I don’t know if you’ve heard, but Arsenal apparently got themselves a new manager over the summer. How such big news managed to fly under everyone’s radar is kinda beyond me, but here we are! Will wonders never cease?
All snark aside, Arsenal have played 11 league games and a further (checks notes) five games in both the Europa League and the Carabao Cup, and while sixteen games isn’t a huge or definitive sample size, it’s enough of a body of work to at least do an initial assessment of the job Unai Emery has done, and identify some trends and patterns in his work. That’s not to say that the things we talk about here are definitely going to continue because they’re set in stone, nor is it necessarily a complete judgment of Emery; it’s more of a few observations about how Emery’s work is going so far. So, with that in mind, let’s get to observin’!
Slow starts, fast finishes
How many times this season, at half time, have you said to your friends, the internet, or some random passerby “That was utter crap” when thinking about the first half? I mean, even during the 11 game winning streak, how many of those games featured a start that made you want to throw your viewing device through a window?
The reasons for this are many. Playing people in odd positions, like Xhaka at left back - whether through injury or a desire for experimentation - and a general lack of sense of where to play Mesut Özil and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang in order to get the best out of them and those around them (about which more later) has contributed to the slow starts, for sure.
And, to be fair, Arsenal did not get off to a slow start in the Liverpool game - they ended the half down a goal, but they looked like they were a danger to score on several occasions, and looked every bit the equal of Liverpool for most of the half. That’s only one game, sure, but it’s an encouraging sign of progress since August, considering it came against a team that should be one of Manchester City’s main title rivals this season.
The question is, have all the slow starts featured dramatic adjustments at half time in order to right the ship, or is it more of a case of Arsenal growing into their game on the day and asserting their power? In other words, are the slow starts a feature or a bug? I don’t know, but I do know that there will come a time when Arsenal won’t be able to regularly overcome a slow start as well as they have been; I can only hope that Emery & Co will have figured out how not to start so slowly before that reality catches up to them.
WARNING: CONTAINS STATS. feel free to skip to the next section if that’s not your jam.
xG, or Expected Goals as we all hopefully know or at least are faintly familiar with, is one of the better ways to understand what happened in a game and to gain some sense of what might happen in future games. The big caveat there is that these numbers are projections, not predictions; they basically say “given what has happened, here’s what the data says should happen in the future”, not “given what has happened, here’s what we promise will happen in the future”. It’s a subtle difference, but a very important one.
There are a few ways to calculate xG, but no matter how it’s calculated, it does end up being a good picture of both what happened in a game and what should have happened, given the offensive performance and shots taken during a game.
By any way you calculate xG, though, Arsenal are outperforming it this season so far:
Arsenal seemingly worse under Emery than during Wenger's last season in everything apart from actual goals scored and conceded (and therefore results).— Orbinho (@Orbinho) November 6, 2018
It's enjoyable so far, but if things don't change there's probably a correction around the corner. pic.twitter.com/nEWajaoWox
This, of course, raises the question of sustainability and regression. If Arsenal are expected to score a goal and a half a game, and they’re instead scoring almost a full goal more than that, is that, as they say in baseball, a repeatable skill? Most would say no, it is not, and I would tend to agree. The rest of the differences on this chart don’t really alarm me, they’re not that huge, except for one.
The one that concerns me here is shots per game. This may be a bit arcane, so bear with me, but if you don’t shoot, you don’t score (that right there is why I get the big analyst bucks, kids). Any chance of Arsenal continuing to outperform their xG kinda relies on them getting that number of shots per game up. This is only a two game sample, sure, but in the Manchester City season opener, Arsenal were outshot 11-7 (and outshot 6-3 on target), while in the Liverpool game, Arsenal outshot Liverpool 11-9 (4-2 on target).
It’s not a straight line from City to Liverpool, for sure, but if Arsenal can generate that kind of offense against lesser teams than Liverpool, they should be OK.
The question then becomes one of “how much will that g/gm number actually shrink?” Regression does not automatically mean a return to the calculated xG number; if Arsenal start scoring 1.7 goals a game, that’s a dramatic regression, but it’s still outperforming their xG. So if Arsenal can get their shots per game to even be in the neighborhood of last season, their xG regression shouldn’t be too alarming.
While 16 games isn’t a definitive sample for a lot of things, it’s a pretty good stretch of games in which you can get a sense for what a team will look like (if not how they play). So far, Emery’s preferred lineup, when everyone’s healthy, looks something like
Aubameyang - Özil - Iwobi
Xhaka - Torreira
Kolasinac - Holding - Mustafi - Bellerin
Of course, with injuries, this isn’t what he has been doing lately, and those injuries raise a couple questions. Does Laurent Koscielny slot back in for Shkodran Mustafi, given his age and inexperience with Emery’s system? Has Rob Holding done enough to keep his job when Sokratis is back?
But there’s also questions of positioning and optimization here. Emery has yet to figure out the best places to play some of his guys, in particular the soon-to-depart Aaron Ramsey. Emery’s asking him to play up a bit higher, which he is not accustomed to doing, and it’s rendered him...not exactly ineffective, but not quite as effective as we’ve seen him be in the past.
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang has also, arguably, struggled, although “struggled” is a hard tag to hang on the team’s current top scorer. Despite that nice little accolade, his shots per 90 min are down from just under four last year (all competitions) at BvB to 2.6. Which, if you’re super-optimistic, speaks to a certain efficiency, but also is part of Arsenal’s overall reticence to shoot as compared to last season. Auba’s playing to the left more, which is impacting his shots/90, but I can’t complain about that too much as long as he scores a goal every 100 minutes or so, which is what he’s doing right now.
One cause for this paucity of shots could be that Arsenal’s midfield is still very much a work in progress - the Ramsey shift and a few other Emery tweaks means that the midfield isn’t as cohesive as it could/should be. While, like xG, Auba’s conversion percentage is probably due for a regression, the tightening up of Arsenal’s midfield also should mean that Auba, and whoever else is playing up top, get more shots to take, bringing that shots/game number from the tweet above more into line with how it was last season.
I am not going to sit here and draw any grand conclusions about the quality of, or the ultimate fate of, Unai Emery’s Arsenal tenure on the back of these sixteen games. What I will say, though, is that while Arsenal aren’t quite where we hoped they would be given what we’ve seen, Arsenal are a long way from where I thought they might be when “what if Arsene goes away” was still a question we were asking - I was fully prepared for Arsenal to take a massive, Manchester United-level step back in their first post-Wenger season, and, looking only at results, they haven’t.
The underlying numbers are a bit of a concern, but I also think that the winning streak after two opening-season losses bought the new boss a lot of goodwill that will keep the #EmeryOut voices at bay until he gets his team to the point where they’re not as much of a statistical outlier as they are now. The best part is that Arsenal don’t have to give back the points they earned just because the stats say they didn’t necessarily earn them; points are points, and until Arsenal stabilize, I’ll take those kind of “unearned” points any day of the week.