In many ways, this has been one of Arsenal’s greatest seasons. And yet, they end with no silverware to show for it.

“If you ain’t first, you’re last”.

Success in top-end, elite-level sport is, in some ways, very easy to measure.

You won the tournament, competition, or league you entered? Congratulations, you’re the winners. You achieved success.

Ah, hang on, you didn’t win? Well, then, you’ve failed. You loser.

Wait, you came second!? In that case, you must be the biggest loser of them all.

While that sort of snap judgement lends itself well to newspaper headlines, it is a binary way to look at success. It’s extremely black and white and ignores more intangible concepts like progress, expectations, and The Journey™.

After all, only one team can win each competition. And you don’t see 19 of the 20 Premier League clubs labelling their seasons as a complete failure every summer. Success is relative.

In many ways, this has been one of Arsenal’s greatest league campaigns. With 28 wins, they’ve set a club record for the most wins in a single Premier League season. The levels the team has operated at have been remarkably high, and – as we’ll go into – they set plenty of team and league records over the course of the campaign.

And yet, while that is all true, they have no silverware to show for it. On paper, their record in each competition is modest:

Premier League: Second

FA Cup: Third Round

League Cup: Fourth Round

Champions League: Quarter-Finals

Despite the feeling of growing inevitability over the past month that Man City would pip them to the trophy, losing the Premier League title on the final day of the season will be a bitter pill to swallow for Arsenal fans. How can a team that has performed this well over an entire campaign be rewarded with nothing?

But even that disappointment cannot and should not detract from what has been an incredible season for the Gunners.

In many statistical categories, Arsenal have been the best team in the league this season; they’ve gone toe-to-toe with City in many others.

They’ve done that with what is still a very young squad – the third-youngest in the division – and a youthful, hungry manager in Mikel Arteta at the helm.

Four Arsenal players were nominated for either the Player of the Season (Declan Rice, Martin Ødegaard) or Young Player of the Season (William Saliba, Bukayo Saka) awards, more than any other side. There is no reason to think this squad cannot compete consistently for years to come.

Arsenal Squad Age Matrix

The first thing that Arsenal fans can take heart from is the progression the squad has shown from the last campaign. Unlike the end of 2022-23, when Arsenal won just three of their last nine matches, this year there can be no talk of Arsenal “bottling” anything.

After a mini wobble at Christmas when they lost back-to-back games against West Ham and Fulham, they recovered to win 16 of their remaining 18 games. That is breathtaking form.

The problem, of course, is that Man City went unbeaten in their last 23 Premier League matches, winning 19 of them.

So, can Arsenal feel hard done by? Curiously, Opta’s expected points model had Arteta’s side down as it’s Premier League title winners.

The model simulates the number of goals scored by each side in every match based on the expected goals (xG) value of all shots taken. It then uses the simulated number of goals to determine the match outcome (win/draw/loss). Every match is then simulated 10,000 times, with the expected points for each team in each match calculated based on the proportion of simulations they win/draw/lose.

The expected points table has Arsenal top, better off even than Manchester City. It’s only by a small margin, but small margins are what have defined this title race.

One thing that wasn’t close, was just how dominant Arsenal’s defence was when compared to the rest of the league. David Raya overcame early-season wobbles to lock down the number one goalkeeper spot and pick up the Premier League Golden Glove award.

Gabriel Magalhães and Saliba played together for more minutes than any other centre-back pairing in the league and have been the best partnership in the entire division; Ben White has evolved his game once again at right-back; Jakub Kiwior has deputised admirably at left-back when asked.

Together, that unit conceded just 29 goals in the Premier League. That’s five fewer goals than Man City (34) who had the next-best defence. Arsenal also chalked up 18 clean sheets in the process, five more than the next-highest sides (Everton and City on 13).

The underlying numbers support the claim that Arsenal had the best defence in the division. They conceded chances worth just 28.3 expected goals across 2023-24, the lowest mark of any team in Europe’s top five leagues.

