In a series for OptaPro, TruMedia Networks’ Paul Carr uses the award-winning ProVision to analyse stand-out players and teams from leagues and competitions across the globe. This fourth article focuses on the start of the Premier League season, assessing the styles of both Arsenal and Manchester City.
The marquee game of the Premier League’s opening weekend pits Manchester City, looking to be the first repeat champion in a decade, away against an Arsenal side that begin a season without Arsene Wenger for the first time since 1996.
In assessing these two teams and their style of play, the Opta sequences and possessions framework can provide an additional context to examine how teams and players both attack and defend. The numbers behind Arsenal and Man City provide the opportunity to explore how Manchester City were so dominant last season, and how Arsenal struggled to their worst league finish in 23 years.
First, two quick definitions. A sequence is a string of uninterrupted passes. A possession can include multiple sequences that are interrupted by events like fouls or corner kicks, as long as the ball is not controlled by the opposing team.
Man City’s 100 points last season were the most ever by an English top-flight team, and the dominance by Pep Guardiola’s side extended beyond traditional statistics.
At the simplest level, City’s 71% possession was nearly 10 percentage points higher than any other Premier League team (Tottenham were second with 62%). Over the previous six seasons, no team in Europe’s top five leagues has hit this figure.
However, instead of merely saying that City had a lot of the ball or completed almost countless passes, ProVision’s sequencing numbers can add context to what they did while in possession.
For example, City averaged 5.3 passes per sequence last season, which may not sound impressive but was 26% better than the second-best Premier League team, which was Arsenal at 4.2 passes per sequence. This gap is about the same as the difference between Arsenal and Southampton, who ranked seventh in this metric and narrowly avoided relegation.
If you prefer to measure sequences with a stopwatch, you’ll find that Man City’s average sequence lasted 13.7 seconds, more than three seconds longer than any other team’s, and more than twice as long as Newcastle’s league-shortest average of 6.2 seconds.
As well as keeping the ball for long periods, City also looked to win the ball back quickly when out of possession. Their average sequence started a league-high 50.5 metres from their own goal. Teams with similar pressing approaches when ranking by this metric are Tottenham (second at 49.4m) and Liverpool (third at 48.5m).
However City employed a (relatively) slow-but-steady build-up approach. Alongside ranking 20th in the league in terms of direct speed, their average sequence progressed the ball 17m upfield, also a league high, more than four metres above average and far above last-ranked Burnley’s average progression of 10.5m.
Can the Gunners rebound?
En route to finishing sixth, Arsenal generally measured well but not exceptionally in these metrics. Their direct speed of 1.53m/s was seventh-slowest in the league, perhaps surprisingly trailing Swansea City at 1.49 m/s.
Another area in which Arsenal trailed other top teams is where they started sequences. Their average of 46.5 metres was eighth-farthest, trailing the top five teams plus Watford and Southampton.
Once in possession, Arsenal progressed well with the ball, with an average of 15.9 metres that was second behind City’s 17.2.
What Emery will bring to Arsenal
With Unai Emery now at the helm, a glance at last season’s PSG numbers might provide a glimpse at Arsenal’s future.
PSG’s direct speed of 1.48 m/s was slightly slower than Arsenal’s, and PSG held the ball longer in terms of both time (13.4 seconds per sequence, three seconds longer than Arsenal) and passes (4.9 per sequence, 17 percent more than Arsenal). Perhaps that’s not surprising, given PSG’s dominance over the league.
PSG also pressed higher than Arsenal, with their average sequence starting 48.6 metres from their own goal, the farthest in Ligue 1 and behind only City and Tottenham among Premier League clubs.
One Arsenal issue that did not bear out is the critique that they simply did not shoot enough. While Wenger’s Arsenal did prefer quality shots, as indicated by their third-highest rate of expected goals per shot, they took shots at similar rates to other top teams. More than 10 percent of the Gunners’ sequences ended in shots, good for the fourth-highest rate in the league behind Chelsea, Liverpool and Man City.
Under Guardiola, Manchester City have played with a distinct identity, and this approach is unlikely to change going into this coming season. Arsenal however, with a new manager at the helm, may expect to play a slightly different style to the past. Mkhitaryan and Aubameyang have also enjoyed full pre-seasons with the club, along with a host of new players arriving, meaning Sunday could mark the beginning of an exciting period for the club.
ProVision is the cutting-edge analytics tools developed by OptaPro in partnership with TruMedia Networks. You can find out more about this platform here.