Arsenal / Man City = the secret
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By Tony Attwood and data from Who Scored
The team that had the lowest number of shots against it in the Premier League last season was Manchester City, an average of 7.7 per game. Second in the list by this measure was Arsenal with 9.0 shots against them per game. By way of comparison Tottenham had 13.7 shots against them, and Bournemouth 16.5.
In fact three of last season’s top four clubs in the league were also in the top four of the lowest number of shots against them.
Now there is nothing very surprising in this given that three of the top four in this metric (Manchester City, Arsenal and Newcastle) also had the smallest number of goals against. But it does establish the simple rule: stop the opposition shooting and you stop them scoring.
But how to do that? Curiously not by tackling. The two clubs with the lowest number of tackles last season were… Manchester City and Arsenal. And the reason, as we have noted often before, is that when a club tackles, it hands power over to the referee, to blow for a foul and perhaps a card, thus giving the advantage to the opposition. And I know it seems strange, but PGMO officials don’t treat all clubs the same in this regard. Manchester City could only make 1.36 tackles last season before getting a foul given against them. Arsenal were slightly better at it making 1.52 tackles before a foul was given – but the number is still low.
However, the more a club tackles the more lax the referee becomes. Leeds for example, the highest tackling club in the league last year could make 1.8 tackles before a foul was called, compared with Arsenal’s 1.52
But if tackling is not the method that Arsenal and Manchester City are using (for fear of yellow cards against oncoming opposition players, what is? (Leeds, Wolverhampton and Forest each got 84 cards last season – just two fewer than Arsenal got in 2019/20, when Arteta joined as manager half way through the season).
And also it is not fouls (and that is worth checking because not all fouls are tackles). Manchester City committed the least fouls (at least according to the referees) while Arsenla were not far behind, in fourth.
Or perhaps it was by catching the opposition offside? No again, the offside kings were Liverpool, Leicester and Manchester United (a fact that I suspect stops Liverpool and Manchester United climbing further up the league. Offsides work, but intelligent fast attackers know how to overcome it as a process).
Or maybe interceptions? No again. The smallest number of interceptions in the season were made by … Manchester City and then Arsenal. All the teams that relied on interceptions the most, were near the foot of the league – working from the bottom up, Southampton, West Ham, Leeds, Everton, Leciester.
Or could it be through winning areal challenges? In fact no again. Actually Manchester City were the worst team at winning aerial challenges – Arsenal were 14th. Brentford were the best.
So how are Arsenal and Manchester City stopping the shots against them, if they are not using tackles, fouls, offside tactics, arial battles or interceptions?
First, by cutting the number of yellow cards. Tackle fewer times and generally you get fewer yellows and therefore defenders on not spending part of the game on edge worrying about being sent off.
Second by having a lot of shots. That’s not enough in itself, as Brighton and Liverpool had the most last season, but Manchester City and Arsenal were third and fourth.
Third, keep possession. Manchester City were best at that, with Liverpool and Brighton again above Arsenal in fourth. Keeping possession better is going to be a major factor this season.
Fourth, passing ability obviously helps (Manchester City were best, again Arsenal fourth) but again was not definitive.
No, in fact it was the accuracy of Arsenal’s shooting that was the measure where they outplayed almost everyone – and this combined with having four players who have that ability, in Saka, Matinelli, Odegaard and Jesus (with Eddie only two behind).
Now this is a bit odd, because you might think that teams at the top of the league are having FEWER shots per goal, because their shooting is more accurate. But no, teams near the top tend to shoot more than teams lower down the league. And of course like all statistics one has to be aware of how oddities can be achieved.
For example, Leicester despite being relegated were mid-table when it came to goals, but they achieved these goals with a modest number of shots. That was their problem – they were not getting the ball to their forwards often enough to allow them to shoot more because they were so worried about conceding at the other end.
Basically what you want is a team that shoots a lot, and then has a high level of accuracy. Brighton and Liverpool each had more shots than Manchester City and Arsenal, but not the accuracy. Tottenham have the accuracy (largely known as Mr Kane) but don’t have the midfield to get the ball to him enough, so the number of goals is lower, and the number of Kanes on the pitch is one.
What this table shows is that shots-per-game is an important measure, and here Liverpool, Manchester City, Manchester United and Newcastle are the teams that are delivering. But in terms of turning these shots into goals it is Manchester City and Arsenal who are out in front. Tottenham are in third, but with only one goal scorer the number of goals they get is quite a bit fewer. I’ve included Chelsea as well in the table below, just to add a little light humour to a rather maths heavy article. If one just measured “Shots per goal” in terms of efficiency, Chelsea would be right up at the top. But unfortunately for them it doesn’t work like that.
|Shots per Game
|Shots per goal
In part the success of Manchester City and Arsenal comes also from limiting the number of shots against them per game – these two clubs are the best in that measure as well. But the key element is to keep shooting. By doing that the attacking team forces the opposition to put more defenders on the pitch, and to play further back, which also reduces their own ability to score on the counterattack.
Taking more and more shots per goal looks bad in one way – it suggests inaccuracy, but it is the “shoot on sight” policy that draws opposition defenders back all the time and gives the opportunity of more goals, while reducing the opposition’s ability to counter attack very easily, as their players are all occupied defending.
Arsenal are doing it by having four players who can score on the pitch. Manchester City by having one player who never misses. Either approach will work.
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