Isolate Arsenal’s defensive performances to 2024 and that defensive record goes to another level. Arsenal kept 11 clean sheets in 18 league games this year, and conceded a scarcely believable 0.65 expected goals per game. There’s no debating this defensive unit has been the best not just in England, but the whole of Europe.  

Arsenal’s defensive record has drawn so much attention that it can be easy to ignore how prolific they’ve been in attack. They scored 91 goals this season, which is a club Premier League record.

Combine those performances at both ends of the pitch and Arsenal finished the season with the best goal difference (+62) they’ve ever had in Premier League history, beating the +51 they had in 2004-05. They last ended a league campaign with a better goal difference in 1934-35, when they finished with +69.

While Arsenal can claim they’ve got the best defence in the league, Manchester City do have them beat going forwards. Pep Guardiola’s side scored 96 goals in the league this campaign. The 2023-24 iteration of Man City became the 12th different side to hit 90+ goals in a single Premier League season and they did it with a couple of games to spare. Guardiola teams account for six of those instances.

In terms of the underlying attacking numbers, Arsenal’s 77.4 expected goals were shy of both Man City (81.9) and Liverpool (89.9), suggesting that while they had a high-powered attack, it was perhaps not quite at the level of City or even Liverpool.  

However, Arsenal’s overperformance of +13.6 between their xG and their overall goals was the second-biggest of any Premier League side. That’s pretty good going for a side who were criticised earlier in the season for ‘not having a striker’.

Despite Gabriel Jesus (4) and Gabriel Martinelli (6) not really pulling their weight in terms of goals scored, Arteta found meaningful contributions from the likes of Leandro Trossard (12), Kai Havertz (13), Ødegaard (8) and Rice (7) to go alongside his main main, Bukayo Saka (16).

A lot of Arsenal’s overperformance in front of goal comes from their set-piece prowess, which is another facet of the game in which they can say they were comfortably the best side. Arsenal scored more goals from corners (16) than any other team in the Premier League this season and actually matched the all-time Premier League record set by Oldham in 1992-93 and West Brom in 2016-17. Excluding penalties, they scored 20 goals from set-pieces, which was also a league high.

Defensively, they were also brilliant at defending their own box, conceding just 6.6 expected goals from set-piece situations across the campaign. That was a tally only Man City (6.1 xG) could beat.

Perhaps most impressive has been Arsenal’s performances against the so-called ‘big six’. Their 1-0 away win over Manchester United in their penultimate game of the season completed an entire season without losing in the league to any of their big-six rivals.

They completed the double over United, having produced a win and a draw against each of City, Liverpool, Tottenham and Chelsea. Their 2-0 home defeat to Liverpool in the FA Cup third round was their only loss to one of the big six all season in all competitions.

It means Arsenal picked up 22 points in their 10 games against the big six (W6 D4) – an incredible seven more than any of their rivals in the big-six mini-league. Just two seasons ago, Arsenal were bottom of that mini-league, picking up just nine points across 10 matches in 2021-22. That’s some progress.

PL big six mini league 2023-24

Of course, the ‘big-six’ moniker is less accurate than it once was, at least in terms of on-field performance. Aston Villa might not be a traditional big-six team (yet) but they nailed down Champions League qualification. Unlike those other teams, they did beat Arsenal in the league this season, doing so twice.

Zero points against Aston Villa. One point against Fulham. Ultimately, those results are what separates Arsenal from their first title in 20 years. That is the level you need to perform at to beat Manchester City.

Finishing with 89 points and +62 goal difference would have been enough to win the Premier League in 20 of the previous 31 seasons before 2023-24, including in 2022-23 when City had 89 points and a +61 goal difference.

But, as Liverpool and Jürgen Klopp have found out all too well, this is Guardiola we are dealing with. Sometimes, even being the best team in the league is not enough to stop the juggernaut from rolling on.

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