Arsenal ended their 2021-22 season with a resounding 5-1 thumping of Everton on the final match-day of the Premier League. The Gunners finished 5th, narrowly missing out on Champions League football yet again. With 69 points to their tally, Mikel Arteta’s men are guaranteed European football next season.
Throughout the 2021-22 season, Arsenal largely stuck to a 4-2-3-1 set-up. However, Mikel Arteta did use a 4-4-2 or a 4-1-4-1 occasionally too.
Arteta also made use of 27 different players throughout the season. He largely preferred to keep his starting XI constant throughout the season. However, injuries to Emile Smith Rowe, Keiran Tierney, Thomas Partey and Takehiro Tomiyasu forced the Spaniard to test out different combinations. Gabriel and Aaron Ramsdale were Arsenal’s most involved players in the league.
Arsenal secured a fifth-place finish at the end of the 2021-22 season, which was in line with their Expected Goal Difference too.
The Gunners had the fifth-best xG and seventh-best xG-Conceded among all the Premier League teams this season.
They scored 61 goals and conceded 48. This placed the Gunners at 6th and 8th for the metrics respectively. Bukayo Saka top scored with eleven goals in 38 games. Emile Smith Rowe notched up 10, while Martin Odegaard had 7 to his name.
Breakdown of Arsenal’s Season:
Arsenal acquired Aaron Ramsdale from Sheffield United for a reported fee of £30million. The Englishman quickly became a crucial part of Mikel Arteta’s set-up, starting 34 league games.
In the first half of the season, Ramsdale was one of the best shot-stoppers in the Premier League. However, the 23-year-old suffered a dip in form after the winter break. In total, the English shot-stopper conceded 39 goals, while Bernd Leno conceded 9 goals in 4 games.
Ramsdale, however, was crucial to Arsenal’s build-up. The former Sheffield United shot-stopper played a crucial role in distributing play from the back and evading the opponent’s first line of pressure.
With Matt Turner joining the side for next season, Arsenal’s goal-keeping department seems more than settled for the time being.
B. Arsenal Out Of Possession:
Arsenal looked to press the opposition higher up the field without the ball. Arteta set his side up in a 4-4-2 shape to stem the opposition build-up.
The Gunners tried to cut build-up in the central areas and forced the opponents to play into the wings. This allowed Arsenal to bend their shape to regain superiorities in the wider regions and regain possession.
At the beginning of the 2021-22 season, Arteta achieved this shape with Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette spearheading the press for Arsenal.
After the ex-Dortmund player was exiled to the bench, Arteta switched to a 4-2-3-1 set-up, with Martin Odegaard operating as the number 10. Odegaard would support Lacazette as the secondary centre-forward to maintain Arsenal’s 4-4-2 structure.
In the deeper regions, the Gunners switched to a more compact 4-5-1 shape. Odegaard drops into the midfield, allowing Arsenal to defend the wings more effectively without compromising space in the central regions.
Arsenal could also switch to a conservative 5-2-3 shape to protect a lead at times. Arteta often introduced Rob Holding to facilitate this change.
Arsenal rated among the league’s highest pressers in the 2021-22 season. Only Manchester City and Liverpool registered a higher percentage of total pressurizing actions than the Gunners.
But it also has to be noted that the Gunners were significantly more involved in their own defensive third than either Manchester City or Liverpool too.
Mikel Arteta benefitted from having many hardworking players in the midfield and the front-line.
Eddie Nketiah, Odegaard, Gabriel Martinelli and Lacazette were the most involved players in the attacking third. Arsenal’s midfield largely played supporting roles in the opponent half. They aimed to cut off passing lanes rather than cover large distances. Deep midfielders like Thomas Partey, Mohamed Elneny and Granit Xhaka were useful in winning second balls or claiming possession in their own half.
Arsenal were surprisingly among the worst teams aerially this season. Furthermore, the Gunners did not recover enough second balls to quickly turn defence into attack either. Mikel Arteta will need to work on his side’s defensive transitions next season to make the Gunners more effective in destabilising the opposition. The acquisition of a quality ball-winner like Florian Grillitsch will definitely aid this.
C. Arsenal in Possession:
Mikel Arteta adopted a possession-centric short-passing system at the Emirates Stadium this season. Arsenal averaged the fifth most possession in the Premier League during the 2021-22 season, averaging 53.2% a game.
Irrespective of their formation or personnel, Arsenal maintained some common features in their structure while on the ball. The Gunners would largely rotate between a 3-4-3 shape and a 2-3-5 shape.
Early in the season, Arteta made good use of asymmetric full-backs. Tomiyasu was used in a more defensive role down the right flank. Tierney was given great freedom to drive forward on the left. Arsenal compensated for this by allowing Smith Rowe and Odegaard to access the half-spaces. Xhaka and Partey formed a solid double pivot to shield the back-3.
