How best to explain why Arsenal are top of the league

By Tony Attwood

It is a bit of a tradition in England to hate maths.  As if not being good at maths is something to be proud of perhaps because being good at maths is somehow a bit unmanly.  To suggest that to be interested in statistics is to be a bit of a nerd.

OK it is a point of view, but it is a point of view that makes it harder to understand football.  To give an example, consider Arsenal’s position at the top of the league.  Everyone understands that is because of the way the points system works: three points for a win, one for a draw.   But of course that is just a convention – and rather curiously it appears that when the Football League was first run in 1888/9 the league programme started without any agreement on how the league table would look.  They didn’t agree until December.

Before that there was a suggestion that the team scoring the most goals should win which would leave the current league table reading

Team P W D L F A
1 Manchester City 26 18 4 4 66 25
2 Arsenal 26 20 3 3 59 25
3 Liverpool 25 12 6 7 47 28
4 Tottenham Hotspur 26 14 3 9 46 36

There was also a suggestion that the number of victories in a season should be the way to sort things out.  That would show a table at the moment of

Team P W D L F A
1 Arsenal 26 20 3 3 59 25
2 Manchester City 26 18 4 4 66 25
3 Manchester United 25 15 4 6 41 35
4 Tottenham Hotspur 26 14 3 9 46 36

Of course for a long time we did have a different system – one in which there was two points for a win rather than three, and one in which “goal average” (the goals scored divided by goals conceded) would separate teams on equal numbers of points.  Fortunately, to find the current league table under that system there is not much working out to do.

Team P W D L F A Pts
1 Arsenal 26 20 3 3 59 25 43
2 Manchester City 26 18 4 4 66 25 40
3 Manchester United 25 15 4 6 41 35 34
4 Tottenham Hotspur 26 14 3 9 46 36 31

So maths has always been a part of football – which raises the question, can we explain why Arsenal are doing so well this season on the basis of any maths other than the league table?

Of course the points are the thing that decides who is top, but there is a bunch of interesting stats below that which actually show exactly how Arsenal are achieving the results they are getting (other than the obvious one of scoring more goals than other clubs in the individual games).

First, Arsenal have more shots per game than any other team.   Currently that is 16.6.  Manchester City are on 16.5 and Liverpool on 16.4 but after that there is a big drop to  the fourth-placed team in the shots per game – Brighton on 14.7.  Tottenham are sixth and Newcastle seventh.  Shots by and large equals success.

Second, yellow cards.  Arsenal are 14th in a league table based on cards, having eight more than Manchester City who are bottom.  Cards do relate to success.

Of course such factors on their own are not enough.  West Ham, for example, are equal bottom of the yellow cards table and that hasn’t helped them at all.  (My guess is that they are trying to emulate Arsenal’s approach but don’t have the quality of players.)

Third, possession.   Manchester City are the kings of possession having 64.5% this season.  Arsenal are second on 60.6%   This is another area where Tottenham are coming unstuck.   They have 50.1%.  By way of comparison, Leeds United are on 49.4%, just below Tottenham.  If Tottenham sorted that out, they would be above fourth in the league.

Pass success is another area where Arsenal do well, and this particular measurement shows us something else as well…. (figures from WhoScored).  This table is the top four for successful passes shown as a percentage, and indeed Chelsea are there in fourth, but their figures for goals scored and yellow cards are way out of line with the more successful clubs.

Team Goals Shots per game Yellows Possession% Pass%
1. Manchester City 66 16.5 31 64.5 88.9
2. Brighton 43 14.7 31 59.4 85.5
3. Arsenal 59 16.6 39 60.6 85.4
4. Chelsea 24 11.8 50 59.2 85.4

Indeed what we can see with Chelsea is that their number of shots per game is way down while their yellow card total is way up.  Possession and pass rate are fine – so if they were to find a goalscorer, and stop Gallagher, Koulibaly and Mount getting yellows each time they touch the ball, that would solve all their problems.

And this really makes the point: to do well in the league needs all the key factors to be in place.  Chelsea have a high level of passing, and their pass success is very high. They are second in the number of tackles.  But they are 15th in the shots table.

What all these numbers tell us is something quite simple.  For a club to do well it has to do well in all the standard measurements.  Fall down on one (in Chelsea’s case shots) and that pulls down the club’s position overall, no matter how well it is doing on possession, pass rates, avoiding yellows etc.

It is a case in this league that the top couple of clubs manage to get things right in every area.

One Reply to “How best to explain why Arsenal are top of the league”

1. Osofuye Odunayo Damilola says:

I really enjoyed this analysis.