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What’s so different at Arsenal that has led to this improvement? Actually, its…

It’s the Defence, Stupid…

By Pete

This is the first of 3 slightly related articles examining (i) a reason for our recent improvement (ii) how the analysis of football matches in the media is fundamentally flawed and (iii) the importance of retaining focus on longer term goals.

To start, I have been thinking about the underlying reasons for our improvement since that infamous match away to Sp*rs on 3rd March this year.  Don McMahon published a good piece on this site on Friday reviewing this subject and, although he touched on the defence, he did not explore in detail.

But, why did I choose this date?  Well, after that game the defence apparently sat down to figure out what was going wrong.  Subsequent to this Szczesney and Vermaelen were dropped while Gibbs clearly established himself as first choice left back ahead of Monreal.  Szczsesny subsequently got back into the team when Fabianski got injured, and has retained his place, while Vermaelen, handicapped by an injury, has not.  Mertesacker and Sagna remained present other than when injured or rested.

So, what impact has this made?

Well, I had a couple of hunches as to what might have happened so ran some numbers to check.  The full statistical analysis is available on request to anyone who lets me know their e-address.  I have only considered league games.

To summarise, for the 2012/13 season up to and including the Tottenham game, we had won 13, drawn 8 and lost 7.  Scoring 53 goals at an average of 1.89 per game.  We had also conceded 32 goals at an average of 1.14 per game.

Then, for the remainder of that season plus the start of this, we have won 13, drawn 2 and lost just 1.  We scored 32 goals at an average of 2.00 per game, but have only conceded 12 at an average of 0.75 per game.  Therefore we can see that we became slightly more potent going forward but a dramatic improvement at the back saw the goals conceded cut by a third (and if it hadn’t been for several needless and/or unfairly awarded penalties the numbers would be even better)!

I also ran a more detailed analysis looking at the probable outcomes based on the incidence of goals scored and conceded.

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For the first period, all else being equal we should have won 46% of games, drawn 23% and lost 31%.  The actual numbers were won 46%, drew 29% and lost 25%.  So we were a little more efficient than would be expected by chance, converting a couple of defeats into draws, but not much.

For the second period, again all else being equal, we should have won 68% of games, drawn 25% and lost 7%.  The actual numbers were won 81%, drew 13% and lost 6%.  Startling efficiency!

[My next article will look a little deeper at how the fact that football is a low-scoring game significantly increases the likelihood of unexpected results.]

In the meantime, I think we can draw two conclusions from this:

  1. The defence has improved dramatically.  On the other hand, the attack has done a little better – but only marginally.  What is more this impact has been felt long before Flamini and Ozil signed.  As to why, I would suggest: (i) stability and (ii) better communication.
  2. Our efficiency in eking out wins despite not being dominant (i.e. a lot of 1 goal victories) is very impressive.  This must be partly down to luck – but I think also, with the defence in much greater control, we have been able to see out games quite comfortably despite only being a goal or two to the good.  I think we would agree that this hasn’t always been the case!

More broadly, I don’t really buy all the recent hype around the fact that we have only become a successful team given Ozil’s arrival and Giroud’s improvement – welcome though these are – but the real difference has been at the back.  I think this was exemplified by how well we kept a very good Napoli attack at arm’s length on Tuesday for three-quarters of the game, restricting them to long range efforts.  And this improvement also predates Flamini’s signing.

One caveat to note: our run of games since 3rd March has been slightly easier than average with the converse true of the earlier period.  Although this will have diluted the numbers slightly, I still believe the general thrust holds true.


The books…

The sites from the same team…


23 comments to What’s so different at Arsenal that has led to this improvement? Actually, its…

  • Lobster

    What’s the one thing Steve Bould and a marriage councellor preach to their clients:
    “In every succesful relationship, COMMUNICATION IS KEY”

  • Mandy Dodd

    The defence has certainly improved, some of wengers critics would say this is down to the increasing influence of Mr Bould, personally, I do not care if it is down to Gunnersaurus, just glad to see the improvement. I also happen to think TV will thrive under our new found discipline when called upon. It is also clear our MF provides more protection to the defence than maybe in recent years, players like Flam and Arteta have awareness to add to the industry and ability of the likes of Jack and Ramsey. The bar has been raised, younger players have improved, everyone , or just about everyone is playing for a place, this has not always been the case. And is the great man himself a bit on the re-energised side, certainly seems to be to me. Enjoyed reading this , look forward to the rest in your series

  • some 30 or 40 years ago, Brian Clough said it takes 6 months for a new player to gell into a team.
    This season is the first for a few years when we have not lost major players (as A.W points out)
    Over the last few years we have come strong at the latter part of the season because the players are getting used to each other
    Ozil and Flamini are wonderful, but we were improving before their arrival as your stats point out. This bodes well for us as these two players can add immmensly to our team AND we get players back from injury.Whoopeee !!

  • colario

    Lobster you have come late to the game if you think that ‘communication’ has come from Steve.

    When Arsene arrived we had a very promising young goalkeeper.
    He was already the England under 21 GK. Bob Wilson thought very highly of him and thought he would make it to the top. Arsene didn’t agree with ‘our Bob’! Seemingly the young GK was technically good but he didn’t communicate to his defense. Eventually he was allowed to leave. He never made it to the top.

    Almunia (I think I have spelt his name wrong – I apologise if I have)wasn’t so hot technically but he communicated and because of this was even made captain for at least one game.

    I agree we are seeing a team that does communicate better than for sometime. Long may it continue.

