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Does it matter how well Arsenal are playing if they keep winning?

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Arsenal are winning, but not necessarily playing great football. How much does that matter?

Qarabag FK v Arsenal - UEFA Europa League - Group E Photo by Francois Nel/Getty Images

Arsenal have won 8 games in a row for the first time since April 2015, an impressive turn of events after losing the first two games that Unai Emery was in charge of. Granted, three of those wins were against Vorskla, Brentford and Qarabag, and Arsenal aren’t exactly facing the cream of the crop in the Premier League, but wins are wins. Despite the winning streak, there has been a lot of concern and a fair amount of griping, including from yours truly, about the poor quality of Arsenal’s performances. And yet, what does that matter in a results business?

First, I should preface this: were Arsenal continue to not play great, but win all of their games and win the Premier League, you will not hear a peep of criticism from me. While we all want to see Arsenal sweep all opposition before them, it is ultimately about winning, both matches and trophies.

And yet, there is reason to be concerned about Arsenal’s performances. Being concerned about performances was something Arsène Wenger did regularly, with many positing that Mr. Wenger cared more about the performance than the result. That is an exaggeration—I’m old enough the 2012/13 season, the backend of the 2014/15 season and the end of the 2016/17 season—but also points to a truth: if you perform well, you will generally get good results. Arsenal’s problem under Wenger wasn’t that they were performing well but not winning; it was that more and more often, they weren’t performing well, especially away from home.

And here’s a truth about Arsenal: statistically, they are not performing well. The underlying numbers are subpar across a number of statistics. Arsenal are, for example, are 11th in the league in shots per game, with 12.6 shots per game, behind Watford, Everton, Fulham and Southampton, as well as the rest of the top 6. They are 14th in shots allowed per game; at 13.7 shots allowed per game, higher than the average of shots they take, Arsenal allow more than double the number of shots per game that Manchester City allow.

You can see this manifested in expected goals: the expected goal difference per game is 0, meaning that based on the performances this season, Arsenal should probably have about 7 points, not 15. (This is corroborated by our very own Scott Willis, with Arsenal having accumulated 9.88 xG and allowed 9.8 xG against).

Of course, it is not as if Arsenal have fallen foul of the xG police and have to give the points back: the points are banked. Yet, over the course of the season, Arsenal are unlikely to do what they have been doing so far: outperforming expected goals, to the tune of 3 goals. Indeed, the difference between Arsenal winning against Watford and Everton and not has been luck—an own goal and poor opposition finishing—and efficient finishing. The problem with relying on efficient finishing, though, is that it is not something you can rely upon to continue to happen for a full season. Manchester United outperformed their expected results last season, mainly on the back of David de Gea saving an abnormal rate of shots; the opposite doesn’t usually happen for a full season, and neither Petr Cech nor Bernd Leno are shot stoppers at the rank of de Gea.

Indeed, defensively, Arsenal’s concession of goals matches up with xG allowed. That Arsenal were going to be poor defensively was always likely to happen. For starters, without Laurent Koscielny, Arsenal do not have an above average centre back who is fit. Beyond that, there were question marks about the defensive capability of the midfield, and a very reasonable assumption that it would take Arsenal time to adjust to Emery’s demands off the ball—with pressing heavily one casualty of Emery’s early adjustments. Indeed, as Tottenham and Liverpool have showed over the last few years, adjusting defensively does take time.

Arsenal, though, were expected to be good going forward, and thus far, they have not been. Arsenal’s issues with balance have been well-documented, but another function of the first fifth of the season is that Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Mesut Ozil are marginalized by Emery’s system.

This, frankly, is where Arsenal have to improve. It may seem counter-intuitive to assert this, but if performances continue as they have over this winning streak, Arsenal are likely to suffer, purely out of regression to the mean.

Yet, Emery could change. In 2015/16, Leicester had poor underlying numbers to begin the season. Tactically, though, they changed, and all of a sudden, underlying numbers began to reflect the results on the field. For Arsenal to be successful this season, Unai Emery will have to figure out how to have a similar influence.