Arsenal have looked impenetrable at the back of late, apart from when their players make costly mistakes. We take a look at what those errors could mean for the title race.

The philosophy that José Mourinho based his early success on as a manager was centred around the assertion that the team that commits the fewest errors in a big match would win.

He also believed that the team who had most of the ball was by definition more susceptible to making mistakes. Hence, Mourinho concluded that his team shouldn’t try to dominate possession against their biggest rivals.

His trophy record proves he was – at least to some extent – right.

Times have changed, though, and generally speaking, it is more difficult than ever before to enjoy success over a significant period without having more of the ball than your opponents. The best teams in the world all look to suffocate the opposition with relentless possession, a high line and intense pressing.

But errors have not stopped influencing games. In fact, with the best teams so well-drilled and their systems built to be as close to impenetrable as possible, it is sometimes only through an individual mistake that opponents get a sniff.

Take Liverpool’s 2-2 draw at Manchester United last week. Jürgen Klopp’s side were 1-0 up after 50 minutes, having had 17 shots without allowing United a single one, when Jarell Quansah passed the ball straight to Bruno Fernandes, who scored with his side’s first attempt of the game.

The direction and tone of the match was instantly transformed, and United, who had looked pretty much hopeless until that point, fought their way back to a draw.

It was only through that errant pass that United could muster a shot, let alone get a foothold in the game, and it led to two dropped points for Liverpool that could be massive come the end of the season. The result meant Liverpool lost their position as favourites to win the title according to the Opta supercomputer.

With just one point now separating the top three, individual errors may be pivotal in such a tight title race. That is in part because opponents are finding current league leaders Arsenal so hard to break down.

Mikel Arteta’s side have conceded only 24 goals in league games this season. They’ve only let in two in their last eight matches, and one of those came from a terrible mistake against Brentford, when back-up goalkeeper Aaron Ramsdale was charged down by Yoane Wissa and gifted him a goal. First-choice keeper David Raya watched helplessly from the stands, ineligible to face his parent club.

In fact, six of the 24 goals Arsenal have let in over the course of 2023-24 have been the result of individual errors – their rate of 25% is by a distance the highest of all teams in Europe’s top five leagues this season. They are way ahead of anyone else in the Premier League.

arsenal errors premier league 2023-24

And who might be second in the English top flight, do you think?

It’s Liverpool, of course, with 16.7% of the goals they’ve shipped coming from errors (five out of 30).

It makes sense that the teams who concede the fewest goals would rank unfavourably for the proportion of goals conceded due to errors, but Arsenal and Liverpool are so high up here due to the quantity of errors they are making as well as their low tallies of total goals conceded.

Only six of the 96 teams in Europe’s top five leagues have conceded more goals following an individual error this season than Arsenal’s six, for example. Liverpool, on five, follow close behind.

Four of the worst six offenders for goals conceded through errors – Granada (10), Sheffield United (8), Darmstadt (8) and Salernitana (7) – are currently in the bottom two in their respective league and are almost certain to be relegated. Brentford (7) are very much in a relegation battle, while Brighton (7) are the only of those teams that are safe, currently 10th in the Premier League.

The point to be made here is that this volume of errors is not the hallmark of a champion. The title race is as good as over this season in the four top European leagues other than the Premier League, and none of the soon-to-be-crowned champions have been anywhere near as error prone as Arsenal.

Real Madrid (3), Paris Saint-Germain (3), Inter Milan (2) and Bayer Leverkusen (1) are all on the brink of glory, and none of them have made any more than half the number of errors leading to an opposition goal as Arsenal.

Historically in the Premier League, too, the champions have – unsurprisingly – tended to make fewer errors than their rivals. In 12 of the 13 seasons for which we have this data, the team that won the title has committed fewer individual errors leading to a goal than the team that finished second (the exception being 2017-18, when Manchester City won the league while making six such errors to second-placed United’s four).

It’s not the only way to distinguish between first and second place in the Premier League, but it clearly tends to be a decent barometer.

City, the reigning champions and still the favourites to win the title – both with the bookies and the Opta supercomputer – have only made two errors leading to an opposition goal this season. No Premier League team has made fewer.

So, is Arsenal’s propensity to commit errors going to cost them in the title race?

They have allowed their opponents 14 shots following individual errors – the sixth most in the Premier League. That is two more than Liverpool (12), but the same number as City.

But those 14 chances Arsenal have allowed their opponents following errors have been worth just 1.69 expected goals, the fifth-lowest in the Premier League. Their average of 0.12 xG per shot faced following an error is the second-lowest in the division, after Aston Villa (nine errors leading to a shot totalling 0.94 xG, 0.1 xG per shot).

So, while Arsenal are conceding more chances as the result of their players’ mistakes than most other sides, they have been punished by much-better-than-average finishing from those chances. With six goals conceded from 1.7 xG on those errors, their opponents have significantly overperformed their xG from those chances (4.3). Only Sheffield United (eight goals from 2.25 xG) have seen a bigger overperformance from their opponents in such situations.

It should be noted here that all but three Premier League teams have seen their opponents outperform their xG from chances following errors this season. This is because teams are more likely to be out of shape and goalkeepers are more likely to be out of position, but also because goalkeepers are often credited with an error when they fail to save a shot they would otherwise be expected to make, from a low-xG shot, for example. Raya was guilty of this when letting Ross Barkley’s shot squeeze past him in the 4-3 win at Luton in December.

It is still noteworthy, though, that Arsenal have conceded so many goals from low-quality chances following errors, simply because those goals feel like they should be possible to cut out.

Arsenal have conceded just 18 goals that didn’t result from an error in the Premier League this season – and only one in their last seven games. Liverpool have conceded 25 such goals in 2023-24; City have conceded 29. That suggests opponents are cutting through Liverpool and City more easily than they are Arsenal.

In the Champions League on Tuesday night, Arsenal conceded two goals in their draw with Bayern Munich that felt highly avoidable. Although neither of them went down in the data collectors’ books as resulting directly from an individual error, the first came from a defensive mix-up that can be more accurately described as a team effort or a collective error than the fault of any one individual.

The second, meanwhile, came from the penalty spot after William Saliba clumsily fouled Leroy Sané in the box. It could be argued that Arsenal were in some sense the makers of their own downfall.

arsenal 2-2 bayern munich stats

On Wednesday night, PSG and Borussia Dortmund lost their first-leg ties against Barcelona and Atlético Madrid after their players committed three errors leading to an opposition goal between them. Their opponents made no such errors.

At the top level of the game, in high-pressure matches where the quality is so high, errors are as important as ever, and they could be crucial to the last few weeks of the Premier League season.

Maybe Mourinho still has a point after all?

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