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May 2021

Revealed: the secret that will allow Arsenal to win the league next season.

By Tony Attwood

I wrote a little while ago answering the point that what Arsenal needed was better attackers, pointing out that in fact we had only scored nine fewer goals than Chelsea through the course of the season, and so on its own this hardly seemed the complete reason why we came fifth and they came first.

It is also said (sometimes by the same people who say that we need better attackers) that we need a better defence.   Maybe that is so, as our defence was the fifth best in the league, but just having better defenders doesn’t necessarily make everything work ok.

Consider last season’s league table if printed not in the order of most points but in the order of best defence.

Pos Team Pld W D L GF GA GD Pts
2 Tottenham Hotspur 38 26 8 4 86 26 60 86
6 Manchester United 38 18 15 5 54 29 25 69
1 Chelsea 38 30 3 5 85 33 52 93
3 Manchester City 38 23 9 6 80 39 41 78
4 Liverpool 38 22 10 6 78 42 36 76
5 Arsenal 38 23 6 9 77 44 33 75
7 Everton 38 17 10 11 62 44 18 61

We are still fifth, but notably Manchester United comes second in this rating.  In other words they had nearly the best defence (only three more goals conceded than Tottenham) but they came sixth in the real league table based on points.

Certainly if Arsenal had had a better defence that would have earned us a few more points, but it might not have earned enough to close the gap on Chelsea in terms of points total.

But then if it is not a case of buying better attackers or better defenders what on earth is it that we need to change the club around and get us to the top of the league table by the end of the season?

In fact, the goal difference column gives us something of an insight.

Pos Team Pld W D L GF GA GD Pts
2 Tottenham Hotspur 38 26 8 4 86 26 60 86
1 Chelsea 38 30 3 5 85 33 52 93
3 Manchester City 38 23 9 6 80 39 41 78
4 Liverpool 38 22 10 6 78 42 36 76
5 Arsenal 38 23 6 9 77 44 33 75
6 Manchester United 38 18 15 5 54 29 25 69
7 Everton 38 17 10 11 62 44 18 61

This table runs in the order of goal difference is almost identical to the actual league table, Tottenham being the only club to exceed its real position.   This suggests that it is not all about goal scoring nor a tight defence but about being able to move from attack to defence and vice versa very smoothly.   It can be done by having a back three with two wing backs who escape the defence, or by having the traditional 4-4-2 with very quick passing of the ball from defence to midfield to the two forwards, or by having the recent 4-3-3 system which has one of the midfielders putting defence splitting passes through to the three attackers.

So there is no system inherently better of itself than any other.  But the issue seems to be that 4-3-3 can be overwhelmed by the wing back system with three centre backs.

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Now of course someone is going to come along with a method that beats the approach of three centre backs and two wing backs, but at the moment I don’t think I have seen this on a regular basis.  Rather the opposite, the line of five across the back with both of the outside pair being very speedy on the ball, seems to win.

And most importantly this system can improve the goal difference simply by getting the ball ever more rapidly through the ranks from defence via the midfield to attack.

So for me the big issue about Arsenal from last season is not whether we scored enough goals, nor whether we had a good enough defence, but rather do we have the squad that can play the wing back system?  Because if we don’t, and if we revert to 4-3-3, we will probably be in trouble.

If we look at the Cup Final team we can see how this worked


Bellerin Holding Meresacker Monreal The Ox

Xhaka Ramsey

Ozil Alexis Welbeck

Because of the disparagement of the FA Cup by those who can’t stand the thought of Mr Wenger winning a trophy, or becoming a record holder in terms of the number of FA Cups won, the fact that we beat Manchester City and Chelsea against all the odds at Wembley has been rather ignored when it comes to how good the Arsenal team was after the move to the new system.

But if we look at the run in which we used the wing back formation we see this

17 Apr 2017 Middlesbrough v Arsenal W 1-2 Premier League
23 Apr 2017 Arsenal v Manchester City W 2-1 FA Cup
26 Apr 2017 Arsenal v Leicester City W 1-0 Premier League
30 Apr 2017 Tottenham Hotspur v Arsenal L 2-0 Premier League
07 May 2017 Arsenal v Manchester United W 2-0 Premier League
10 May 2017 Southampton v Arsenal W 0-2 Premier League
13 May 2017 Stoke City v Arsenal W 1-4 Premier League
16 May 2017 Arsenal v Sunderland W 2-0 Premier League
21 May 2017 Arsenal v Everton W 3-1 Premier League
27 May 2017 Arsenal v Chelsea W 2-1 FA Cup

20 goals for, seven against, giving us +13 goal difference across ten games.  If we take this from 10 up to the 38 games in a league season it gives us

  • Goals scored: 76 (actually got 77)
  • Goals against: 27 (actually conceded 44)
  • Goal difference +49 (actually 33)

Not as good as Tottenham got last season in what seems to be the important ratio of goal difference, but better than everyone else.

Of course I know that extrapolations like this never work out exactly in real life, but I think it is informative that this run of ten games included matches against Manchester City, Tottenham, and Chelsea, three of the four clubs that came above us last season.

