Skhodran Mustafi informed Arsenal fans a couple of days back that he will be back in the New Year. Arsenal fans could be happy because of this or dismayed as it means that their team’s defence will remain shaky for a few more weeks to come. It seems to be general consensus that Mustafi has been a great buy for Arsenal, as he has been able to build a solid partnership with Laurent Koscielny and the Gunners have not lost a single league match that the former Valencia player has started in.
But are Arsenal’s recent reversals really due only to Mustafi’s absence? Or are there other reasons for them? They have lost the last two to Everton and Manchester City, conceding two goals in each game after going up by a goal. From table toppers to fourth position, nine points behind the leaders, it has been a dismaying December for the Gunners. However, articles such as this list several other reasons why Arsenal’s form seems to have dipped. While all the reasons listed out by that author, plus Ozil’s form and Sanchez’s possible exhaustion could be the reasons for Arsenal’s recent losses, I feel that Arsenal’s defence definitely has suffered a bit since Mustafi was injured. In this piece, we try to find out if that is truly the case or not.
To start with, Gabriel Paulista – Mustafi’s replacement has appeared in five league matches this season and the Gunners have not managed a clean sheet in any of those and they have conceded a goal and a half for every 90 minutes Gabriel has played. In comparison, with Mustafi in the team (12 instances), Arsenal have managed three clean sheets, conceding only 0.8 goals for every 90 minutes played by Mustafi. There could be multiple reasons for these stats, but a few things stand out:
Mustafi executes 1.5 more effective clearances than Gabriel per 90 minutes. That means he is more likely to get the ball out of a potentially dangerous situation as compared sto Gabriel. Koscielny in fact leads this stat as he puts in 0.6 effective clearances more than Mustafi. He puts in 5.6, versus Mustafi’s 5.0 and Gabriel’s 3.5.
In his 12 appearances, Mustafi put in just 0.2 blocks per 90, to Gabriel’s 0.6 blocks, however he put in more interceptions at 3 per 90, compared to Gabriel’s 1.9 interceptions. Koscienly’s numbers are 0.8 blocks and 2.8 interceptions per 90 minutes. What these numbers tell us is that when Mustafi and Koscielny are playing they are more proactive in stopping passes that can lead to shots, while when Gabriel is partnering Koscielny, Arsenal’s central defence is more reactive, allowing and blocking more shots
Another interesting stat is the percentage of successful tackles these defenders put in. Arsenal in general put in 19.2 tackles every 90 minutes and win 13.9 out of them (72%). However, both Mustafi (1.4 successful out of 1.9 per 90) and Koscielny (1.4 out of 1.4 per 90) have a higher percentage than this number i.e. when they play together, they further reduce the number of dangerous situations the ball can get into by taking it away more effectively from the opponents. In comparison, Gabriel puts in 1.9 tackles every 90 minutes, but only gets 1.0 of them right. So his tackle success rate is 56% – lower than the team average. Tackle success rate might seem like a very granular stat to look into but if we think about it, we can understand why Mustafi seems to be more proactive and better at recovering the ball. An unsuccessful tackle generally would mean that the tackler (defender in this case) has been wrong footed and taken out of the game for a few seconds. In those few seconds, especially in the defensive third, the opponents can get the ball in to very dangerous situations while worrying about one defender less. Gabriel has close to 50% probability of this happening, while Mustafi had 24%.
While these stats do not prove a direct relationship between Mustafi’s absence and Gunners’ last two losses, they do prove that with Mustafi partnering Koscielny, Arsenal are less likely to get into difficult situations, while just having Gabriel in the team increases the number of such instances by 2-3. A football match can turn in a single such instance, so if Gabriel’s presence provides opponents 2-3 of them, Arsenal are bound to leak a few goals. Especially so when they are faced with difficult individuals like Lukaku or teams such as Manchester City.
So, yes – it is difficult to attribute Arsenal’s recent form drop entirely on Mustafi’s absence but if a list of contributing factors is prepared, his absence will be rated quite high. Arsenal fans will be desperately hoping that Mustafi is able to return as early as possible in the new year.