This weekend Arsenal dropped points again. Away at Swansea City is not an easy fixture, but it’s a match a top-four competitor expects to win. After going ahead on a beautiful move finished by Alexis Sánchez in the center of the danger zone, Arsenal were quickly reeled back by a 30-yard free kick strike from Gylfi Sigurdsson. Three minutes later Jefferson Montero flew by Calum Chambers down the left wing and lofted a cross to the center of the box. Bafetimbi Gomis bullied Nacho Monreal out of the way and headed home the winning goal.
But despite dropping points, Arsenal easily controlled the balance of chances created. The expected goals map shows Arsenal creating several dangerous opportunities in the center of the box and only converting one.
So while some are asking if something is wrong at the Emirates, the stats say, simply, no. Everything is actually fine. Arsenal has been creating chances at an exceptionally strong rate, and while its cobbled-together back line has not conceded as many great scoring opportunities as fans had worried. My current projections place the Gunners solidly in third place with over an 80 percent chance of finishing top four once again. By opponent-adjusted expected goals, Arsenal actually has the best underlying statistics in the Premier League, slightly edging out Chelsea.
So what is going on here? What has caused the disconnect between Arsenal’s stats and its 4-5-2 record? Arsenal’s problem is that they struggle in the clutch. Arsenal has only managed to score a game-tying goal three times this season while allowing four. Arsene Wenger’s side has scored eight tie-breaking goals and conceded five. In those moments when a single goal makes the difference between collecting the points or dropping them, Arsenal has been no better than a little above average.
Struggles in the clutch could reflect real weaknesses in the side, but in most cases these sorts of cold streaks do not last. Arsenal fans should be reasonably optimistic if this is the only problem with their club.
But there is one other possible confounding factor. Maybe Arsenal’s expected goals statistics are inflated by game state effects. In general, when a soccer team is losing by a goal, it will convert its shots at a lower rate than when it is winning by the same score. Teams tend to outperform their expected goals by several percentage points when winning and underperform when losing. This is most likely an effect of defensive pressure. Winning teams will sit back and keep more men behind the ball, while losing teams will push forward looking for an equalizer. And indeed Arsenal has done much more of their attacking in less favorable game states compared to most of their competition.
So what if we adjust for game state? Will that drop Arsenal back? Certainly the adjustment should help both Chelsea and Southampton, who have spent most of the 2014-2015 season playing with a lead. But for Arsenal this adjustment is two-pronged. While the club’s expected goals scored will drop, so will its expected goals conceded. All of those equalizing goals that Arsenal conceded were also allowed in unfavorable game states. Remember the four equalizing goals that Arsenal conceded? They came from only 19 shots, worth an estimated 1.8 expected goals. When I adjust for game state, I adjust the expected goals value of those shots down even further. Those troubling goals conceded numbers in high-leverage game states have mostly come on the back of a hot run of finishing by Arsenal’s opponents.
This graph shows the full game-state-adjusted expected goals ratios for Arsenal and the top three sides in the Premier League. These adjustments do help Chelsea’s and Southampton’s stats, but not by enough to unseat Arsenal from the top run.
Through 11 matches in the English Premier League season, Arsenal has the league’s best underlying statistics. Even adjusting for game state cannot knock the Gunners from their perch. The primary cause of the club’s poor record is that its opponents have converted a very high rate of their shots in high-leverage situations. This sort of trend is unlikely to continue, and Arsenal should be well-prepared to make another run into the top four positions.
All data provided by Opta unless otherwise noted.