In essence I am arguing we have an excellent approach to football all ready for us, and the players we buy have to be ones who can fit into this system, and either act as back ups to the team that won the cup final, or be improvements on that cup final squad.

That current line up makes no difference to our goal scoring, but it makes a dramatic improvement on our defending, and hence our goal difference – and hence our chance of winning the league.

So, much as I hate to do their work for them, if journalists and their fellow travellers want to knock Mr Wenger, it can only be in terms of the time it took him to deliver the new system.  But he got there in the end and now has an approach which looks extremely powerful.

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16 comments to Revealed: the secret that will allow Arsenal to win the league next season.

  • Chris


    Good and interesting analysis there.
    For Tottenham, I think they were more ruthless then others, never satisfied by a 1-0. And so rarely got on the officiating referees radar….

    it sure looks to me that our first recruit from Schalke 04 fits perfectly into the system. He can play several positions at the back and can score goals. Who will be let go to get new players is going to be the big question with the 25 player rule.

    By the way, do you know if other european championships have the same or similar rules ?


  • Jack

    Mr. Astwood,
    Like always your articles are informative and presents a different perspective making them a pleasure to read.

    While I was reading the article a few thoughts came to mind and I thought of putting it on table to know your thoughts on the same.

    Arsenal are undone in the following scenarios created by our opponents:

    A) Parking the bus in front of the 18 yard box and hitting us on the counter

    B) Getting physical with our players when we are in transition from defence to attack

    C) Some days we just don’t turn up as a team (this happens to all teams but they find a way to still win or draw)

    D) The much known slump in formal time between November to February.

    If you analyse our win vs loose ratio in the period between November to February in the last 10 years you may find a very different ratio than the other periods of the year. Many a times we have been leaders in the league till then only to finish third or fourth by the end of the season.

    Since these issues are happening year after year we should find a way to overcome these if we have to win the league.

    I look forward to reading your thoughts on these points.

  • Mandy Dodd

    Excellent analysis.
    I believe we really suffered in the transition from defence to attack due to the loss in the autumn of one of our finest players. Losing Santi visibly hit the team, especially the MF which looked dysfunctional in some games, , especially at a time when the PGMOL were certainly doing their bit
    I hope Wenger not only persists with this formation, but puts in adaptability….but our players certainly seem to suit a back three….the likes of Ox and Ramsey looked liberated. Confidence surged through the team as improved solidity at the back took over.
    The only game we lost was away at WHL in the very early days of this system, and even though we weren’t at out best, even that required one of those “special” penalties ,Spurs tend to get rather a lot, especially against us. It looks to me like Spurs players have this ability to temporarily increase the effect of the earths gravity when they run into the penalty box, and refs/media become so bewitched by this physical phenomena, they temporarily forget the rules of the game.
    But , whatever system he plays, we need a Santi or a Santi replacement to really be at our best.

  • Vince

    Keep in mind that inside the 7 goals conceded, there are 2 very generous penalties and a handball goal…

  • I don’t know about the 25 in other countries Chris, but we do of course have the same rule in Europe, so that makes me think it is not just an England thing. But only England is fixated by its assumed right to be the best country in the world, and then can’t work out why it isn’t. The answer as we have shown is the pathetically small number of qualified coaches that we have in England. But that matter is down to the FA who have never ever been known to accept the blame for anything.

  • MickHazel

    An interesting review of our youth players from Jeorge Bird….

  • Nitram


    Can you prove this “much known slump between November and February” ?

    You do realise that that’s 4 months out of a 9 Month season don’t you? Nearly half the season. That’s not so much a slump as catastrophe !

    Anyway, that apart, the reason I ask is because I’ve heard, and refuted, similar statements regarding:

    -Our well known bad starts.

    -Our well known collapse at the end of the season.

    -Our well known collapse in March.

    Of course we have bad starts, bad finishes and bad Marches. But we have good starts, good finishes and good Marches.

    There is no proof that any of the above accusations have any credence what so ever.

    So until you produce statistics to support the statement “much known slump between November and February” I’ll assume you’ve been listening to too much Talkshite.

  • SamuelAkinsolaAdebosin

    I believe Arsenal will win the League this coming seasoning if they keep good balance between the defence and attack i.e. the Gunners score 100 PL goals and concede only 15 goals. But who are the strikers, mid fielders and defenders in present 25 senior Gunners team who will score 100 and concede only 15 this coming season.

    Last season Sanchez scored 24, Giroud 12 and Walcott 10 to arrived at a total 46 scored by Arsenal 3 main strikers who for Giroud started the season and finished the season. The auxiliary strikers of Welbeck 0 and Perez 2. What a poor returns by the duo strikers. From the mid fielders, Ozil got 8, Ramsey 1, the Ox1, Elneny 0, Cazorla 0, Xhaka1 & Coquelin 0. That’s a total of 11 goals returned by the 7 mid fielders. Save Ozil, what a very poor returns by the rest 5 mid fielders. The defenders; Koscielny 2, Mustafi 1, Monreal 2, Holding 0, Gibbs 0, Bellerin1 & Paulista 0. Only 5 goals from the 7 defenders who mostly manned Arsenal defense-line last season?

