Here is the good news: Arsenal have the largest shot differential of any Arsene Wenger side since the year 2000. Here is the bad news: Arsenal’s defense is allowing the opposition to score on the fewest number of shots since the year 2000. The result is that Arsenal have had a see-saw season, though all signs point to an Arsenal revival of sorts, if they can sort out their defensive problems.
Don’t let the stats-haters fool you, shots matter. Sure, a team can score goals without shooting, Man U scored one on Arsenal just last week. But overall, in the marathon of a league season, the teams that shoot more tend to score more goals and tend to be the better teams.
Last season Arsenal were in the midst of a four year decline in offensive output. Just looking at shots per game Arsenal were 9th in the League last season, 6th in the 2012/2013 season, and 6th in 2011/2012.
Worse, Arsenal’s defense was allowing more shots than ever before. On a per game basis, Arsenal went from being the best team in 2010/2011 in terms of shots allowed per game to being 5th best in 2013/2014. Those don’t seem like steep declines in defense but when you combine an increase in shots allowed with decrease in shots taken you get an Arsenal side which went from challenging for the title to barely holding on to 4th place.
But this summer’s signings of Alexis Sanchez and Danny Welbeck have dramatically turned Arsenal’s shots output around and the Gunners are now 2nd in the League in shots per game. Arsenal’s increase in offensive output means that the Gunners no longer have to sit back and soak up pressure, like they did last season, and the result is that Arsenal are now #1 in terms of shots allowed with a stingy 8.2 per game.
If we chart this progress we can see a dramatic turnaround this season very clearly:
If you take a team’s total number of shots taken and subtract the number of shots allowed, you get a simple shot differential. And if you take the number of shots that a team takes and compare it as a portion of the total shots taken and allowed you get a fancy stat called a “TSR” or “Total Shots Ratio”.
Total shots ratio correlates very strongly with league position¹. We all, inherently, know why: simply put, better teams take more shots than the opposition. In the chart above, I use “shot differential”, but it’s basically the same stat as TSR. It just sound less like something E. Gary Gygax would create.
As you can see, Arsenal’s shot differential has skyrocketed this season. This bodes well for Arsenal. If they can continue to shoot more and limit the opposition’s chances, they should pick up points.
The main two reasons for the Arsenal offensive revival are Alexis and Welbeck. These two players have combined for just 70 of Arsenal’s 225 shots so far this season but have already scored half of Arsenal’s 22 goals.
The problem with Arsenal’s offensive output isn’t the total number of shots taken, the problem is that Arsenal have players who are taking low-percentage shots and not scoring goals. Cazorla is 2nd at Arsenal with 34 total shots and Ramsey is 4th with 30 total shots but the problem is that those two players have combined for just 2 goals off those 64 shots.
The reason is simple: both players shoot too much from outside. I know that fans love a long-range shot. Nothing more exciting than seeing a screamer go in from 20 yards. But the reality is that shots from outside the box are converted at about a 3% rate. You won’t be surprised to learn that Santi Cazorla and Aaron Ramsey lead the Arsenal with a combined 43 shots from outside the box. Just to prove my point, Arsenal have only scored one goal from outside the box in League play, that was Olly Giroud’s wonderballs against Man U.
The result of all this shooting from distance (Alexis is 3rd on the team in that category) is that Arsenal’s conversion rate is at an all time low of just 9%. No Wenger team has ever converted below 12% of their total shots, until this season.
Last season, Arsenal weren’t taking a ton of shots but they were scoring plenty of goals because they looked to get closer before taking the shot. They tried to walk the ball into the net.
Defensively, the opposite is happening. The opposition teams are now converting 14% of their shots! This is almost a direct reversal of last season where Arsenal converted 13% but forced the opposition to shoot from distance and kept their conversion rate down to 9% — the best rate since the Invincibles.
I can tell you definitively that this won’t continue. Arsenal have been unlucky on a number of goals allowed this season and that along with multiple injuries to the defense mean that Wenger had to shuffle the pack constantly.
Gibbs’ own goal against Manchester United is an example of how Arsenal kept Man U quiet for the majority of the game only to be undone by a Fellaini foul and the resulting Gibbs O.G. A similar thing happened in the Everton match, Arsenal dominated the game but Lukaku gets away with a foul and Naismith an offside goal which made Everton look like they had a better match than they actually did.
Injuries to key players Debuchy and Koscielny mean that Arsenal have been forced to rely on two fullbacks to play center half this season. That crucial partnership between Koscielny and Mertesacker has been broken up by injury and as a result, the Arsenal defense looks a bit mystified at times. That partially explains why the Arsenal defensive conversion rate is at an all time high.
But in the end, all signs look up for Arsenal. Wenger’s shrewd purchases of Alexis and Welbeck have revitalized a stagnant Arseal attack and if they can sort out the defense and keep a lineup together for more than two weeks, the Arsenal could be a formidable opponent once more.
¹Goal Difference is the gold standard of correlation between stats and League position. And Goal Difference, it turns out, also persists from season to season. You can predict the league position of teams the next season if you know the goal difference of the season prior. It’s that strong a correlation.