Fa CupFootball

Arsenal are playing with more structure and purpose under Mikel Arteta but the underlying numbers remain concerning

July 17, 2020

NO club has won the FA Cup more often than Arsenal but if they add a 14th at Wembley next month it will be one of, if not the finest, they have added to their trophy room.

Home to upwardly mobile Leeds in the third round, drawn away in rounds four, five and six and then given Manchester City in the semi-finals for the honour of playing Chelsea or Manchester United in the final is definitely not the world’s oldest cup competition™ on easy mode.

Still, the Gunners will be mildly elated from their curious win against Liverpool on Wednesday evening. A 31% possession share was the lowest ever recorded by the club in a Premier League game, three shots was their lowest recorded in a Premier League victory while the margin between Arsenal and Liverpool’s shot totals (21) was also the biggest ever recorded by the Gunners in a Premier League win. Long story short, it was a semi-memorable and fully freakish match that in no way suggests that Arsenal are about to eclipse Jurgen Klopp’s team any time soon.

Also filed under: odd games was Manchester City’s win against Bournemouth earlier that day. Like Arsenal the match ended 2-1 in favour of the home side but it was a lethargic (and Kevin De Bruyne-less) City, other than another example of David Silva’s final-page-of-the-final-chapter metamorphosis into a direct free-kick menace. Bournemouth had 14 shots, the first away team to outshoot a Pep Guardiola side in a league game since he was in the Bundesliga. In many ways, Wednesday was a glimpse of a very different 2019-20, one in which City scraped wins and Liverpool battered teams but ended with nothing to show for it but frustration. Nature might not be healing but narrative might be reverting to the mean.

What does this mean for Arsenal ahead of their season-saving semi-final on Saturday? The fact they are now managed by Mikel Arteta, erstwhile assistant to Guardiola is probably a net benefit, not that it was on show in June in only the second Premier League game of the restart. A David Luiz disasterclass saw City canter to their second 3-0 win of the season against Arsenal and that was also the scoreline when the clubs met at Wembley in the 2018 Carabao Cup final. Identical scorelines under three different managers and precisely no-one would be surprised if Saturday ended the same way.

The issue for Arteta is that Premier League mega-clubs are like listing supertankers, it takes ages to turn them around, and the further they have run aground the longer a manager needs. Guardiola only just scraped third place in his first season in 2016-17, and that with a team who had won the title just three years earlier. That was Klopp’s first full season at Liverpool too, and they snuck fourth place, a point ahead of Arsenal, expelling the Gunners from the Champions League, a competition to which they are yet to return.

That has had a direct impact on the financial strength of the north London side, something that only further complicates Arteta’s task in 2020. Europa League football isn’t craved by the top table but it still brings in additional, and necessary, funds. Arsenal have gone from hoping they don’t fall into Europe’s second tier competition to praying they reach it, and winning the FA Cup is as solid a route into it as you can get.

Arteta has now managed as many Arsenal Premier League games as Unai Emery and caretaker Freddie Ljungberg did between them earlier in the season and the underlying numbers don’t suggest much improvement. In fact they arguably show a decline, given that Arsenal are overperforming their Expected Goals under Arteta and are getting away with opposition wastefulness at the other end, both trends a reversal of what they saw under the previous regime.

Now no-one should judge a team only on Expected Goals, just as no-one should judge a team only on results, and it’s clear to anyone watching Arsenal under Arteta that they are playing with more structure and purpose under Guardiola’s former right hand man, but as the Liverpool game showed, there is still a long, long way to go.

Arteta’s post-match interview on Wednesday illustrated as much, both in the words he said and his obvious lack of jubilation at beating the Premier League’s new champions. The job at the Emirates is a big one and won’t be fast-tracked with fortunate wins against the current giants of the English game.

Even so, the FA Cup has proven the one faithful friend to Arsenal in the long years since they last had realistic hopes of winning the league, so a win against Manchester City on Saturday, however it arrives, and however unlikely it might be, would be hungrily accepted by both fans and manager alike.​