Arsenal went to Anfield on December 23, scored in the fourth minute, and took a point against arguably the toughest opponent on their schedule. The Gunners’ 1-1 draw with Liverpool ensured that they would be top of the table on Christmas, which was a great place to be given that 10 of the previous 14 clubs who were first on December 25 also finished the season first.
The result against Liverpool came after a dominant, should have been more than 2-0 home win over Brighton. Arsenal had built up a six-point lead on the three-time defending champions as Manchester City struggled and fell behind in the games-played column due to the Club World Cup. Furthermore, the Gunners prevented Liverpool, who are a point behind in second place, from gaining any ground in a game they were heavily favored to win.
You didn’t have to squint or own multiple Abou Diaby jerseys to believe Arsenal were the favorites to win the Premier League. According to Stats Perform, they had the best-expected goal differential in the league and the most points.
But then everything fell apart. They went on to lose their next two games against West Ham and Fulham. They’re five points behind Liverpool, closer to fifth than first, and level on points with Manchester City, who still have a game in hand against the league’s worst team. Arsenal has only taken four of the last 15 available points.
What happened to Arsenal?
Simply put, Arsenal lost two of their easier games on the schedule.
There are no two games or schedules that are alike. While the current table tells us a lot about how the table will look at the end of the year at any given time, it’s still a faulty indicator. Take, for example, the previous season.
While there are numerous reasons why Arsenal faltered in the previous title race, one of the most important is that they finished the season with a very difficult schedule.
The Gunners had an eight-point lead over Man City after their 4-1 victory over Leeds United on April 1. A portion of that was due to City still having an extra game to play, but a much larger portion was due to Arsenal still having to play arguably the three toughest fixtures on the schedule: away to Manchester City, away to Liverpool, and away to Newcastle. Add in a home match against Brighton, and they’ll face four of the league’s best teams in their final nine games.
If Arsenal’s fixture list had been in a different order, there would have been no epic Arsenal collapse no factoids about how they led the league for more days than any other team that didn’t win the title. No, they would have finished second, impressively, without all of this emotional baggage.
What does all of this have to do with the current season? Last year, Arsenal defeated West Ham 2-1 at the Emirates and Fulham 3-0 on the road. Six points from six, with five goals for and one against. This season, they lost 2-0 to West Ham and 2-1 to Fulham: zero points from six games, one goal for and four against.
These are the games they need to win all three points to keep up with Liverpool and City, not the ones that send them tumbling down the table.
One of those days was the West Ham game. Here’s a map of all the chances in the game, with the goals in green: the larger the circle, the larger the xG value (expected goals) of each attempt:
That, if anything, understates Arsenal’s dominance. The listed xG total (but not the graphic) includes Sad Benrahma’s 95th-minute penalty when the game was all but over. Without it, West Ham’s xG for the game drops to a pitiful 0.63.
Perhaps Arsenal does not appear to be that dominant. West Ham scored with two of their three sustained attacks throughout the game. This Stats Perform graphic depicts each team’s sustained possession threat, calculated using a stat called “expected possession value,” which determines how likely a team is to score a goal within the next 10 seconds at any given time:
Look at all of Arsenal’s red! They weren’t just cycling the ball around the midfield line aimlessly. They had the most unblocked shots in a match without scoring since 2015. And their 77 touches inside the penalty area were the most in the previous 15 seasons.
Usually, within this exact pattern of the match, Arsenal scores a couple of goals, West Ham goes scoreless, and no one thinks twice about what the game means. But not so for the Fulham game:
It was fairly even in terms of chances created, but more concerning was Arsenal’s inability to maintain control of the game for any extended time. Throughout the game, both teams traded blows:
Even though it’s two losses in a row, it’s more like one bad performance and one outlandish result. Arsenal created 4.41 non-penalty xG and conceded 1.86 in the two games combined. The bouncing ball, for the most part, resulted in one goal for Arsenal and four for their opponents.
But Arsenal has lost more games than those two, which is also a problem, right?
It looks even worse if we go back to the Aston Villa game. The points-per-game table for the previous five matchdays is as follows:
Five games is a much larger sample size than two, and the Gunners have won as many points as Burnley, Sheffield United, and Manchester United in their previous five games. I’m not sure if there are three worse Premier League teams to mention in the same sentence.
The Gunners have created 8.88 xG in the last five games but only scored four goals. Their opponents have scored six goals on 4.08 xG.
To put it another way, Arsenal had a plus-0.84 non-penalty xG differential per game in the first 15 games, which resulted in 2.4 points per game. Over the last five games, the xG differential increased to plus-0.96, while the points per game rate decreased by 0.8.
To recap: what is the primary cause of Arsenal’s current crisis? Soccer is a game of chance.
But aren’t Manchester City and Liverpool ahead of Arsenal in the xG table?
Yes, the fact that Liverpool and City have been lights-out for the same amount of time adds to Arsenal’s woes. And now, rather than telling you to shrug your shoulders, I’ll point to something systemic.
These three teams have nearly identical xG differentials at this point in the season. Liverpool leads by 0.91 points, City by 0.90 points, and Arsenal by 0.87 points. Because these models aren’t accurate enough to say with certainty that a difference of 0.04 is outside the margin of error, we’ll just say they’re all equal. (With minutes played up and down and a man removed, Liverpool’s lead grows, but that’s a topic for another day.)
However, each team arrives at their destination uniquely. Here’s how the league as a whole compares in terms of non-penalty xG created and conceded per game:
By far the most potent attacking team in the league is Liverpool. The 7.2 xG generated in Monday’s win over Newcastle is the most produced by any team in Europe’s Big Five leagues in the TruMedia database dating back to the 2010-11 season. City continues to be the most balanced of the three, with Arsenal having the best defense.
The Gunners have allowed the fewest expected goals in both open play and set pieces. If defense wins championships, there’s reason to be optimistic about Arsenal. Except that statement usually applies to competitions with playoffs, in which the best teams compete in matches against each other to determine the champion.