Hate It or Love It, the Underdog’s On Top.

At the tail-end of last season, as Mikel Arteta’s side slowly began to tighten their grip on a potential top four space, it became very clear that the team were ahead of schedule.

Much has been made of the apparent five-year plan that technical director Edu Gaspar had hoped to enact. To many, it looked to be an unambitious way of explaining away past failures, but to those at the club, it was a more realistic view of the team’s fortunes.

Top four would, of course, have been a fantastic achievement for the league’s youngest team and the manager. The news that they were ahead of schedule was perhaps more of a way to alleviate some of the inherent pressure that comes with challenging for the Champions League spots.

Ultimately, Arsenal did not finish in fourth place. They finished fifth after a series of humiliating losses that saw them leap-frogged by Antonio Conte’s Tottenham. A leap-frogging that become the primary focus of the last two episodes of Amazon’s All or Nothing documentary, which offered a rare, unfiltered insight into the club’s base of operations throughout the season.

The 21/22 campaign ended in misery.

Whether Arsenal being ahead of schedule for top four was a relieving tactic or a genuine plan, it was clear that Arsenal would have no excuses next season.

Even aside from the promise of being ahead of schedule a year earlier than expected, there was also the question of money.

High profile and expensive acquisitions, which included Manchester City duo Gabriel Jesus and Oleksandr Zinchenko, saw Arsenal spend £115m over the course of the summer window. In return, they made just £17m back on player sales.

It is important to view Arsenal’s current league form with a few predictions at the beginning of the campaign. Unsurprisingly, Pep Guardiola’s habitual Premier League winners Manchester City were tipped for yet another title tilt, while Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool were expected to be an aggressively close second. Arsenal were painted as just one of the potential candidates to round out the other two positions int he top four.

Tottenham would surely build on last season’s dramatic Champions League qualification; Chelsea, under the ownership of Todd Boehly would also look to improve; while Manchester United looked to be one of the league’s stalking horses under Erik ten Hag. Even Eddie Howe’s Newcastle United could not be fully discounted.

Yet, as we are int he midst of the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar, the league table makes for jaw-dropping reading.

Following City’s shock defeat at home to Brentford, coupled with Arsenal’s defeat of Wolves just before the break, Mikel Arteta’s men not only sit atop the Premier League table, but five points clear.

But it goes much deeper than that.

Arsenal are not just five points clear of City, there are:

  • Seven points clear of Newcastle United (3rd).
  • Eight points clear of Tottenham (4th).
  • Eleven points clear of Manchester United (5th)
  • Fifteen points clear of Liverpool (6th).
  • Sixteen points ahead of Chelsea (8th).

And there’s more still.

Arsenal currently boast the joint best defensive record in the Premier League (tied with Newcastle) and the second best offensive output in the league, only behind the Erling Haaland-leading Manchester City.

Arsenal are also the only team in the league to have scored in every match so far.

But while the league stats are impressive, Arsenal’s underlying metrics show that Arsenal not only deserve to be at the top of the tree, but also have a good chance of finishing very high this season, even if a title tilt is unlikely.

Arsenal’s stats this season have made for excellent reading and give an insight into just how good Mikel Arteta’s side have been.

For those unfamiliar with any of the metrics used to monitor Arsenal’s progress, there is a brief description of how each metric works and why it is important to monitor Arsenal’s dominance.

Expected Goals
Expected goals (shortened to xG) is a metric used to measure the overall quality of each individual chance that a team creates and the subsequent shot from the area of the field it is taken in.

Different data companies will work out xG in different ways, but the most common factors considered to calculate a chance’s xG are:

  • Angle to the goal​
  • Big chance
  • Body part (header or foot))
  • Distance to the goal
  • One-on-one
  • Pattern of play (open play, fast break, direct free kick, corner kick, throw-in etc)
  • Type of assist (through ball, cross, pull-back etc)

Example: A shot taken from the halfway line carries a much lower xG than those from inside the penalty area. All penalties are given an inherent xG value of 0.76.

In the Premier League this season, Arsenal have an xG rating of 28.1, and have scored 33 goals. Arsenal are over-achieving in this regard, but while this can point to potential unsustainability, it can also show that Arsenal are more effective in front of goal.

The likes of Martin Ødegaard and Gabriel Martinelli have been immense in Arsenal’s attacking focus this season.

The likes of Martin Ødegaard and Granit Xhaka and other, less frequent scorers such as William Saliba, have been an essential part to this, with each one out-performing their xG stats this season.

This too, is an encouraging sign for Arsenal. Gone are the days of relying on the likes of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette to carry the team forward. Arsenal have added goals from other areas of the field, many of which have scored from more improbable angles, such as Thomas Partey and William Saliba, who have both recorded superb long-range efforts this season.

