When the fixture list threw up Arsenal’s trip to Liverpool on 23 December, it was a date that immediately caught the eye. But even so, back before the start of the season, few of us would have predicted it would pit the top two against one another in an early-season, title-race six-pointer.
Before a ball was kicked, Manchester City were huge favourites for the title. Now, though, the form of Arsenal, Liverpool and Aston Villa – now so much more than plucky underdogs – has taken us into the festive period dreaming of a four-way title race. Jürgen Klopp and Mikel Arteta do battle this weekend with the winning side set to top the table at Christmas. A draw, meanwhile, would open the door to Villa.
Numbers from our trusty Opta supercomputer show just how much the title race has opened up. City had started the season with a 90.2% chance of winning the Premier League once again, but those chances have plummeted to 39.3% heading into Matchday 18. There’s an awfully long way to go, but Liverpool and Arsenal are very much in the title race, and in with every chance of ending City’s stronghold on the Premier League.
So, which of the two sides is better set to make a proper go of challenging for the title? Here, we take a look at the numbers behind the season so far for Liverpool and Arsenal to try and work out who is more likely to win the league this season.
Mikel Arteta drew attention to his goalkeeping situation by signing David Raya on the eve of the season and swiftly installing him as number one. That meant Aaron Ramsdale, a favourite among the fans and a very popular member of the squad, would have to settle for a place on the bench. With the fanbase entirely onside and behind Arteta, it was an act that for the first time in a long while led to some questions from the supporters.
Arteta was looking for any improvement he could get from last season, and had decided he could do better than Ramsdale. Many fans wondered if signing Raya was worth the disruption to the squad; some simply liked Ramsdale and, understandably, preferred the idea of the team succeeding with him in goal.
A few months into the season, the jury is still very much out.
Last season, Ramsdale underperformed according to our expected goals on target model, which suggested he conceded one more goal than he should have based on the quality of the shots on target he had faced.
Meanwhile, at Anfield, Alisson was having a sensational season between the sticks, preventing almost 10 goals with his shot-stopping.
It’s not a perfect science, not least because the two goalkeepers will have faced different types of shots and may have performed differently if they were in the other team’s goal, but the huge difference is certainly noteworthy, and one that Arteta had clearly hoped to address.
Unfortunately for Arsenal and Arteta, there hasn’t been any improvement on this front with Raya in goal. He has conceded 1.4 more goals than the shots on target he has faced might have produced against the average goalkeeper, while Ramsdale has fared even worse, conceding 1.7 more goals than the numbers suggest he should have.
Alisson is again among the best-performing goalkeepers in the league, having prevented 4.1 goals with his saves. While the two teams have conceded the exact same number of goals (a joint-low in the Premier League of 15), the respective quality of their goalkeepers is making a significant difference.
Arteta’s detractors will say getting Raya wasn’t worth it, while his defenders might point to an improvement in distribution with his new goalkeeper. That may be the case, but mistakes have been too common: Raya has already committed as many errors leading to an opposition goal (two) as Ramsdale did in the whole of last season, while he has also made three more errors leading to an opposition shot. Both numbers are the second-most among all players in the Premier League this season.
Raya still has a lot to do to prove his manager was right to take a risk and bring him in.
If Liverpool and Arsenal have conceded the same number of goals but their goalkeepers are contrasting in their shot-stopping, then there must be another issue to look into elsewhere.
The main difference between the teams on the defensive front is that Arsenal have allowed their opponents chances worth far fewer expected goals (13.0) than any other team in the Premier League this season. Liverpool sit third in this column, with 20.7 expected goals against (xGA) – over 50% more than Arsenal.
Arsenal, then, in one sense, have the best defence in the league. Preventing their opponents from having many chances or high-quality ones is surely more sustainable than having a goalkeeper who is an exceptional shot-stopper but could easily have an off day. With an average expected goals value of the shots they have conceded of 0.09, Arsenal are allowing their opponents lower-quality chances than any other side in the top flight.
The control they have had in games is a particularly impressive aspect of their season so far. Last Sunday, they ended Brighton’s run of 32 consecutive games in which they had scored, and they kept them at arm’s length throughout, too. Brighton didn’t have a single shot until after the hour mark, and barely looked like scoring all afternoon.
Arsenal have ground out a few wins this season thanks to solid defensive performance before nicking a winner, which has meant any problems with their attack haven’t mattered so far.
Chance Creation in Open Play
No team in the Premier League has taken as many shots as Liverpool this season. In fact, it’s not even close.
In what seems to be a deliberate tactic, especially after signing four midfielders in the summer who had previously shown a penchant for long-range efforts, Liverpool are certainly not shy about taking a shot whenever the opportunity presents itself.
Klopp’s men have attempted 314 shots in the Premier League this season, at least 38 more than any other team (Tottenham second with 276). Their effectiveness has been mixed, though, perhaps summed up by the fact they failed to score from 34 shots attempted in last Sunday’s 0-0 draw with Manchester United, before hitting five past West Ham in the EFL Cup on Wednesday from their 29 efforts.
