After a disastrous 3-1 opening day loss to Aston Villa, Arsenal have bounced back in an amazing and unexpected way to the top of the table going into the new year. Now 20 games into the season, even the harshest Arsenal critic has to give them credit for what they have done this season. The Gunners have shown a real resiliency and toughness that they have not had for a few seasons and it is really beginning to look like they will be near the top, if not at the top, for the entire season. Even after going through a rough patch, picking up only one point from three consecutive games against Everton, Chelsea, and Manchester City, Arsenal have rebounded and got back to the top of the table. Wenger’s boys will look to try and stay there for the rest of the season. In this article, I will analyse the team’s defence, creativity, passing, and compare them to this point last season.
20 games into the season, Arsenal have the best defensive record in the league, despite that 6-3 thrashing at Manchester City. As they have the top defensive record, they also appropriately lead the league in clean sheets with nine. The Gunners have done well to improve upon the number individual defensive errors going from making one every 93 minutes last season to making one every 127 minutes this season. They have also been able to stop giving away penalties, something they did far too often early in the season. After giving away three penalties in the first four games, Arsenal have only conceded one penalty, in the league, since then.
The two standouts in the defence have been veterans Per Mertesacker, otherwise known as the BFG, and Bacary Sagna. Mertesacker was arguably their most improved player over last season and has pushed on from their excelling this season as the big rock in Arsenal’s central defence. The big German leads the team on headed clearances and is tied with his centreback partner, Laurent Koscielny, for most total clearances. Mertesacker has been the vocal leader at the back organising their defence and has shown that his awareness and reading of the game can more than make up for his severe lack of pace. He has provoked more offsides than any other team-mate, but has been fantastic in the air this season, winning 73% of his aerial duels. Mertesacker has not only been good in his own play but, he has also been one of the Gunners’ top leaders this season. The German international may be third in line for the armband at the moment, behind captain Thomas Vermaelen and vice captain Mikel Arteta, but he has very much been Arsenal’s “captain without the armband”. Some Arsenal fans have even gone so far as to make comparisons to club legend Tony Adams due to Mertesacker’s tall stature, physical presence on the pitch along with his great qualities as a leader.
Bacary Sagna has shown great resiliency to rebound from what was probably his worst season at the Emirites. Sagna has been a rock in the right back position for the gunners. He has been reliable in the air, winning an aerial duel more often than either centre back. The Frenchman has been getting stuck in, winning a tackle every 76 minutes, as well as showing the defensive savvy that comes with the years of experience he has. Sagna has been cool under pressure, making 69 successful clearances, as well as not making a single defensive error all season. After a poor season in 2012/2013, some, myself included, thought Sagna’s best days were behind him. He has come back to prove me and all of his other doubters wrong showing his worth and playing like a top right back once again. The Arsenal defence has provided the gunners a new found solidity that they have not had in past years. They had developed a tag of being frail at the back and weak minded but, this Arsenal team, specifically the defence, has proved those labels wrong. If the defence can keep up the performances, it gives them a real chance to win the league.
The two most impressive passers this season have got to be the Welsh revelation, Aaron Ramsey, and big money signing Mesut Ozil. Arsenal have attempted 10993 passes in open play and completed 85% of those passes. 32% of Arsenal’s passes this season have come when they are in the final third of the pitch and they have completed 76% of those passes. If the aforementioned Per Mertesacker wasn’t the clubs most improved player last season, then that award surely has to go to Aaron Ramsey. Before his injury during the Christmas period, Ramsey was without doubt the most influential player in the current squad. Even after missing the last two league games, Ramsey has attempted more passes than any Arsenal player (1260 passe), and the second most passes in the league behind Yaya Toure. Ramsey has dominated games this season through scoring goals but, the Welshman is usually up in the top two or three Arsenal players for touches and attempted passes each time he steps onto the pitch. Ramsey’s standout performances have welcomed comparisons to all kinds of players but, one that was bound to come was the comparison with Cesc Fabregas. Ramsey was tasked with helping fill the hole that Fabregas left when he made his move to Barcelona. The way Ramsey has become a major focal point of the Arsenal attacks along with some of the balls he plays he has been likened to the former Arsenal star by some people. Ramsey cannot be considered at that level of a player yet because he has not done it consisitently over multiple seasons but, if he keeps the same form he had before his thigh injury he will be well on his way to that level.
Mesut Ozil was the answer to the Arsenal fans prayers. Arsene Wenger finally spent big and it was on a supremely talented player. Ozil has shown his attacking prowess this season with goals and assists but he is not a player who will try and go for the defence killing pass every time. Ozil will take his time exchanging passes retaining possession and when the defence starts to lose concentration or tire, Ozil will strike. Ozil has attempted 515 passes in the final third of the pitch, more than anyone else in the league, despite missing the first three games of the season. Of the players in the top 10 of final third passes, Ozil is second in completion percentage, behind only Samir Nasri. Ozil has also made 126 final third entries second behind only Ramsey, who has 181, among Arsenal players. The two players are a large part of Arsenal’s attacking play and have contributed to their beautiful football this season. When Aaron Ramsey comes back from injury and Mesut Ozil fully adjusts to the Premier League, the two could be even better and help propel Arsenal forward to new heights.
