Have Arsenal Gone Backwards?

Have Arsenal Gone Backwards?

Another season but the same story for Arsenal fans, a February collapse and any chances at silverware up in smoke. The humiliation in the San Siro was followed by an apathetic defeat to Sunderland, eliminating the Gunners from the Champions League (well pretty much) and the FA Cup respectively. The race for fourth is place is the only thing Arsenal can hope to achieve and one does have to wonder how much of that is down to the team themselves or the failings of Chelsea and Liverpool. The question is, how far have this team regressed?

At this stage last season, Arsenal were 2nd in the league table with 53 points, compared to 4th with 43 this season. Barcelona had just witnessed what an impressive side were capable of, leaving the Emirates on the receiving end of a 2-1 defeat and the Carling Cup Final lay just around the corner along with FA Cup progression. Defeat in the Carling Cup final at the hands of a soon-to-be relegated Birmingham side triggered a collapse that saw the side tumble to fourth spot and crash out of the Champions League and FA Cup. The collapse is rather similar, though less dramatic this season as it has been coming, but how different are the teams?

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Currently, Arsenal have lost 3 more games than last season and if they manage to capture some form they could end up just 3 points shy of last seasons total, not a disaster considering the sale of two of our best players in the summer and the loss of another one to injury for the entirety of this season so far. However, Arsenal have been notoriously poor during the end of season run in and achieving that points tally will be a massive task. Currently, the team are conceding 1.4 goals a game and will have conceded 53 goals by the end of the season, to put that into perspective, Birmingham in the 2010/2011 season conceded 58 goals. The Gunners will have conceded 10 more goals than last season, despite Wenger making the defensive signing that every fan was crying out for. This could be contributed to playing a large part of the season with no recognised full-backs and the stat is distorted somewhat by the 8-2 mauling at Old Trafford, but the fact that no improvement has been made in the defensive area despite the signing of £10 million Mertesacker and the emergence of Yennaris and Coquelin is a problem that Wenger will have to answer for.

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Looking at this table Arsenal have also failed to improve on the fundamentals of defending. Already they have committed seven more errors and scored three more own goals, compare this to Man City who have only made 6 errors so far this season. It’s been painfully obvious in recent weeks Arsenal’s ability to implode during a match hasn’t gone away and these figures suggest that. Thirteen last man tackles so far this season could suggest one of two things, either the defence has regressed and we’re forced into these challenges or, the signing of Mertesacker and emergence of Koscielny (each with three to their name) have increased this number as Mertesacker is still adapting to the high line and Koscielny excels in them. Another problem this season has been the team often conceding from the opponents first shot on target. This week, Arsenal have allowed their opponents six shots on goal, yet have conceded six goals from these, a damning statistic of the team.

Individually, the team has lost a significant amount of quality and replaced it with players of arguably lesser standing. The notable example is Cesc Fabregas who has excelled in his first season back at Barcelona. His ability to open up packed, deep defences with incredible passes has been sorely missed in games, the most recent example against Sunderland in the FA Cup. Jack Wilshere looked likely to take up the number 10 role in pre-season with some eye-catching displays, but his injury has thrust Aaron Ramsey into the role with mixed results.

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Fabregas played 1887 minutes last season and Ramsey has played 1851 so far so the stats aren’t misleading in that sense. Fabregas, as expected, leads on assists, partly due to his greater technical ability and partly due to the fact that the creative burden firstly was attempted to be spread throughout the forward line and arguably now lies with Van Persie. The goals count is the same, though Ramsey has taken less shots and for a player often lambasted for his finishing this isn’t a bad return. The pass completion suggests Aaron is the more competent at finding a player with the ball, but this would be ignoring the difference in the two players. If you look at the passes forward percentage you can see that Fabregas attempts more, because his aim was nearly always to find a player behind the defence and set up a chance. Ramsey isn’t capable of this every time and as a result, looks for the safer option on more occasions.

The other notable exit was Samir Nasri who set the 2010/11 season alight in the first half, but was as much at fault for the end of season collapse as other players, fading away into anonymity. Gervinho was bought before his departure and was never intended as a replacement, but arguably has taken up the mantle.

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Nasri was more likely to receive the ball on the wing, stopping and cutting in to beat a player. Gervinho on the other hand, looks to run onto passes behind the defence and only if required, dribble past his man. The Ivorian’s finishing has been erratic, missing notably important chances, as his composure obviously vanishes when under pressure. Taking into account those are the stats for Nasri’s full 2010/2011 season as a Gunner, it is hard to notice a massive difference between the two, but you would be hard pressed to find an Arsenal fan who wouldn’t accept Nasri back at Arsenal, despite his mercenary-like behaviour.

The purchases of Gervinho and Oxlade-Chamberlain in the summer indicated a change in the style of play for Arsenal. I thought, at the time, Wenger had realised we couldn’t replace Fabregas and bought those two speedy, tricky wingers to bring back the Invincible-era style counter attacks that opponents were terrified of. Instead, as this article rightly points out, it’s hard to identify what Arsenal are good at this season. Wenger stated this week that 4th place is only trophy we have left and if they regain their form they can certainly compete for it, but a massive change in the summer will be required for this current crop of players to return to competing for silverware.

All stats are courtesy of Opta. You can subscribe to our stats centre here. All comments are welcome!