With the climax of the EPL season, last weekend, fans of Arsenal Football Club seem to have something to celebrate. After a first testing year for their new manager, Unai Emery, the club has improved on their league position from 6th to 5th and can look forward to the Europa League finals with a chance of qualifying for next year’s champion’s league competition should they win the match.
Despite these apparent improvements over the prior season, there have been raging debates among fans on social media as to whether things are as rosy as they appear. To date none of these debates have settled the issue and given the lingering divisions over Wenger “In” or “Out” I doubt there will be any consensus, at least not in the short-run. Despite the risks of this blog simply adding more fuel to the fire, in my opinion it is very helpful to graphically observe the trends in the data over the past ten years and benchmark Arsenal to its main rivals.
Arsenal vs Man City
City were the league winners and have held the title 4 times in the past 10 years and have been second or third in at least 4 other seasons. They are now an offensive powerhouse. How does Arsenal compare?
In terms of goals scored, since 11-12 season, City have gone up another level and left Arsenal behind. The Gunners’s high point was 83 goals in 2009-10 but they are yet to crack 80 goals in the next nine seasons. City, apart from 2012-13, have significantly exceeded Arsenal’s scoring and, to be fair, surpassed almost all the other clubs, amassing a remarkable 90 plus goals in four out of 8 seasons.
City was able to achieve such offensive superiority by gradually usurping Arsenal as the dominant possession team in the league as the chart below illustrates.
For the first 2 years, when Arsenal was outscoring City, the Gunners were definitely better at retaining possession but by 2011-12 City had closed the gap. However the arrival of Pep Guardiola as manager in the 16-17 season marked a decisive shift in emphasis to greater possession, far greater than Arsenal, and has coincided with the deluge of goals over the past two seasons.
Arsenal vs Liverpool
As a form of validation of the comparison with City, it is useful to benchmark Arsenal to Liverpool who have been relatively successful as of recent seasons. It is well known they gave City a run for their money in the recently concluded season, losing by one point on the last day after going back and forth since January. What is easily forgotten is that ten years ago Liverpool was struggling for survival after the Hicks-Gillette ownership fiasco and were rescued from financial oblivion by the Fenway Group.
Goalscoring – wise the chart is quite illustrative. Similar to City, Arsenal was far superior in the early years but by the 2012-13 season the tide began to turn coinciding with the “Brendan Rogers – Luis Suarez” era. The last three years under Jurgen Klopp has seen Liverpool gradually widen the goal-scoring gap and a similar advantage in league position.
Like City, Liverpool’s goal-scoring superiority has coincided with with them becoming a more possession oriented team. In the early part of the 10 year period, under traditional British managers such as Roy Hodgson and Kenny Daglish, Arsenal consistently outclassed Liverpool in terms of possession but during the Klopp era roles have been reversed with a significant 3% superiority in the last 2 out of 3 years. Is it any coincidence that during this period Arsenal fell out of the top 4?
Arsenal vs Man United
If goals-scored and possession percentage explain City and Liverpool’s growing offensive superiority to Arsenal then what of the reverse side of the argument. In other words, is there a comparable club to Arsenal who have declined in league position as reflected in their goal scoring and possession stats?
In my opinion, there is no better example than Manchester United.
Not surprisingly, in the early years, up to the Alex Ferguson’s last season in 2012-13, United would, more often than not, outscore Arsenal. But since then it has been a downhill slide relative to the Gunners. Since Ferguson’s departure, Arsenal tend to outscore them season after season, despite United’s massive investments in new players and managers.
As the chart of possession demonstrates, while United has never been a team to emphasize possession, even during the Ferguson era. Since he left and after Van Gaal’s last season in 2015, their possession percentage has been in a secular decline. They have been consistently exceeded by Arsenal who themselves have been overhauled by City and Liverpool. Is it any surprise, therefore, that United in recent years is struggling to score goals, outscored even by Arsenal? Is it any surprise they have frequently fallen out of the top-4, three times in the last five years and as low as seventh in the 13-14 season?
In conclusion, I am not pretending to have established a valid scientific correlation between goals scored and possession percentage. Nonetheless the charts demonstrate unmistakable patterns. While City and Liverpool, the two top-clubs in the EPL, maximize their offensive potential by emphasizing greater possession percentage, in contrast former giants Arsenal and Manchester United are trending in the opposite direction. Six years post-Ferguson United are still struggling to find the right way of playing to re-establish themselves as one of the dominant clubs in England. One wonders if it will be a similar pattern at Arsenal.