As pointed out in SPORT a few weeks ago, Arsenal are so timid these days that all 91 other clubs in the top four English tiers have had more second-half shots than Mikel Arteta’s men. There are, though, more and more ways to illustrate how grim their total of 10 goals from 11 games is. There’s the fact that they are one goal behind Dominic Calvert-Lewin and level with Son Heung-Min in the scoring charts. There’s the fact they scored more goals in the space of six days in April 1999 than they have in the whole of this season and there’s the fact that Arsenal FC, 13 times the champions of England, are currently on course to end the season with 129 shots on target, only 36 more than Thierry Henry managed on his own in 2003-04. Henry scored 30 goals that season, Arsenal are on track to score 35 in 2020-21.
Possession Is Not The Law
The possession wars of the early 2010s were based on the incorrect understanding that simply having a lot of the ball would result in you winning a lot of games, because you’d seen Barcelona do it on TV. Jose Mourinho was different then, proving with Inter he could humble teams including the Catalans by surrendering the ball and he is starting to do a similar thing with Tottenham. Spurs’ win against Arsenal on Sunday was the 11th time that a Mourinho team has had less than 35% of the ball in the Premier League since 2006 and the ninth time he has won the game, a magnificent win percentage of 82% from low possession matches.
Other elite-tier managers like Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp will rarely, if ever, see their teams dip below 35% but the managers directly underneath Mourinho in the list, Ralph Hasenhuttl on 50% and Nuno Espírito Santo on 46%, are respected tacticians who know how to set out their teams to soak up pressure and counter intelligently.
In contrast, some of the managers lower down have proven very unlikely to see their teams dominate the ball. Sam Allardyce has seen his teams complete games with <35% possession 52 times (16 wins) since 2006 and Tony Pulis has seen it an incredible 91 occasions (21 wins). That invariably works for them and helps them achieve their targets but the genius of Mourinho is sometimes his teams have nearly all of the ball and sometimes they have hardly any of it but either way, it’s his decision and it’s his plan. The question is: could it be his season?
Sheffield United are on track to get four points this season, which unsurprisingly would shatter Derby County’s record low of 11 set in 2007-08. Manager Chris Wilder has seen his widely praised defence from last season pivot from allowing their opponents 3.7 shots on target per game to 5.6, although the xG conceded has not risen by the same proportion, which, among other things, would indicate a slight downgrade in goalkeeping. So far, so realistic. Derby in 2007-08 allowed their opponents 6.2 shots on target per match, which sounds bad, and is bad, but not as bad as Wolves in 2011-12 who gave up 7.0 per game.
Of all Premier League defences since 2007-08, you have to go down to the 15th worst in shots on target allowed to find a team that survived, and that was Sunderland in 2015-16 (5.9 shots on target against per game) and they promptly got relegated the following season anyway. Sheffield United 2020-21 are 31st in the list and clearly in need of work at both ends of the pitch, but there are three teams from this season worse than them at conceding shots on target (West Brom 6.2, Newcastle 5.9 and Fulham 5.6).
If last season’s relegated trio were seen as unlucky sides in a high-quality division then the relegation battle this season looks like a much more agricultural scrap between some real strugglers. The positive news for Sheffield United is that there are still at least three other teams within touching distance but the bad news is they’ll need to become the first team to ever recover from this position to stay up. Derby at this point in 2007 were five points better off, before… well you know what happened next.
No-one confidently predicts the passing of the Messi and Ronaldo era. Tonight, in the Champions League, they face each other for maybe the last time and there are signs with both players that they might be passing to that stage of their careers where the effort-to-produce ratio is starting to slow.
The evidence? Well, in the top five European leagues this season there have only been five instances of a player having 10 or more shots and of those five, the only players to record an xG of less than one in the same game are Ronaldo (10 shots, 0.83 xG, one goal versus Sampdoria) and Lionel Messi twice, (10, 0.6, no goals versus Alaves & 10, 0.5, no goals versus Cadiz at the weekend). 14 of those Messi shots have come from outside the box, which is a much higher ratio than he displayed in his pomp. The last three seasons have been the only league campaigns where more than half his shots have come from more than 18 yards, up from around 25-30% in the early part of the 2010s. His role in the team and the manager he is playing for will impact that a bit, but the concern is that both he and Ronaldo have reached that inevitable point where their reputation and legacy means no-one will try and prevent them shooting so much but the productivity is starting to fall away.
Enjoy this? Subscribe to The Analyst to receive five stories each Friday from Stats Perform. It’s free.