After Arsenal reasserted their title credentials with an impressive win over Liverpool on Sunday, we look at just how strong Mikel Arteta’s side are.
There have already been quite a few high points in Mikel Arteta’s Arsenal reign, and Sunday brought another.
The 3-1 win over Liverpool wasn’t quite going eight points clear at the top of the table by brushing north London rivals Tottenham aside in their own backyard last January. And it didn’t exactly bring the drama of the 90th-minute winners in 3-2 home wins over Bournemouth and Manchester United to keep their title hunt on. In many ways, though, it was as significant and could prove to be even more so. It also might just have been the most morale-boosting of the lot.
The victory means Arsenal have won three games in a row to get their season back on track following a run of just one win in five to end 2023. At the turn of the year, it felt like they were out of the title race, but there is no questioning they are back in it after Sunday’s result. Given it had looked like Arsenal’s Premier League campaign might be stuttering, to beat the league leaders so convincingly this week is testament to just how good this team is.
What has been so impressive about Arsenal’s development is that they have become such a complete team. They aren’t flawless, of course – their poor run in December proved as much – but they really do have remarkably few weaknesses. And their strengths are so extreme that when they are good, they can beat and outplay just about anyone.
As much of that is in how they suffocate opponents and nullify the best attacks in the league as it is in how much quality of their own they have going forwards. At the Emirates on Sunday, Liverpool generated their lowest expected goals total in a Premier League game this season (0.37). They weren’t at their best and were missing a few key players, but much of Liverpool’s lack of cutting edge was the result of Arsenal’s performance without the ball. They pressed relentlessly but were also incredibly solid when they had to drop back into their own half, hence Liverpool’s uncharacteristically low xG numbers.
It was also nothing new to see Arsenal dominating against another big side. They have the best record in the league against other ‘big six’ sides this season, with their three wins and three draws meaning they are the only undefeated team in this season’s ‘big six’ mini-league.
Of course, this season neither Chelsea nor Manchester United can really be called a “top-six team,” but both often raise their games for those big occasions. Mid-table Chelsea have as many points in ‘big six’ games this season as Manchester City, for example (though from one game fewer for City).
Arsenal have now beaten Liverpool and City at home this season, which means that on their own they account for 40% (two of five) of the defeats suffered by their two main rivals for the Premier League title race in 2023-24.
The Liverpool win in the context of the recent stretch of three wins showed how this Arsenal team are capable of winning in different ways. They blew a below-par Crystal Palace away to boost their goal difference while rarely looking troubled by a team who chose to sit back and defend deep. They then weren’t at their best at Nottingham Forest but ground out a win and held off a late fightback in testing circumstances. Then they made Liverpool look utterly ordinary while generating more xG (3.5) than any other team has against Liverpool in a Premier League game on record, although the open goals handed to Bukayo Saka and Gabriel Martinelli will have boosted their numbers. They still deserve credit for getting those chances in the first place, though.
Arteta’s side create chances of all kinds. They have scored more set-piece goals (14) than any other team in the Premier League this season, the most headed goals (11), and rank third for counter-attacking goals (5) despite averaging 60.4% possession and dominating territory against most of their opponents.
They are also the best pressing team in the Premier League. Only Tottenham (149) have won possession in the final third more times this season than Arsenal (145), but Arsenal lead the way for shots following a high turnover (48). Plenty of fans think they need a more ruthless goalscorer, someone who would help out with the fact only five teams have scored fewer goals than Arsenal following a high turnover (3) despite getting so many chances from their high pressing, but the issue clearly isn’t that simple. If they had a better finisher up front than elite pressers in Gabriel Jesus or Kai Havertz, they wouldn’t generate as many chances from their pressing.
And anyway, if one route to goal isn’t working, Arsenal always have many more to try. Their effective pressing will inevitably lead to more attacking set-pieces, for example, and we’ve already seen how good they are at those.
