowed to the other team and are very much in the middle of the pack when it comes to goals allowed. What this tells me is that something has gone horribly wrong to allow very little possession to turn into something other than very few goals.
Who to Blame? As it turns out, Arsenal are both above average at preventing their opponents from creating chances from their possession. Even when compared to the other top of the table teams they trail only Manchester City in this regard (they are the equal of Spurs, better than Chelsea and Newcastle and significantly better than Manchester United). Where things fall apart is that they are abysmal (and by that I mean worst in the league by a decent margin) at allowing their opponents to turn Chances into Shots on Target. They certainly aren't spectacular when it comes to keeping those Shots on Target out of the goal but they are pretty close to league average on that count. It is interesting to note that the other good teams in the league are much better on this last count than Arsenal.
So, you ask, who does this point to? In my mind it points to Arsenal's lack of a holding midfielder and their entire defense - especially the depth. I like Alex Song a lot as a player but the more you watch him the more you realize that he's more Yaya Toure than Patrick Vieira. This isn't to say he's as good a player as Yaya but that he would likely be more effective with a true Nigel de Jong-like holding player behind him than he is being positioned as a protector of the defense. Assuming that isn't the entire solution then there needs to be better depth all across the back. I haven't run the numbers to determine how Arsenal's numbers look with their entire first team defense of Vermaelen, Koscielny, Sagna, and Gibbs vs. when Mertesacker, Djourou, Squilaci, et al are deputizing but I'd imagine that the first grouping is at least not as dire as these numbers make it look. I'm not saying they'd be great but assuming Arsenal can keep their possession game going they wouldn't need to be much more than average to significantly reduce the number of Shots on Target seen.
That brings us to Szczesny and whether he is the answer or not. This essentially kickstarts the same conversation that was raised about Liverpool's attacking Shots on Target. If not all SOTs are created equal, how difficult were the shots that Szcz faced compared to those faced by his peers. If they were, on balance, equally difficult then he doesn't look very good in comparison to David De Gea, Joe Hart, Brad Friedel and the rest. If the defense was yielding shots that the keeper had little chance of saving (think point blank unmarked headers off of set pieces and one-on-ones with the keeper from 30 yards out) then you can hardly blame Szcz for a slightly lower save percentage. My inclination is to believe that Szczesny can potentially be an above average keeper if Arsenal get tighter in front of him but I concede that the jury may still be out on him until they do so.
What Next? Given the analysis above, here are my priorities for Arsenal over the summer:
- Keep RvP - duh
- Buy a True Defensive Midfielder - Admit that Alex Song isn't one and give your back four a chance by providing them some cover in midfield.
- Get Depth on Defense - When Vidic went down, United had Jones, Smalling, and Evans ready to deputize and one of the three stepped up and played very well (who would have guessed it would have been Evans?). When Vermaelen went down Arsenal had Mertesacker and Djourou. The same applies to the outside back roles. The depth just isn't good enough across the board and two or three squad defenders are required.
- Undervalued Sczcesny - If Arsenal get a holding midfielder and some defensive depth then Szczesny could be hugely undervalued going into next season. With none of the other big teams likely to be looking for a goalkeeper this could be a big deal. [Spurs may bring in a Friedel successor but I think BBBF has one more season on his deal so he isn't likely to give way just yet - same with Cech at Chelsea].
- Don't Overvalue Wilshere - A lot has been made of the absence of Jack Wilshere from Arsenal's wheelhouse in 2011-12 but don't let yourself be fooled into buying in from a fantasy standpoint. Wilshere is very much critical to Arsenal's defense-through-possession style but that doesn't win you many fantasy points. Unless he continues to develop like Cesc Fabregas did (first adding assists and then goals to a strong possession game) then he isn't likely to be a big fantasy producer regardless of his price.
- Potential Value in non-RvP Attackers - The real hidden potential in Arsenal's attack are the wide players in the 4-3-3 if Arsenal can improve their ability to turn possession into chances and shots on target. Players like Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Theo Walcott, Gervinho, and potentially Lukas Podolski could easily see more and better chances in 2012-13.
- Don't Get Too Excited About Podolski the RvP-replacement - If the tragic (at least for me and other Gooners) does happen and RvP does leave for greener pastures and fuller wallets then I don't want you to get over-excited about Podolski. He'll certainly be worth buying if he takes the center spot in the attacking line but I'd guess he's more likely to score 12 to 14 goals than go over 20 or 30 like the man he would be replacing. At the end of the day, Arsenal's goal total owed itself to great possession (which will likely to remain) and great finishing (which was largely attributable to van Persie). Minus the latter, you can expect the goal total to drop as Podolski struggles to match RvP's conversion rate.