In our latest 'Eye for Detail', tactical expert Michael Cox gives his final assessment on the areas where Arsenal thrived during the 2013/14 season.
An obvious feature of Arsenal’s campaign was the near-perfect balance between left and right-footed players. Sometimes, nearly half Arsenal’s team was left- footed, extremely rare considering the proportion of left-footed players in the Premier League is generally considered to be around 20 per cent.
In the second half of the 1-0 defeat to Manchester United, for example, half of Arsenal’s outfielders were left-footed: Thomas Vermaelen, Kieran Gibbs, Jack Wilshere, Mesut Ozil and Olivier Giroud. Considering another player, Santi Cazorla is truly two-footed, able to take brilliant set pieces with either foot, Arsenal were arguably a more left-footed side than a right-footed side.
This balance is reflected in Arsenal’s goalscoring statistics – while 12 of the 68 league goals were headers, 28 were left-footed goals, and 28 were right- footed goals.
High pass success percentage in deep positions
Of players who played the majority of Premier League matches, the four with the best pass completion rates were the four who often formed Arsenal’s defensive backbone. Centre backs Laurent Koscielny and Per Mertesacker boasted figures of 94 per cent, while central midfielders Mikel Arteta and Mathieu Flamini were just behind on 92 per cent. This is an extraordinary statistic, and summarises how that quartet is the foundation for Arsenal’s intricate moves higher up the pitch.
Arsène Wenger has often been sceptical of pass completion rates, insisting that among creative players it’s often better to have players who risk conceding possession because they attempt the penetrative pass. In defensive positions, though, there’s no need to take risks – and Arsenal’s passing moves have rarely been disrupted inside their own half.
Aerial dual success rate
We looked at this feature in greater detail in the previous issue of the Arsenal Magazine, but it’s worth repeating. After Stoke City, Arsenal boasted the equal second-best aerial success rate in the division, along with Chelsea, at 55 per cent. Arsenal are often depicted as a technical, skilful side which lacks height and strength, but the statistics confirm this is a misleading caricature.
It’s not surprising that Giroud and the two centre backs have impressive statistics in this respect. Meanwhile, only Liverpool scored more than Arsenal’s 12 headers this season.
Excellence in dismantling weaker sides
Arsenal were consistently excellent at battling inferior sides. Of the 20 matches against the bottom-half teams, Arsenal collected 2.65 points per game, by far the most in the division. They only lost once against these sides, in the disappointing opening-day defeat against Aston Villa – since then, Arsenal avoided similar embarrassments. The 53-point haul is 10 points better than Chelsea, for example, who essentially blew their chance to win the Premier League title because they repeatedly failed to break down lower-league sides, especially those that defended deep.
Arsenal had no such problems – but clearly, the shortcoming was against the stronger sides in the division. The 1.44 points per game record against top half sides was only the fifth-best record in the division – and a clear area to improve upon next season.
Shutting down matches effectively
Arsène Wenger was entirely happy to become very cautious late in matches to protect a lead – and it wasn’t uncommon to see three defensive players summoned from the bench to replace three attackers. This was first obvious in the 3-1 victory away at Sunderland in September, where Wenger introduced Vermaelen for Ozil (on the German’s debut) to guard against a late rally from the Black Cats, and then brought on Nacho Monreal in place of Theo Walcott to become more cautious down the left flank – the Spaniard played in tandem with left back Gibbs.
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Vermaelen and Monreal became Wenger’s natural defensive changes, and he often made a third defensive sub, too. In the 2-0 win over Liverpool in November it was Carl Jenkinson in place of Cazorla, and in the 1-0 win at Tottenham in March, Flamini replaced Tomas Rosicky. With six natural defenders plus Flamini and Arteta too, Arsenal had become uncharacteristically defensive, and their back line was impenetrable.