Feature

How Arsenal's change of style strengthens their title credentials

By Alex Keble 1 Dec 2023
Gabriel and Declan Rice

Less fluid but more solid. Alex Keble looks at whether Gunners have a formula to win the league

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It is a measure of how far Mikel Arteta has taken the club that Arsenal can sit atop the Premier League table despite performances feeling a little stuttered and slow.

You could even say it is the mark of champions, or at least of title contenders who are in it for the long haul.

This time last year Arsenal supporters were pinching themselves after a fast start, as a campaign built on good vibes and youthful exuberance catapulted the Gunners way above expectations.

Now, they are more reserved and less fluent in their attacking play and yet they are once again top of the league. The journey, viewed from that angle, is from plucky young upstarts to wizened front-runners who are doing what it takes.

Race for the title

Position Pos Club Played Pl GD Points Pts
1 Liverpool LIV 26 +38 60
2 Man City MCI 26 +33 59
3 Arsenal ARS 26 +39 58
View More

Nevertheless, we might be slightly concerned by the downturn in Arsenal’s attacking football, even if it is offset by an improvement at the back, and even if prospective champions tend to prioritise defence.

Last season Arsenal averaged 2.3 goals per match and had an Expected Goals (xG) tally of 1.9 per match. This campaign it is down to 2.1 goals and 1.8 xG per match. Their shot count has also dropped from 15.5 per match to 14.4.

Arsenal stats comparison 2022/23 v 2023/24
Stat/90 22/23 (PL rank) 23/24 (PL rank)
Goals 2.3 (2nd) 2.1 (6th)
Open-play goals 1.8 (2nd) 1.0 (11th)
Shots 15.6 (5th) 14.5 (6th)
xG 1.9 (5th) 1.8 (7th)
Goals conceded 1.1 (3rd) 0.8 (1st)
Shots faced 9.0 (2nd) 8.5 (2nd)
xG Against 1.1 (3rd) 0.8 (1st)
xG difference +0.8 (3rd) +1.0 (2nd)

These are only minor decreases, but anyone watching Arsenal will have seen a significant drop in intensity and attacking dynamism, and noted the number of times they have only just squeezed past opponents, as they did last weekend when a 89th-minute Kai Havertz header beat Brentford 1-0.

Only 12 goals (less than half of their total of 27) have come from open play, with another six coming from the penalty spot, at least two more than any team. 

Arsenal’s defence has improved – and it needed to

But defensively, things have got a lot better. Their xG Against (xGA) is down from 1.1 per match to 0.8, and Arsenal have conceded the fewest goals in 2023/24, with 10, their average per match dropping from 1.13 to 0.77.

So what’s going on at Arsenal this season? Is it a deliberate tactical ploy from Arteta, or just a difficult start adjusting to some new signings? The answer is a bit of both.

Before we get onto the how and why, it’s worth noting that Arsenal’s defensive record did need improving, after they conceded 43 times last season – 10 more than Manchester City.

In fact, an increasingly leaky defence was the main reason for Arsenal’s title defence collapsing in the second half of last year.

When they won 50 points from the first 19 Premier League matches, Arsenal scored 45 goals and conceded 16. In the second 19, when they managed only 34 points, they scored 43 goals but conceded 27.

Champions concede around 32 goals per season

History tells us that titles are built on mean defences. Since the Premier League began in 1992, 20 of the 31 champions have had the best defensive record, and this has increased substantially over time, especially since Pep Guardiola arrived in England.

Five of the last six champions have had the best or joint-best defensive record, highlighting just how important Guardiola in particular sees a sturdy defence, which he builds via possession and territorial control.

But even when teams have won the title without having the best defensive record, they have still almost always been sturdy at the back.

Looking at the Premier League’s whole 31-year history, the average number of goals conceded by the champions is 32.1, and only three times has a team won the league conceding more than 40 goals.

In each case it was Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United, and the most recent example was more than a decade ago. His team won the title despite conceding 45 goals in 1999/00, 44 in 1996/97, and 43 in 2012/13.

Arsenal, then, needed to get better; needed to close the gap to Guardiola’s standard.

Impact of Rice

It should not surprise us, then, that a Guardiola apprentice like Arteta would be seeking to move Arsenal in this direction, especially in the context of their leaky defence letting them down towards the 2022/23 finale.