Plenty of the league-high 242 chances Liverpool have created are coming from open play, where they also lead England’s top flight. They have created 195 chances from open play in their 17 league games so far, more than any other team (Manchester City second with 192).
Ultimately, though, they have scored just one more goal than Arsenal (36-35), who have had 45 fewer shots and created just 180 chances from open play. Just 18 of their 35 goals (51.4%) have come from open play (excluding own goals), compared to Liverpool’s 25 out of 36 (69.4%).
As long as the ball is in play, Liverpool will likely be the more dangerous of the two sides at Anfield on Saturday. Arsenal are likelier to pose more of a threat from set-pieces, though, which we’ll come to shortly.
No Arsenal player has scored more than three league goals from open play this season. In particular, Bukayo Saka’s numbers are interesting. The England international has three goals and three assists from open play in 16 appearances. It is the most open-play goal involvements for Arsenal in the Premier League in 2023-24 so far but is down on his figures from last season when he recorded 12 open-play goals and nine open-play assists at an average of 0.59 open-play goal involvements per 90 minutes. Saka is currently averaging 0.38 per 90.
Comparatively, Mohamed Salah has six open-play goals and seven open-play assists (0.8 open-play goal involvements per 90) and Darwin Núñez has four of each (0.76 open-play goal involvements per 90).
It does at least suggest that Arsenal are spreading their goals out a little more than Liverpool.
Spread of Goals Around the Squads
Liverpool have only scored one more Premier League goal than Arsenal this season, despite the fact that Salah has hit 11 goals, six more than any of Mikel Arteta’s players and seven more than any of his own teammates.
Liverpool’s attacking options are the envy of many, but after a strong start to the season, they have stopped firing in recent games. Since Diogo Jota sustained an injury against Manchester City last month from which he is yet to return, Klopp’s forward options have produced just one Premier League goal in four games, which was Salah’s deflected strike in the 2-1 win at Crystal Palace – his 200th goal for Liverpool.
In fact, despite playing just 12 of Liverpool’s 17 Premier League games (8 starts) and not featuring since that 1-1 draw at Man City, Jota remains Liverpool’s joint-top scorer in the league this season along with Núñez (both 4).
They could do with more from their other forwards soon, with Luis Díaz only scoring three from 16 games (12 starts) and Cody Gakpo two from 15 games (7 starts). The Dutchman did find the net with a nice strike in Wednesday’s 5-1 EFL Cup quarter-final win over West Ham, though.
Arsenal’s top scorers in the Premier League this season have just five goals each, but you could argue that a lack of consistency in selection in attack has been a factor, largely due to injuries.
Kai Havertz is the only attacker to feature in all 17 Premier League games this season under Arteta, and the former Chelsea man has only started 11 of those, with some of his appearances coming in midfield.
Eddie Nketiah and Saka lead the way with five goals apiece, while the likes of Havertz, Martin Ødegaard (4 each), Gabriel Jesus, Declan Rice and Leandro Trossard (3 each) have also chipped in, often at crucial moments.
Interestingly, a similar number of players have scored for each team. Arsenal have seen 13 different players score at least once in the Premier League this season, while 12 players have done the same for Liverpool.
With seemingly more weapons than their hosts on Saturday, Arsenal will be hopeful of threatening Liverpool from all angles, while knowing the main threat going the other way will almost certainly be Salah, who has nine goals against them in the Premier League.
Then again, Liverpool vs Arsenal has seen more hat-tricks scored than any other Premier League fixture (5), so it could be a game for one proficient goalscorer to make the headlines, which will be music to Salah’s ears in particular.
Arteta has placed a great deal of importance on set-pieces since becoming Arsenal manager, with set-piece coach Nicolas Jover working wonders. No team scored more goals from corner situations in the Premier League last season than them (13), and they are top of the table for set-piece goals in 2023-24 (10, level with Everton). Dead balls have been a useful supplementary source of goals for Arsenal over the past 18 months.
Liverpool topped the Premier League for set-piece goals last season (18 excluding penalties), but it is an area they haven’t been quite so effective in this term. They have only managed five set-piece goals so far in 2023-24 – half the number Arsenal have scored.
However, there is more to the numbers than meets the eye. Arsenal have outperformed their expected goals at set-pieces significantly, with their 10 goals coming from chances worth 6.35 xG. Liverpool’s five goals, meanwhile, have come from chances worth 7.17 xG, suggesting they are creating more at set-pieces. More goals may well come for them, particularly in light of their impressive record last season, which proves how much Klopp values them.
At the other end, though, Arsenal have been impeccable. In 17 Premier League games so far this season, they have allowed their opponents just 23 shots from set-piece situations, and a total of just 2.18 xG – working out at an average of 0.13 xG per game. That is a genuinely remarkable record, although the fact they have conceded three actual goals from set-pieces is something of a failure on their part – especially given that is the same total as Liverpool, who have allowed their opponents chances worth 5.34 xG at set-pieces.
Nonetheless, at present, Arsenal are the best team in the Premier League at set-pieces at both ends of the pitch. Time will tell if they can keep it up.