Arsenal have been known this season for their impressive style of play and their creativity. That said, the Gunners are actually creating chances less often than they were last season but they are creating clear-cut chances more often. Arsenal have created a chance every 8.29 minutes this season, as opposed to every 7.82 last season, and a clear cut chance every 46 minutes, as opposed to every 52 minutes last season.
Arsenal’s best two passers, Mesut Ozil and Aaron Ramsey, have also been their two most creative but Olivier Giroud has also been influential to the team. Ozil has been what everyone expected, a fantastic creative player. He has created 45 chances this season, tied for third in the Premier League. Ozil has also been the best set piece creator for the club with nine chances created this way. The German international’s creative ability has shown through in his arrival to the Premier League. Ramsey has also been stronglyeffective for his team this year creating nine clear cut chances, second in the league behind only Luis Suarez.
Olivier Giroud has been a major cog in Arsenal’s creative play this season. He has created 22 chances and six clear cut chances this season by himself this season. Giroud’s goalscoring numbers have been criticised as of late after he went over a month without a goal. While a striker is judged on his goals, Giroud has added creativity and link up play even when he is not actually scoring the goals. Everyone knows the immense attacking talent Arsenal possess in the midfield with players like Mesut Ozil, Aaron Ramsey, Santi Cazorla etc, and Giroud has done the job of holding the ball up and getting the ball to those talents in good position to make plays.
Arsenal’s attacking statistics this season have been nearly identical to their stats from last season. They have had a very slight improvement in chance conversion going from 17% last season to 18% this season, and have had a decrease in clear cut chance conversion dropping from 42% last season to 38% this season. They have also had an improvement in shot accuracy going from 48% to 52% but overall they have had no major improvements from last season to this season. Arsenal’s two leading goal-scorers have been Aaron Ramsey and Olivier Giroud who both have eight goals, in the league, this season.
Aaron Ramsey has been nothing short of a revelation this season, especially in front of goal. In 2012/2013, Ramsey had one goal in 2086 minutes of play with a 3% chance conversion rate. It’s safe to say none of those numbers are impressive. This season, Ramsey has been outstanding scoring a goal every 187 minutes with a chance conversion rate of 26% and a clear cut chance conversion rate of 67%. When Ramsey was at his peak this season, reporters repeatedly asked him what had changed. Every time Ramsey would just tell them not much had changed that he had always been in those positions but he was now calm in front of goal. Regardless of what changed physically or mentally for Ramsey, he is now a constant threat to the defence of any opposition and teams of any calibre.
Olivier Giroud got off to a flying start in terms of goals this season scoring in all of the first four games. Since then he has had four goals in 16 games. That said Giroud has still been good for Arsenal and has shown major improvement from last season. Giroud has improved his chance conversion %, clear cut chance conversion %, and his minutes per goal this season. He will still need to work on his finishing though if he wants to become a top class striker. The biggest area he needs to improve in is his clear cut chance conversion rate. He is doing a good job for the club and his finishing is not his best attribute by any means but at the end of the day people tend to judge strikers by goals. Regardless of the performance of Giroud, Arsenal were always going to have to bring in reinforcements in the striking department. Now that Theo Walcott has torn his ACL, bringing someone in to fill that gap is even more important.
Comparison to last season
There is a stark contrast between Arsenal at this time last year and Arsenal this year. After 20 games last year, Arsenal had only 34 points where as this season they have 45 points after 20 games and lie top of the table. Arsenal have found a new solidity in 2013 and it has changed them. Now the north Londoners are not a team that leaks goals; they conceded the second fewest league goals in the 2013 calendar year, which has shown they have the toughness to go on the road and grind out results. Arsenal have shown great resiliency and mental strength to get them through rough patches and to win games which in previous seasons they would have easily have dropped points on. Recent examples of this resiliency are their last two league games against Cardiff and Newcastle. A tough 1-0 win at St James park and a dramatic late win at home to Cardiff have shown that this Arsenal has a thick skin and does not fold under pressure like previous Arsenal teams would have. One thing Arsenal still needs to change is their attitude against the big teams as they have not beaten Chelsea or Manchester City in the last two seasons. That said, people have been saying Arsenal will crumble for months, whether it was “when they play the top teams” or “when the Christmas period comes”, yet they have still come through top of the table. This Arsenal team is a genuine title contender and one to be taken even more seriously if they spend money in January. The difference between now and this time last season when it looked like Arsenal may have to face Europa League struggles in 2013/2014 is extraordinary.