In fact, Arsenal are sharing the goals around much of the team. Arsenal’s forwards have registered 16 goals in the league; the midfield has contributed 12 and the defence has a respectable 4.

Expected Threat
Expected threat (xT) is a slightly harder stat to explain.

In layman’s terms, a pitch is divided into a grid format. Each cell within that grid is then assigned a probability of an action (be it a pass, cross or dribble) beginning in that cell that results in a goal within a specified number of moves (this is usually five).

xT often referred to as the assister’s assist stat. Essentially, who assists the assister.

Example: Remember that Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang goal against Burnley in the 2018/19 season? Well, all anyone will likely remember is Aubameyang’s fantastic middle-of-the-box finish and that it was assisted by Sead Kolašinac. However, the move does not happen were it not for the vision of Mesut Özil to pick the pass that found Kolašinac. xT shows you how important Özil’s contribution was.

Arsenal’s accumulated xT in the Premier League this season has been around 36.1. What this stat shows, more than anything, is just how lethal Arsenal’s attack currently is.

A general xT map used by TWeLVe.
That infamous Mesut Özil “pre-assist”.

Creative talents such as Martin Ødegaard, Gabriel Martinelli, Bukayo Saka and Fábio Vieira, have given Arsenal a much better prospect of creating chances. In fact, Martinelli and Ødegaard carry the highest xT for Arsenal in the team, with an average score of 2.21 and 2.20 respectively each game, the third and fourth highest in the league, behind only Kevin De Bruyne at Manchester City and Kieran Trippier at Newcastle.

The team’s xT has shown that Arsenal are finding themselves in inherently more dangerous situations for the opposition. The new role afforded to Granit Xhaka, a more free-roaming number eight role, has made Arsenal’s attack more potent, as has the team’s high line, not to mention the inverted fullback role that Oleksandr Zinchenko plays.

Benjamin White being deployed as the team’s first-choice overlapping full-back, has seen him receive an average score of 1.19. Last season, he carried a score of 2.57 over 38 games as a central defender and looks to far surpass that this season.

Conversely, Arsenal have done a better job at nullifying the attacking threat posed by the opposition too.

In the Premier League, Arsenal have an xTA (expected threat against) of 9.10. Teams have taken up some dangerous areas, but Arsenal have done a much better job of keeping them out.

In fact, in the team’s 2-1 win over Aston Villa, they caused the visitors to slip into minus figures (and against PSV Eindhoven in the 3-0 win in the Europa League).

PPDA, or passes-per-defensive-action, is a stat that measures how high a team’s press is. The stat measures how many passes, on average, a team will allow the defensive team to make in their own defensive third before they attempt a defensive action, be it an interception, tackle or block. The action does not need to be successful in order to be counted.

Ever since taking over, Mikel Arteta has spoken of wanting to employ a high-pressing system.

Gabriel Jesus has been essential to Arsenal’s high pressing numbers this season.

It’s not entirely surprising. Not only is high-pressing a very en-vogue tactic at the moment, but Arteta has been well-trained in the concept. He was the assistant manager to Pep Guardiola at Manchester City (one of the league’s highest-pressers) and was schooled in the coveted La Masia academy, one that specialised in Cruyffian football, which prioritised winning the ball back higher up the field.

Example: The lower your PPDA score, the higher your press. Teams like Liverpool and Manchester City favour higher pressing games, which therefore hands them a lower score, whereas teams like Tottenham, who employ a low-block, tend to have a higher rating as they prefer to sit back and soak up pressure.

Last season, Arsenal ranked eleventh for PPDA, with an average PPDA score of 13.65. Despite the example of Tottenham’s low-block initiative, they arguably had a higher press last season, though only by 0.47.

This season, Arsenal are average a PPDA score of 10.44, the fifth highest in the league, a noticeable improvement from last season.

Arsenal’s high-intensity press has been mainly attributed to the signing of Gabriel Jesus, who has been leading the team’s press. Despite this, Bukayo Saka has the highest tackles won in the defensive third, followed closely by Oleksandr Zinchenko and Jesus respectively.

Arsenal have also coped fairly well with a high press against them too. In fact, in the Premier League, there have only been two games this season in which they have been bested; the opening day win over Crystal Palace and the 3-2 home win over Liverpool.

Field Tilt
Field tilt is an easy way to measure the territorial dominance between two teams. It is a metric that records the share of possession a team has in a game in the attacking third, also involving passes or touches.

Example: If Team X makes 85 passes in the final third and Team Y only makes 15, then Team X has an 85% field tilt.

This season, Arsenal have an average field tilt of 64%. It should come as no surprise that Arsenal have spent the majority of games dominating. In fact, Arsenal have only registered a field tilt below 50% in just three games: away to Crystal Palace; in the team’s only league loss this season against Manchester United; and, unsurprisingly, in the narrow 0-1 away win over Leeds United.

