By Tony Attwood
As in many cases when I try and unravel a problem in a team, I am starting out by using history. This may look boring but I think it does give us a real indication as to what is going on with our away form, and how we can make it better.
I’m particularly moved to do this now because of the utterly misleading comments made on Arsenal TV during the programme covering the Wolverhampton away game. The piece contains some data, which I know tends to be a turn off to some people, but it is the data that provides the evidence as to where the solution will lie. So having said that, here we go…
In 2010/11 Arsenal had the best away record in the Premier League – and by some margin. Here is how the away table looked at the end of the season…
I’ve gone down to sixth in this table just to show how fast football can change. As I write, Sunderland are hovering just outside the automatic promotion places to get out of League One – the third tier. Just eight years ago they had the sixth best away record in the Premier League.
The following season, 2011/12 we had slipped to third in the away table overtaken by a massively improved Manchester United. Man U, in 2010/11 had won five games away from home. One fewer than Arsenal this season so far. Then they shot up to 13 away wins.
So lesson one: change can come quickly – both in terms of going down (Sunderland) and up (Man U away).
In the following season, 2012/13 Man U were again rampant away from home but Arsenal were hanging on
Staying with the away form, we move on one season to 2013/14. Arsenal and Man U were still up there but Liverpool were strutting around..
What is interesting is that Arsenal’s goal tally of 25 got them second place in the away table in 2012/13 but now 32 away goals took them up to second.
And let us look at Arsenal’s away goal difference across the four seasons in the tables above: 11, 3, 11, 2. There’s no real rationale here – no consistent logic to say, “play like this and you’ll achieve this away from home.”
By 2014/15 however the all dominating Manchester United away team of two seasons before was now in danger of dropping out of the charts… Arsenal held on to third spot away from home, Man U were 7th. Three of the top seven away teams had negative goal differences.
2015/16 was Leicester’s year while Man U’s away form was even worse than before. Arsenal however were still holding on as the third best away team. After being the top away team in 2013/14 Liverpool were now in sixth for the second year running.
|4||West Ham United||19||7||7||5||31||25||6||28|
And then 2016/17 was Arsenal’s time to slip down the away table
Yet in this 2016/17 season Arsenal gained only one fewer away point than in 2010/11 when Arsenal were the best performing away team in the league!
Moving on to 2017/18 we did out collapse, but there is something else to notice here. Man City came in with 50 points away from home – completely unprecedented. However the second and third place total of 34 points was normal for that position.
And so this season thus far…
22 points with two games to go. Certainly better than the 16 of last season, but still not that good. But… 28 away goals has in some season been sufficient to see a team in third or fourth place in the away table. And in one season above 31 goals against was within a goal of both the first and second team in the away league.
Thus there are no rules, only generalities, but two factors do stand out. First the teams near the top are tending to keep the away defeats down to around four games a season. Second the goal difference away from home is, for the best teams, normally in the top teens or lower 20s. The other factors are immensely variable, so it is best to focus on those two as a target.
We need to reduce the number of defeats and move to a positive goal difference away from home. That second objective could be achieved by improving the attack but is more likely to be achieved by improving the away defence. That in turn seems to suggest having a different line-up for away games which will keep out the goals.
This season we are quite likely to score close to the number goals away from home than we did in the unbeaten season. We’re on 28 with two games to go – in the unbeaten season we scored 33 away from home. The difference was we only conceded 12 away from home in the unbeaten era – so again it is the defence that needs work, not the attack.
So the answer appears to be, we need a much stronger away from home defence, which in turn could mean having players who, while not exclusively used away from home, might be predominantly used in that role. And as I said at the start, change can come quickly – we can see it in those tables above. A couple of players could do it or even one player and a new formation away from home.
Which leads me to my final point. This season we have lost Bellerin, Koscielny, Monreal and Holding for long spells – four players who would normally be regular choices in the line up. We can’t blame injuries for all our woes, but with the emergence of Maitland-Niles, fewer injuries, and one more purchase with the away defence in mind, and we could be well on the way to solving this problem.