  • Mandy Dodd

    Yes, Almunia was a good communicator, excellent distribution too, his positives have been somewhat lost over time

  • nicky

    I would go a bit further than you Terry, and say the first season in the EPL is a learning one. Messrs Cazorla, Podolski, Giroud and Moreal are now reaping the benefit of their first term’s experience.
    Success breeds confidence and the whole team is benefitting from the latter part of last season, PLUS the arrival of the exquisite Ozil and the engine room talent of Flamini, Arsenal’s own prodigal son.
    The real test will come when a minor disaster strikes as it surely will. My own opinion is that the team members have now reached such a measure of confidence and belief in each other, that any likely adversity will be overcome.
    It goes without saying that any success will be achieved only with the aid of noisy supporting fans, home and away,
    in triumph AND disaster.

  • Unbelievable belief

    So zonal defending works?
    According to the anti Wenger f^cknuts it doesn’t.

    Hate to get facts in the way of bullshit.
    It works. Period.

  • jambug

    Both ‘man to man’ and ‘zonal’ works so long as the team is coached well enough and of course the players are good enough.

    For some reason tho the pundits seem to have it in for zonal. As soon as a team marking Zonaly conceeds they start on about the drawbacks of the system and yet if team marking man to man conceeds they never seem to mention it.

    I donn’t get what they have against it.

  • Unbelievable belief

    The pundits are mostly 80’s and 90’s dinosaurs.

  • Unbelievable belief

    Some Rafa facts:

    Bouldy is no idiot, if he helped bring this in, well and good, but let’s remember to credit Wenger too.

  • marcus

    The season toughens up from November 2 when we meet Liverpool.

    Will AFC be No 1 at Xmas?

  • marcus

    …and which players will be back in a month’s time?

  • Unbelievable belief

    You say tough games?
    Against pool and manure? I’ve seen both their non-existent midfields today.
    Bring it on.

    Dortmund got beaten in the road today too.
    Santi, Poldi, Theo should be back soon – maybe even before the BvB game.

  • fishpie

    Pete, a really interesting and well researched article. Can’t wait to read other articles you are planning. Without having done the maths you’ve applied, my sense is that the team is being more pragmatic, prepared to give up possession (which before actually often got us into trouble) and more prepared to close down, get an off the ball shape in place and try for a break to create fewer but more incisive attacks. And I agree, this was instigated at the back end of last season rather than this. Having been increasingly critical of Mr. Wenger in recent years, I should give him credit for either changing things or allowing others to change things for him , something I’ve accused him of being unable to do. So encouraging numbers. As to your final point about us having had easier games which may be exaggerating the turnaround a little, my sense was that too often we tended to drop points against the so called “lesser” teams. Now it seems we are at least picking up the points more consistently against such teams. Do your figures confirm this, or is this an illusion? Nice work Pete.

  • jambug


    I beleive in the equivelent fixtures last year, to those played so far this year, we was actually 3 points better off as we actually beat Villa at home last season.

    Not knocking what we have done this year because I’m loving every minute of it. Just have to temper everything a little until we’ve played the Liverpools, Utds, Citys and Chelseas of this World before I will believe the revolution is really well and truely underway.

    Having said that I’m very confident we will pass those up and coming tests with flying colours when we do face them.

  • ARSENAL 13

    I dont understanding this patronizing of Bould. Why it has to be “Oh it Wengers fault…./Thanks to Bould”. Its not our local sunday league club. This is ARESNAL. Its a team thats at work here.

  • Obsever

    Why attribute all defensive success to Bould? Because it fits the narrative that AW can never do right on defence

    If the defence is weak, its because AW doesn’t know a thing about defence

    If the defence is strong, its because of someone else doing the right thing (Bould) and no credit should be given to AW.

    Whether the above is true or otherwise, we’ll never know unless some insider leaks out stories. However, there is an ongoing narrative to portray the story as such, whatever the motives

  • jambug

    Managing a football team is no different to managing anything else.

    The role of the manager is to see and manage the bigger picture.

    You wouldn’t expect the manager of a computor company to be able to buy the parts, build it, pack it, sell it, do the accounts etc. would you?

    The one thing he may do is design the thing.

    In the same vien why would you expect Wenger to be the goalkeeping coach, deffensive coach, neutritional expert, the doctor or the physio. You would’nt.

    What you would exect is that e will have the vision, ideas and ideals to which he wants his team to aspire. It’s Wengers job to put into place the best people he can find to bring his vision into reality.

    Wenger is the BOSS. It is Wenger who stands or falls on how he puts all those things together.

    Who cares who is actually ‘Hands on’ with the Keeper, back 4 or whatever.

  • Arsenal 13, I think Observer answered the question in his second sentence: Steve Bould is getting all the credit because it could kill the anti-Wengerians to actually give the manager credit for anything.

    This reminds of last season. At the beginning, our defence was water tight and all I heard was how great Steve Bould was. It sounded odd to me that the assistant is getting the credit but I was mainly interested in the team’s success, so I did not say anything. Then we started conceding in droves and the new mantra was that Arsene Wenger, out of spiteful jealousy had relieved SB of defensive coaching duties! Then the defence tightened again and the talking point changed to: AW has finally succumb to reason by giving back the role to SB.

    It was a case of Heads, SB wins; Tails, AW loses!

  • bob

    Well observed that treacherous media strategy.

  • Pete

    Thanks for feedback guys. It seems that unless a troll/supporter of another team referenced dives in and makes a fool of him/herself then comment numbers are a little restrained! Of course now that we have had the audacity to ONLY DRAW A MATCH I suspect there may be some crawling in the undergrowth… Let’s see what happens with articles over the next couple of days. And will try to keep half an eye on the well-known negative blogs.

  • Pat

    You were right Pete.

    Sperez suddenly surfaced in one of the debates after days of silence.

  • Rang

    Good observations Pete. I’ll continue with your part 2. If communication is really the key, let me be the first to point out that it has increased 3 folds since the arrival of Flamini. Should be good sign 😀