  • Gord

    OT: Injuries (and getting physical)

    I was surprised by how many of the Arsenal U23 group are being affected by serious injuries.

    And after making that comment, I ran across a story from the College National Finals Rodeo in Casper, Wyoming a couple of days ago.

    > Gray suffered broken ribs, a bruised aorta and collapsed lungs Thursday night

    when a bull he had been on for only 2.96 seconds stomped on him.

    While Arsenal’s youth seem to be getting injured, this young man is pushing things a little more:

    > Gray, a junior at the college in Odesa, Texas, told the Star-Tribune on Tuesday that he was coming off his fifth serious injury of his college rodeo career. He suffered a broken back as a freshman, twice broke his jaw, suffered a torn groin and earlier this year broke a collarbone. All the injuries occurred from bull riding.

    And Brodie Gray isn’t likely to see the salary as a professional bull rider, that young football players might make.

  • JM Hedges

    Untold-Arsenal the only true,serious and knowledgeable articles in the lArsenal App.!

  • Ando

    Good article.

    Off Topic:

    Time wasting counter measures proposed

  • Whamio

    Very Interesting and refreshing Read! I spent about 2-3 Seasons trying to convince my fellow arsenal fans all those years ago that Higuain was a gamble…and today the only link i find truly exciting to Arsenal is the Kovacic link…i’ve seen him play a few times and i really think he is the missing link to Arsenal’s play! Lacazette somehow…feels like a signing if Sanchez leaves to me…curious about Mbappe under wenger but…both those players are big gambles…i have no idea how they will be in the EPL…

  • Gord

    IFAB Rule Changes

    I don’t like the idea of making football a 60 minute game. There are tooooooooooooooo many 60 minute games. Isn’t rugby 70 minutes? Make the game 35 minutes a half or 32.5 minutes a half of stop time. And the last 5 (or 2.5) minutes of each half, the clock is not shown at the field or on TV.

    Free kicks. I don’t like the idea of a player passing the ball to themselves. But, I also recognize times when you do something and it fluffs, and now you can’t kick the ball again. In terms of the ball must be motionless, I can see removing that restriction. The idea being that you wanted to put the ball back in play soon, and just failed to get the ball completely stopped. That is a pointless application of “gee, can I whistle more”.

    In terms of a player kicking the ball to themselves, I think the direct/indirect free kick handles that. If the player has an indirect free kick, the idea of the rule is that the person taking the free kick cannot score directly from the free kick. Keep the idea. If a person taking an indirect free kick ends up passing it to themselves, and then they kick it in the goal, the goal should be disallowed as the goal was scored by the person taking the indirect free kick with no other player intervening. Other than that, its fine.

    The penalty goal only works for me, if video evidence of sufficient quality is available. If the ball’s trajectory would have taken it within the confines of the goal, yes award the goal and card the player who handled the ball. But to ask a referee or linesman to make that determination on the fly without video and computer modeling is hopeless.

    I don’t like the thing about not being able to score on a penalty kick if the goalkeeper generates a rebound. This turns penalties issued during the game, into the same situation as the taking of penalties to decide a tied game after extra time has been played.

    I think the idea from Elleray is that if a penalty is issued, we want to remove the lining up of players on the periphery racing to get to a live ball. Which completely removes the idea that the person taking the penalty, essentially passes to a player on his own team who then shoots on goal.

    I think the current penalty is almost fine. Players line up to supposedly try to race to a rebound. If any players encroach the area before the ball is struck, _ALL_ the players who encroach are directed to stand on the midfield line and the penalty is retaken.

    That version would keep all the trickery which could go into an in-time penalty in play. But again, to do this without access to video, the referee probably isn’t going to be able to catch all the players encroaching.

    The articles I’ve seen about this proposal, all say that a team “could” be docked points for surrounding a referee (or assistant -referee, my words). I think the word “could” should be changed to “will”. 1 point per person surrounding the referee. If all 10 outfield players surround the referee, docked 10 points. As the captain is allowed (and the captain may be the goaltender), maybe make the dockage N-1 points.

    In the real world, this also has to rely on video evidence. Otherwise the PGMO will claim that 11 Arsenal players surround the referee on every call. Which may be almost technically correct, except that most of those players are not even close to the referee, may not be facing the referee or could conceivably be walking away from the referee.

    But that wouldn’t stop 😈 Mike Riley’s boys from trying to do a number on Arsenal.

    I think that is all my comments.

  • para

    I wonder how Santi would fit in with 3 at the back?
    Maybe he will return just when we need a change back to 4-3-3 for another approach.
    Cant harm to be flexible, especially with the competition getting tougher and tougher.

    Crossroads for some players now at Arsenal, so we will see who is left and who comes.

    I’m not far off a being a little excited though.

  • sifarzone

    It is a good 1 year analysis. I would caution on drawing too many conclusions on a 1 year sample size