Arsenal Passing v. Napoli
Arsenal dominated Napoli last night through possession using our passing game.
Wenger’s men outpassed Benitez team 671-385. That’s 1.7 passes for Arsenal for every Napoli pass. This is in contrast to the Swansea match where Arsenal conceded possession and were outpassed 662-472: 1.4 Swansea passes per Arsenal pass.
But where Arsenal really dominated Napoli in terms of passing was in the final third, outpassing the Italian side 165-76 , over 2 to 1 attacking superiority. Again, this is in contrast to the Swansea match where the Swans actually dominated there as well but only just with a 183-127 superiority.
Moreover, the top passing players in the Napoli match were Mertesacker and Flamini, whereas against Swansea it was Ramsey and Flamini.
That means that when Arsenal were passing the ball last night, it was more to retain possession, while against Swansea we were more attack oriented with our passing. This is happening because Arsenal tend to shut up shop now after getting the first goal, becoming less adventurous once we have the lead.
For example, once Arsenal scored the second goal in Wales, Wenger’s boys basically said to Swansea “beat us”. In that final 30 minutes Swansea attempted 229 passes and Arsenal 108. Arsenal also allowed Swansea 92 passes in our final third compared to the 34 passes we attempted. You might say “well, that’s Swansea, they are a good passing team.” Yes, correct, but what if the same pattern shows up against against Stoke City? There Arsenal actually conceded possession again after scoring the second goal and Stoke City — you know: long ball, throw-ins, corners, free-kicks Stoke City? — outpassed Arsenal 396-284 in the field and 107-68 in the final third.
This throws up an interesting wrinkle to the normal Arsenal narrative. What kind of team is Arsenal? For years we were a possession-as-defense team, like we saw last night, but now we are able to switch things up. Once Arsenal take the lead, which they are doing earlier than ever before, they are shutting up shop. And it’s working.
Defense wins championships
Again, another cracking defensive performance from Aaron Ramsey, Matty Flamini, and the entire Arsenal team to shut out Napoli and limit them to just the one shot on goal. Arsenal’s possession-as-defense approach meant that while the Italian team enjoyed a 13 to 9 shot superiority, Arsenal took 7 shots in the Napoli box and they had just three in our box, two of which were blocked (both blocks were by Koscielny). Napoli took more shots but they were speculative at best.
And when Napoli had the ball, Arsenal showed grit and tried to win possession back, matching the Italians 24 to 28 tackles attempted and led by Aaron Ramsey in that department.
Most of you probably remember that Ramsey is leading the Premier League in tackles per game with 5.5 and that he’s tackling at almost a 90% rate. Numerically, he’s made 29 of the 33 tackles he’s attempted.
To put that in context, Liverpool’s Lucas is the second leading tackler in the League, having attempted 30 tackles. But he’s only been successful 20 times for a 67% rate. Normally, you see players tackling at the Lucas rate when they attempt a lot of tackles and at the Ramsey rate when they attempt fewer. It’s very rare to find a midfielder who both tackles a lot and who completes a lot of tackles.
Again, Ramsey led Arsenal in tackles last night, winning 4/6 to Flamini’s 3/4 but interestingly when both men attempted to tackle down the right side, they struggled. Hamsick, Insigne, and Zuniga had their way with Arsenal on the Napoli left (Arsenal’s right) and all of Arsenal’s missed tackles were down that side, something Benitez will look to exploit next time no doubt.
Despite losing out on all those tackles, Arsenal only gave away two fouls in the final third and Napoli won just three corners. That helped with the clean sheet because it limited the Napoli set plays, which is how they scored both goals in their game against Dortmund.
I have no doubt that Arsenal are a more resolute defensive team than they were at times last year but whether they can continue this marvelous streak is up for debate with some folks famously predicting that Arsenal will regress to the mean. And I can sort of see why they say that.
In the last 21 matches of both Champions League and Premier League play (going back to Bayern), Arsenal have only allowed 13 goals and just 3 of those goals were allowed in the first half’s of those matches.
All totaled, the opposition are scoring on about 5% of their total shots. That tops even the 2003/2004 Invincibles side who kept the opposition to an 8% conversion rate and the 2007/2008 team of nearly-wons who kept their opposition to about 9% conversion.
If we compare that to the previous 21 matches of League play, Arsenal allowed 27 goals (with a whopping 16 in the first half’s of games) and an opposition conversion rate of around 13%. And historically, Wenger’s teams average 11% conversion. So, you can see why people worry.
We are going to have to leave this at that for right now, I have a lot more to say about this but in a much longer and specific article on the topic.
Ö to, Ö to, Ö to be a… Goonah!
Against Napoli, it was Flamini and Özil who led all players with 94 touches each. That symmetry between the utilitarian Flamini and the flamboyant Özil is interesting.
On the one hand you had Flamini’s 94 touches which were all about keeping possession – he only had three “bad” passes all game, one long diagonal, one through, and the one weird pass where it looked like he was trying to play Ramsey in in the box but he over hit it. You also had Flamini winning the ball back in midfield – he led Arsenal in interceptions and was 3/4 in tackles, with just two fouls, both in the opposition half.
On the other hand, you had Özil’s 94 touches in which he created three goal-scoring opportunities, got an assist, and scored an amazing goal. It’s not as if Özil was wasteful with his touches either. He completed 91% of his passes (31/35 in the final third), only turned the ball over 3 total times, and drove at the opposition defense splitting defenders which was eventually how he got his assist (he was 1/5 dribbles, that’s a black mark).
And speaking of assists, that was Özil’s 4th Arsenal assist, taking his total to 4 assists and 1 goal in 5 appearances.
And as I have been saying, however, it’s not just Özil. Giroud scored his 6th goal of the season for Arsenal and he did so in what looked like trademark fashion, getting to the near post. In his pomp, Giroud is now scoring on 18% of his shots, which if he had done last season would have given him 26 goals, instead of the 17 he scored.
Meanwhile, Ramsey got his third assist of the season against Napoli to go along with his 8 goals haul so far this year. That’s 8 goals on 22 shots for a conversion of 36%. I don’t think 36% conversion is sustainable but I am game to find out!
In the end, this has been one of the best runs I’ve ever seen from Arsenal both defensively and offensively, and they capped it off last night with an emphatic win over the team that was supposed to give us the most trouble in this group stage. Kudos to Wenger and the boys for a superlative match and long may this form continue… even if it does mess with my numbers.