Arsenal have a 66.4% average filed tilt in all competitions this season, one of. the highest in Europe.

In previous seasons, Arsenal have lacked the necessary technicians to maintain possession in the attacking third. Certainly, during the exile of Mesut Özil, Arsenal were unable to do much with the ball, often having to turn back in order to retain posession.

This season, Arsenal have been able to stamp their authority over games and have not been reliant on simply shutting up shop.

Field tilt can also give an example of how a team may be chasing a game. Arsenal’s highest recorded field tilt in a Premier League game this season, was the team’s 2-1 win over Fulham.

Having gone a goal down and chasing a route back into the game, Arsenal spent the majority of the game camped out in Fulham’s half, trying to break down Fulham’s block. Unsurprisingly, this is also the game in which Arsenal have their lowest PPDA score in all competitions, with 5.4. They has had 74% possession across the game, their highest all season.

Arsenal spent most of the game pressing high and trying to create chances. It was also the team’s joint second-highest xT game in the league. It is to no one’s surprise that Arsenal’s attacking metrics for the game (23 shots with 8 on target) lasted for some time, as Arsenal did not score until the 64th minute (8 minutes after Aleksandar Mitrović gave Fulham the lead) and took a further 22 minutes to score a second.

This season has been the first full season in which the Premier League has adopted the five sub rule. The rule allows teams to name a 9-man subs bench and are able to introduce five players over three separate points in the game, not including half-time, when all five can be made at once.

This season, Arsenal have averaged four subs per-game, with Mikel Arteta’s first sub generally being introduced around the 66th minute.

Arsenal tend. torotate more in Europe than in domestic football.

In fact, Arsenal have only taken advantage of all five subs just four times in the league. In the Europa League, however, it is a different matter.

As Arteta likes to rotate the side for Thursday matches, Arsenal tend to introduce those who will play in the league late on. This allows them to shake of feelings of rustiness and preserve match fitness.

As a result, Arsenal have made five subs across five of the six Europa League matches, with the first sub generally coming in the 62nd minute.

Discipline has been one area in which Arsenal have notably improved. This season, Arsenal have picked up 23 yellow cards in the league and no red cards. They have also, mercifully, avoided any accumulated suspension as well.

At the moment, both William Saliba and Gabriel Jesus are on four accumulated yellow cards across the season. Their next will result in a suspension for one match.

Granit Xhaka’s majorly improved discipline has been hugely benficial to Mikel Arteta’s side.

There is an improvement for Granit Xhaka, however. The Swiss international, tasked with a far less defensive role this season, has only picked up two yellow cards all season, while Thomas Partey was not booked until the final game before the World Cup.

One example of just how aggressive Arsenal’s high pressing game is, is that four out of five of the team’s highest foulers are attackers. Gabriel Jesus has made 24, Gabriel Martinelli is second with 21, Bukayo Saka third with 18 and Martin Ødegaard fourth with 12. William Saliba, Benjamin White and Thomas Partey are joint fifth with 10 apiece.

Zones of Control
Arsenal’s zones of control have also changed over the course of the season.

Last season, Arsenal were much stronger through the middle, particularly around the areas in which Benjamin White, Gabriel Magalhães and Thomas Partey tended to roam.

The zones from last season (as seen below)show how much Arsenal struggled to contain threats from the wing, notably on the left-hand side. The constant chopping and changing of full-backs from the likes of Kieran Tierney, Nuno Tavares and Takehiro Tomiyasu, meant that Arsenal never really established any real consistency on the flanks.

2021/22 Premier League season Zones of Control
Credit: The Analyst
2022/23 Premier League season Zones of Control (so far)
Credit: The Analyst

This season (as shown above), Arsenal are beginning to regain more and more territory in attacking positions.

While last season’s defensive loss of territory was in part down to the absences of key players, this season, this has largely been down to the adoption of the “inverted full-back” strategy that Mikel Arteta has implemented.

The left-hand side was one of Arsenal’s best attacking threats last season, however, the introduction (and consistent availability) of Benjamin White on the right has meant that Bukayo Saka has been able to establish far more dominance on the right-hand side too.

While these stats do make for exciting viewing, the reality is that Arsenal are even at the halfway point of the season. There are still five games to go until the midway point and the games will be coming thick and fast once the World Cup is over.

Elimination from the League Cup is one thing, but the introduction of the FA Cup third round (in which Arsenal will play x) in January, is also going to add some complications.

It is more important than ever that Arsenal add real quality to their team in the forthcoming January window, with deals for Palmeiras midfielder Danilo, Frenkfurt’s Evan Ndicka and Mykhailo Mudryk at Shakhtar Donetsk being touted, Arsenal need to ensure they have a deep bench of talent to rely on.

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