How Arsenal and Manchester City have followed the same path (but others have not)



Arsenal / Man City = the secret

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.


Team Goals Shots per Game Shots per goal
Manchester City 94 15.8 5.95
Arsenal 88 15.6 5.64
Tottenham 70 13.6 5.14
Fulham 55 11.3 4.87
Liverpool 75 15.9 4.72
Leicester 51 11 4.63
Newcastle 68 15 4.53
Aston Villa 51 11.3 4.51
Manchester United 58 15.6 3.72
Chelsea 38 12.7 2.99


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.


6 Replies to “How Arsenal and Manchester City have followed the same path (but others have not)”

  1. Tony

    Possession and success on the back of it has been a hobby horse of mine for years, especially as there is a loud group of fans who still refuse to accept this basic premise. Of course you have to do something with it, but the fact is, even if you are profligate with the ball, at least your opponent cant score either without the ball.

    Anyway, back in February 2022 I did a comparison with what was high flying Liverpool at the time, and drew very similar conclusions. You can read my entire in depth analysis here

    if you wish, but here are a couple of the conclusions I drew if you prefer:

    “So the more possession we have had, the longer we have kept the ball, the more shots we have got away, the more times we have hit the target. The more we hit the target, the more we hit the back of the net.

    It all sounds pretty obvious, well it does to me, but this is not always the case. I’ve lost count of the amount of times I’ve heard, “It’s not about possession it’s what you do with it that counts” which is true to a degree, but it is ultimately a little misleading.

    Of course if you cant hit a barn door from 2 yards you can keep the ball all day and it wont do you much good, but that sort of profligate finishing is rare.

    I had a look at a few other teams and as a rule of thumb the more possession a team has, or the longer they keep hold of the ball, the more chances they create, the more goals they score, the more matches they win.”

    (There are stats in the old article regarding these conclusions)

    This was how I summarised my analysis at the time:


    It is obvious that over the last 9/10 Games Arsenal have upped their game. More possession. Better possession. Resulting in more shots. More goals. All this has bought us very close to Liverpool’s performance. But now those little differences can make all the difference.

    In very crude terms Liverpool’s 12% better possession has led to 5% better points return.

    Now of course there are other factors feeding in to this. Who we have both played. The refs. Luck. Etc. But I believe there is absolutely no denying that what this shows is that ‘keeping the ball’ or ‘possession’ is crucial.


    Yes you CAN have the ball and make poor use of it, but as a general rule the longer you keep the ball the more points you will get.

    Obvious really, but from my experience it’s not something everyone agrees with, but the stats do back it up.


    I find it gratifying to see that my in depth analysis back then is echoed so clearly in Tony’s latest analysis.

  2. I even did a piece about one of your oddities:

    “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”:

    So it can happen. You can dominate the ball and not win, or be dominated and get a result, but that doesn’t change the fact that in the long term it pays to keep the ball.

    I will say that something that does stand out, and again it is pretty obvious, hitting the target with your shots is crucial as well, especial in an evenly balanced game.

    By coincidence Leeds were an example of this yesterday.

    Possession in the match against Spurs was exactly 50/50, a close game you would of thought.

    Shots at goal would bear this out. In Fact Leeds out shot Spurs 19 to 15. But here’s the crucial part. Leeds only hit the target twice, Spurs 11 times.

    Which shows you, in an evenly balanced match possession wise other factors then become crucial, and it’s not really surprising that ‘finishing’ is often that crucial factor.

    At the end of the day Spurs had a £150 Million (Not my evaluation) striker and Leeds didn’t.

    Spooky aye!

  3. 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.

    If you’ve got the ball keep it. The other side can’t score.

    So said Vic Buckingham the man that gave Johann Cruyff his debut.

  4. Bobby Charlton said shoot on sight. Its like Baz ball in the cricket. You have a constant attacking mindset Have ten shots score 3.So simply put any where closer than 25 yards and shooting should be a high priority. Last seaon Arsenal had Saka Martinelli and Odergaard with a high scoring accuracy. Saka though is the key . Take away Saka and Arsenal become manageable and late on last season Saka went somewhat quiet. Teams know Arsenal like to play the game at a fast pace and get the ball to Saka and Martinelli. What if teams slow the game down and constantly tackle Martinelli and Saka hard all game?

  5. “What if teams slow the game down and constantly tackle Martinelli and Saka hard all game?”
    I suspect that several opposition players will get yellow cards and slow down their tackling. Meanwhile Odegaard and Jesus will flourish through the extra space that they have with all that attention being paid to Saka and Martinelli.

  6. Tony Attwood says:
    22 July 2023 at 7:30 AM
    “What if teams slow the game down and constantly tackle Martinelli and Saka hard all game?”
    I suspect that several opposition players will get yellow cards and slow down their tackling. Mind you if the hard tackling put Saka or Marinelli out for 6 months the red card and 4 match stand down would be worth it..

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