Since many excellent match reports have already been written, I will not discuss the game per se but only look at some numbers and images that will, hopefully, add to the discussion.
Let’s start with the following table that provides passing details in the final third and defensive half.
Arsenal clearly had greater possession but the other stats are interesting. The Canaries entered the final third 76 times compared to Arsenal’s 82. This is noteworthy because once you factor in the difference in possession, Norwich actually entered the final third more frequently than the Gunners when they had the ball. In other words (we could see if we actually had minutes of possession for each side) Norwich made more FT entries per minute of possession!
Furthermore, the difference in passing success in the attacking areas does not seem to be significant although Arsenal do have a marginally higher number of passes per entry. Even the number of crosses is not that different. Norwich were successful with 3 out of 15 while Arsenal found a teammate with 4 out of 16 crosses.
On the other hand, Arsenal made a lot more passes in the defensive half when compared to the hosts. It partly explains the disparity in possession but, again if we had the actual minutes of possession, the Gunners would be significantly ahead on the passes per min count. Since these are passes in the defensive half, some might argue they were not significant or passing more frequently at the back doesn’t really mean much.
Those who saw the game will have noticed a huge gulf in class between the sides in the attacking areas despite Arsenal’s profligacy in front of goal. For the visitors it was a matter of when and how many they will score with a number of good saves, goal-line clearances, and glaring misses keeping the score in check. For the Canaries, apart from the Pilkington free-kick, there were hardly any signs of testing the Keeper.
But oddly enough, there isn’t much in these passing stats to interpret Arsenal’s superiority. Things get harder to construe if we throw in these duelling figures,
Again the sides are very closely matched. Arsenal have an advantage in possession won in defensive third while Lambert’s side had a clear edge in the aerial duels. But neither seems like a game defining statistic.
It seems fair to say these numbers explain why many considered it a hard fought game but don’t elucidate the difference between the sides.
Now let’s add another set of stats.
I have taken out the Final Third passes from the total attacking half passes. So these attacking half passes are those played between the centre line and the final third. Both sides have attempted a similar number once we factor in the possession gap, but Arsenal have a clear edge in passing accuracy.
There isn’t any direct evidence but if we look at all these numbers in conjunction, there are hints that suggest Arsenal were better at passing between the lines. That was clear from watching the game and the numbers do corroborate it sufficiently.
The following images created using the Guardian Chalkboards further illustrate this point. The area marked by the red rectangle is not the exact space between the centre line and the Final Third but just indicative.
Arsenal were successful in getting the ball in these areas more often. Consequently, the quality of passes in the final third were much better for the Gunners as they were precise, measured balls not hopeful punts. As can be seen from these pictures, Norwich got the ball into wide areas but produced very little of note in the penalty box and just outside in central areas. In stark contrast, Arsenal’s got plenty of balls into the box and in the dangerous central zone just outside.
Obviously, quality of players does make a difference and Arsenal benefitted from having better personnel. The 10 successful dribbles against 3 for the hosts was definitely down to individual skills.
But the 8 attempted though-balls against none and the 28 layoffs against 12 also confirm the tactical difference many would have noticed. All those seemingly meaningless passes in the defensive half played their part as they were instrumental in moving the opponents around, which opened up spaces for runs and passes in between the lines. It laid the foundation for the layoffs, through-balls, dribbles, and other attacking aspects.
Norwich, on the other hand, made a fewer number of passes at the back and were more inclined to reach the attacking areas with long balls even though they had excellent numbers for the passes they did attempt in the defensive half.
The Canaries did manage to reach the final third often enough and made a respectable number of passes around Arsenal’s defence but the quality of those was just not good enough. Additionally, since these balls were played long, their attackers were often isolated as the hosts couldn’t make the game compact. This made it easier for Arsenal to defend despite the ball circulating around the penalty box as it rarely got into truly threatening areas.
In fairness, the Norwich boss did push his players forward, especially in the wide areas. This helped their Final Third entry and passing figures but it wasn’t enough. Moreover, the full backs didn’t get enough support due to this tactic and Arsenal found it easy to get in behind.
Paul Lambert might have noticed Arsenal’s weakness against balls over the top but one gets the feeling his side overdid their attempts at hoofing their way to a result. They did get a goal but, in all honesty, the final score flattered the hosts. With the benefit of hindsight there can be an argument that the Canaries would have been better off with either a more defensive approach alongside their long-ball tactics or a more compact, shorter passing based attacking approach. As it was, the hosts were neither defensively strong nor menacing in attack.
As for Arsenal, one could say these stats again justify Wenger’s faith in his system of play and highlight the importance of passing even if it’s sideways and backwards. Their finishing has to improve but the Gunners are undoubtedly regaining their flair as the rebuilding process continues.
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Al of the stats used in this article are Opta Stats provided by the EPLIndex Stats Centre. If you wish to write for the site & have access to stats you can subscribe here: Subscribe Now