Battling Arsenal capable of challenging

Date published: Wednesday 15th April 2015 3:38

Leicester fans: Get into Christmas spirit

Arsenal’s narrow victory over Burnley at the weekend may not have been the most convincing but it took their tally to 8 successive league wins this season, which is something that no other side have been able to manage.

The Gunners’ progression this year is perhaps best emphasised when contrasting their fortunes with Manchester City. After the first league game of 2015, with 20 matches played Manuel Pellegrini’s men were completely level at the top with Chelsea, while Arsenal sat 13 points behind in 6th. 12 games down the line Arsenal are second, two places and 5 points ahead of City, managing a remarkable 18-point swing in the space of less than four months.

While any chance of competing for the title were all but ended by their former sweetheart Cesc Fabregas’ late winner for Chelsea at the weekend, many are now suggesting that Arsenal are now ready to put up a serious fight for the Premier League crown next season. We may have heard it all before but WhoScored.com look into the stats and 5 changes that suggest that Arsene Wenger’s side have made genuine progress this season, meaning this current purple patch could prove to be more than that.

1. No longer ‘trying to walk it in’

The go-to line when criticising Arsenal is becoming far less accurate. Sacrificing a player like Mikel Arteta, albeit through injury initially, and dropping the more adventurous Santi Cazorla alongside the revelation that has been Francis Coquelin has proved a masterstroke. The Gunners are more ambitious in their approach play, which has seen both their pass accuracy (now 82.9%) and possession (now 55.7%) figures drop from last season.

No side had a better pass accuracy than Arsenal last season but they now rank fifth in that regard and while this may not seem like an improvement it has enabled progress further forward. The Gunners are quicker and more forward-thinking with their passing and as a result have created – and been willing to take on – more shots at goal. As many as 7 sides attempted more shots last season but a jump from 13.8 to 15.5 per game this season now sees them rank second only to Manchester City.

2. The Sanchez effect

There’s no doubt that Arsenal would still be worried for their customary Champions League berth were it not for the exploits of Alexis Sanchez in the first half of the season. Wenger’s side were struggling with the organisational problems of old and looked short of ideas in attack, admittedly in part due to injuries to Mesut Ozil and Olivier Giroud before the New Year. Their summer signing dragged them through the mire at times and remains the second highest rated Premier League player this season according to WhoScored.com (7.91).

With 14 goals and 8 assists to his name it’s been a superb first season at the Emirates from the Chilean, who has played his part in this sensational run of form despite claims that he has gone off the boil. Sanchez may not be stealing all the glory anymore but his willingness to integrate into a system that is clearly best for the team has seen those around him able to flourish, whilst still offering a significant threat himself.

3. Added bite

The feeling was that Arsenal will never win the league with this side because they are too soft but that no longer seems the case. The unexpected emergence of Francis Coquelin has had a dramatic effect on Wenger’s approach to matches. Against weaker opposition he can now field more attacking players safe in the knowledge that the young Frenchman will be there to mop up when moves inevitably break down and when it comes to facing the big boys he has a player who will follow his instructions to a T.

Arsenal’s tackles per game figures have risen from last season (18.8 to 20.2) but the most significant increase, perhaps of all of their play, has been in intercepting the ball. Coquelin made 11 interceptions against Burnely last time out – the most of any player in a single game this season – and his energy and graft in nipping in to win the ball back has proven infectious. The Gunners have now made more interceptions per game (20.6) than any other side this season having ranked 8th last time around, with a far more modest 14.3, picking up a statistical strength from WhoScored of ‘stealing the ball from the opposition’.

4. Set pieces now a weapon

If you consider that Arsenal are now considered strong when it comes to both ‘aerial duels’ and ‘attacking set pieces’ according to WhoScored.com’s team characteristics it’s clear that work has been done on training ground. Indeed, the Londoners have already scored 6 more goals from set pieces this season than they managed in the entirety of the 2013/14 Premier League campaign. Only four sides scored fewer goals from such situations last season (8), while no side have scored more from set pieces this time around (14). It doesn’t always need to be pretty after all.

5. Lessons learned

As a direct culmination of the points made previous, Arsenal are now far more frightening opposition for those around them in the hunt for European places. Their willingness to relinquish possession at Manchester City earlier in the year was seen as a turning point as Wenger’s side performed a masterclass in soaking up pressure and hitting their hosts on the break. Throw in one of their 14 goals from a set piece and it was labelled as a refreshingly un-Arsenal like performance on the road.

The Gunners have not lost a single match by more than a two-goal margin this season, having done so 4 times in the previous Premier League campaign, conceding 5 at Anfield and being hit for 6 at the Etihad and Stamford Bridge. They’re by no means the finished article – even in the recent rout over Liverpool they looked susceptible to the counter in the first half – but a WhoScored.com team rating of 7.42 this season, jumping from fourth (with 7.25) to first from the previous campaign, is enough to suggest that Arsenal may well be ready to mount a sustained title challenge in 2015/16.

All statistics courtesy of WhoScored.com, where you can find yet more stats, including live in-game data and unique player and team ratings. You can follow all the scores, statistics, live player and team ratings with the new free-to-download WhoScored iOS app

Martin Laurence

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