Meanwhile, they also have the best defence in the league. Having conceded a joint-low 22 goals (alongside Liverpool), Arsenal also have the lowest xG against total (17.8). They are miles clear in terms of open-play xG against with a genuinely incredible 13.0 xG conceded in 23 games – just 0.56 per game – with City (16.1) the only other team to have allowed their opponents under 20 xG in open play. Arsenal also lead the way at set-pieces (3.3 xG against), while their average of 0.08 xG per non-penalty shot conceded is the lowest in the league by a distance. They don’t give up many chances, and when they do, they are low-quality ones.
Earlier in the season, they were relying too much on that sturdy defence. They laboured to 1-0 wins at Crystal Palace, Brentford and Everton, but while some saw those displays as reason to doubt Arsenal’s title credentials, they can now be seen as them keeping pace at the top while winning ugly.
Arsenal will hope performances like those have now been left in the past, particularly because even in the recent run of poor form before Christmas they were creating enough chances to win the games. After being outperformed in terms of xG in four of their first 11 Premier League games this season, Arsenal have conceded more xG than they have created in just one of their last 12 league games – the 1-1 draw at Anfield on 23 December.
Part of that will be down to game state – Arsenal have had to chase the game having gone behind against Luton, Aston Villa, West Ham and Fulham since the start of December – but they also spent long periods level in games earlier in the season and struggled to create much of note.
Perhaps most crucially, Arteta believes his team have turned a corner.
“The schedule that we had prior to Christmas, the amount of players that played so many minutes and the injuries that we had, we needed to recharge,” the Arsenal manager said after the Liverpool game on Sunday.
“Now we’ve got some momentum back. Three really convincing wins in a row, the team playing really well, and we have to go for it. The whole season is now ahead of us. We need players back because we have a few injuries. That’s the big concern I have. If we have everybody fit, training and available then we have a good chance.”
This brings us nicely on to Arsenal’s (very few) weaknesses, one of which Arteta has hinted at there: they rely too heavily on certain individuals. No team has used fewer players in the Premier League this season than Arsenal (23), while they have had more outfielders start 19 or more of their league games (seven) than any other side.
It should be said here that clearly a lack of injury proneness is an extremely valuable trait that Arteta looks for in his players. That will have, for example, driven up Declan Rice’s price in the summer. Rice has started all 23 of Arsenal’s Premier League games this season and nobody has complained about how much Arsenal paid for him. Fans would probably still be happy with him if he’d cost £150m.
But having so many players available has a downside in that much of the second string don’t get enough game time to get match-sharp. That exacerbates the problem of Arsenal’s first team being so much better than the back-up players, and makes the drop-off so big in certain areas that Arteta doesn’t feel able to rotate and give everyone a rest. It’s no surprise that they had started to tire – most probably mentally as well as physically – by the time the busy festive schedule came around. A blip was as expected as it was understandable.
The fact that the bulk of their disappointing results have come against upper mid-table teams may have been incidental or it may point to another weakness that this team needs to address. Arsenal have lost four league games this season, and three of those have come against teams currently occupying positions between fourth and ninth in the table. Fulham, currently 13th, are the only exception.
Do Arsenal underestimate teams like West Ham, Aston Villa and Newcastle? Do the players (and fans?) struggle to motivate themselves for these games as much as they so clearly do for games against Liverpool, City and United? That would seem odd for such a professional, high-quality team but it is still something for Arteta to consider with return games against West Ham and Newcastle in the next few weeks.
In the grand scheme of things, having a first team that is too good to rotate or a lack of motivation against certain teams aren’t major problems, and crucially, both may well have been solved by the mid-season refresh Arsenal have just enjoyed thanks to the winter break.
Arsenal looked raring to go against Liverpool, and that was reflected in the impressive performance and result. They are now very much back in the title race and there’s good reason to believe they will be sticking about at the top of the table for a while longer yet.
Arteta will know they aren’t the favourites, but the pressure of a lead at the top of the table got to them last season, so he might even prefer the position his team are in this time around. They are stronger than they were a year ago and ready to make this season’s title race more competitive than last.