Injuries to Tierney, Tomiyasu and Partey forced Arteta to tweak his set-up in the second half of the season. The Spaniard pulled his full-backs deeper, instructing his wingers to hold width instead. This allowed the interiors (Xhaka and Odegaard generally) to take up positions in the half-spaces.
Arsenal were not reliant on just passing their way forward, however. Arteta’s men also totalled the sixth most progressive carries in the whole league.
In fact, over 55% of all Arsenal’s carries were directed towards the opposition half. In comparison, under 30% of all their passes moved forwards.
The Gunners also registered the sixth most deep progressions. Deep progressions include passes and carries into the final third.
Saka, Martinelli and Odegaard were among Arsenal’s most reliable progressive outlets. Odegaard particularly excelled at dropping deep to receive the ball and carry it forward or spray passes to his strikers. Saka and Martinelli were stationed high & wide, and were optimally placed to receive progressive passes from their teammates to attack the opposition goal.
A notable trend throughout the season was the reluctance of Arsenal’s players to dribble. Martinelli and Saka were often willing to take on their marker and beat them for skill or pace. But the other players preferred to avoid taking too many risks while on the ball. Nicolas Pepe was an exception but managed a dribbling success rate of just 49%. In fact, Arsenal ranked 14th in the league for successful dribbles.
A large part of Arsenal’s play was concentrated in the middle third of the field. Arteta’s 2-3-5 shape gave the Gunners a numerical superiority in the middle of the park, allowing them to retain the ball with relative ease in the middle.
Arsenal were also adept at absorbing opposition pressure to hold onto the ball.
The Gunners made use of effective side-overloads to evade opposition pressure on the flanks. Arsenal also benefitted from the technical superiority of Odegaard, Saka, Martinelli, Nuno Tavares etc., and the tactical understanding of Xhaka, Ben White and Tomiyasu to outdo their opponents 1v1.
D. Shooting & Creativity
Arsenal averaged 15.26 shots per 90 minutes in the Premier League. Only 3 teams took more shots than the Gunners all season. Notably, all three teams: Manchester City, Liverpool and Chelsea, also finished above Arsenal. Arsenal ended the 2021-22 season with 61 goals from an xG of 59.9 (one own goal).
Concerningly, Lacazette struggled sorel with his finishing all season. The Frenchman managed just 4 goals from an xG of 7.9, and missed a penalty too. Pepe and Gabriel Martinelli too struggled to apply the finishing touches on many occasions. On the other hand, Smith Rowe emerged as a highly reliable option in front of goal. The Englishman netted 10 times from an xG of just 5.8. Odegaard and Saka too were clinical in front of goal.
Although Arsenal took a lot of shots, they often came from sub-optimal locations. On average, the Gunners took shots from over 17 yards out, i.e., from just inside the box. Only 6 teams took shots from farther locations than Arteta’s men.
Smith Rowe, Saka and Odegaard were Arsenal’s most consistent players in front of goal. The latter two were also essential in creating chances for their teammates too. Gabriel Martinelli will also be looking to boost his goal-scoring numbers next season.
Arsenal also need a centre-forward signing that will allow them to convert possession into chances closer to the goal, and shots into goals. Players like Alexander Isak and Gabriel Jesus have been linked to fill the void in the centre-forward position.
The graph below takes into consideration Shot Creating Actions alongside chance values. We observe that although Arsenal do create a lot of chances, they are creating the least xA among the top-6 clubs.
In general, teams that create more chances will naturally aggregate a larger xA score too. To normalise this, let us look at the average chance value of each chance. For this, let us take a look at the xA value per Key Pass Plotted against total box entries, we observe that Arsenal actually manage to enter the opposition box over 9 times a game. Only 4 teams better Arteta’s men in terms of box entries. However, the Gunners create among the lowest quality chances in the whole league.
E. Chances From Set-Pieces:
Arsenal appointed Nicolas Jover in 2021. The Frenchman replaced Andreas Georgeson as the chief set-piece coach in Arteta’s backroom staff. Jover had previously worked with Pep Guardiola at Manchester City too.
Aaron Ramsdale spoke about the importance given to set-pieces by the coaching staff, in the Peter Crouch Podcast:
“We’re very into defending corners, attacking corners and set-pieces,” “That’s expected goals for and against from set-pieces and we have a set-piece coach who is hard on us and sets targets.”
Arsenal were also a potent threat to the opposition from set-pieces. The Gunners scored 13 times from corners, conceding just 4. Centre-back Gabriel netted 5 times this season. 40 of Arsenal’s 61 goals came from set-pieces this season. The remaining 21 were also attributed to some sort of set-piece.
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Arsenal have enjoyed one of their best seasons in recent years. The Gunners missed out on Champions League football by the finest margins. Arteta will be looking to bolster his squad with signings in key positions, and shipping out the deadwood. With Tottenham’s resurgence under Antonio Conte, and Manchester United appointing Erik ten Hag, the Gunners can expect cut-throat competition for the top-4 next season.
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