Last season Arsenal conceded 43 goals, the same number as Man Utd and 10 more than Newcastle United's 33, while they also made more defensive errors (22) than any other team in the division.

The single biggest factor behind the change is the introduction of Declan Rice, whose presence either at the base of midfield or as a roaming No 8 has transformed Arsenal.

Rice is an immense footballer; a commanding presence who sweeps up loose balls, covers gaps and blocks passing lanes in a way that doesn’t quite show up in the statistics. But he has been Arsenal’s best player this season and, forming a triangle with William Saliba and Gabriel, he has rewritten the team’s DNA.

Rice forms part of a wider structural shift from Arteta, away from the all-out attacking dynamism of last season and towards a slower, calmer and more cautious way of utilising the ball which, like a Guardiola team, prevents opposition counter-attacks or stretched encounters.

Opta-Analyst-declan-rice-defensive-actions-v2

A couple of stark statistical shifts are evidence of this. Arsenal have allowed the fewest through-balls in the division (11) this season whereas last year they ranked 13th on that metric (51). They were also seventh for direct attacks (62) in 2022/23 – but now only Burnley and Sheffield United have had fewer than Arsenal (14).

Less direct means more possession, more control and fewer counters led by the opponent. 

Research by Opta Analyst has found that Arsenal have been the best team in the league at preventing opponents reaching the final third on transition this season, limiting them to an average of 10 times per match. 

To complement this approach, they aren’t pressing as high, again in an attempt to keep things tight and compact in a more reserved manner, preventing the wilder and more open contests we saw in the second half of last season.

Arsenal are tackling more - 15.7 per match, up from 14.9 - but these are now concentrated in the middle of the pitch rather than the attacking third. Their middle-third tackles are up from 5.6 per match to 6.7 (taking them from a league rank of 18th to sixth) and their final-third tackles are down from 3.1 per match to 2.6 (taking them from the second-highest down to eighth).

Similarly, their average for passes per defensive action (PPDA) has improved substantially, from 11.0 to 9.7, showing they are allowing their opponents fewer consecutive passes before intervening. Despite that, their high turnovers are down from a league-topping 10.2 per match to the fourth-best 9.4.

So, Rice is making Arsenal better at hitting defensive numbers, but at the same time Arsenal are containing things in that middle area, refusing to press as hard or attack as directly, in a bid to become more like a suffocating Guardiola side.

But that doesn’t fully explain the sticky matches, the awkward performances, nor why Arsenal have won five Premier League games by a single goal, just two shy of their entire total in 2022/23.

Moving towards Guardiola-style control shouldn’t mean fewer goals: Man City have been top scorers in each of the last six campaigns.

Injuries have undermined the attack

To understand the full picture we must draw attention to Arsenal’s injuries and the introduction of Havertz, who is yet to fully settle.

Oleksandr Zinchenko is a vital cog in central midfield and Arsenal have missed his line-breaking passing due to injury. His average of 11.9 progressive passes per 90 this season tops the Premier League charts, yet he has only completed four matches.

Gabriel Jesus, arguably the star player in the first half of 2022/23, has been restricted to a mere 194 minutes of league football as a No 9 this season, and Gabriel Martinelli has also had a spell on the sidelines.

The absence of Gabriel Jesus from the striker's role is a hugely under-appreciated factor in Arsenal’s goalscoring issues – as is the fact that, with Martinelli out and Havertz learning his new role, the Gunners’ entire left flank has been disrupted.

This explains the lack of fluency and the fall from 1.8 open-play goals per match last season to 1.0. Martinelli has gone from a goal every 187 minutes to one every 806, while Jesus has gone from a goal every 189 minutes to one every 430.

Being in and out of the team, and covering different positions, has contributed significantly to this.

After Saturday's win over Brentford, Arteta said: “I hope we can be better and better and adapt because the reality is we lost a lot of attacking players in this first period of the league and the team continued to find ways to win." 

It is an accurate assessment. Arsenal have improved defensively, and have regressed in attack only because of injuries and new signings, meaning that, with time, they should improve in this regard.

It’s a superb situation to be in – especially when you’re already top of the league.

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