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Arsenal | How Wembley changed their season

A pre-season draw to concede the Emirates Cup to the New York Red Bulls suggested that although it’s a new season for Arsenal, the same old problems remain.

In an attempt to get to the statistical core of those problems, I stumbled across a slightly bizarre relationship: last season the Gunners enjoyed more success when they actually saw less of the ball.

Accounting for differences in opposition strength and match location (home or away), a fall in the amount of possession increased Arsenal’s chances of winning any given match.

For a team that places high value on ball retention, this was incredibly counter-intuitive.

However, a little further digging revealed the true cause of the relationship to be the League Cup final, as demonstrated in these tables:

Not only was Arsenal’s win percentage significantly affected by their Wembley trauma, but their possession was too, increasing by a remarkable 6.7% on average in the league after that fateful Koscielny error.

The Gunners’ opponents, whether by accident or design, increasingly chose to sit back and surrender possession in those final eleven games of the season. If they could score a goal on the break – and they often did – then all the better.

It’s no coincidence that the three games after the League Cup final in which Arsenal enjoyed less than 60% of the ball – their average for the season – they collected seven points from a possible nine; against Spurs, Man United and Blackpool. It appears all three of those sides would have been better off allowing Arsenal to dictate the play; but then that’s not their styles.

The Gunners did not win any of the other eight post-Wembley matches.

The idea that teams chose to allow Arsenal more time on the ball is supported by the fact that total possession duels in Arsenal matches fell significantly in those final eleven games; teams were less keen to contest 50/50 balls during this period.

This begins to go against the notion that getting ‘stuck in’ is the best way to trouble Wenger’s side. Whilst the statistic doesn’t perfectly translate to hassling and harrying, five of Arsenal’s bottom eight-lowest duel frequency matches came after the League Cup final, whilst the top eight all occurred before.

This supports the suggestion that teams caught onto the best way of frustrating Arsenal; not by getting in their faces but by being well-organised defensively and not worrying about possession.

This has implications going into the new season. Will teams continue to take this seemingly defensive approach, or choose to take better control of matches against Arsenal? Continued success of the former would suggest that the League Cup hangover was not entirely mental, an arguably overrated phenomenon anyway.

It also leaves Arsene Wenger with a difficult dilemma. No team wants to concede possession, but would Arsenal be better off trying to invite teams onto them? One for the tacticians, I suspect, but the post-Wembley numbers don’t make great reading for Arsenal.

This post is also available on 5 Added Minutes.

Omar Chaudhuri
Omar Chaudhuri
Economics student, football-obsessed & creator of 5 Added Minutes.
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