Gunner Thoughts

90 Long Minutes: Playing With the Same Purpose

It’s hard to fault this team for much, but there’s room for growth.

“We started extremely well again – dominated the game, dominated the pitch and scored two beautiful goals. After that, we made a huge mistake to stop playing with the same purpose to score the third and just think we could play around them and maintain that result.”

An honest, painful assessment from Arsenal’s boss, following a second straight, frustrating draw for the young Gunners side.

In Arsenal’s first draw, we watched their lead slip away at Anfield. Arsenal aren’t the first team to walk onto that turf and see an early lead slip away. Walking away from Anfield with a point, in most cases, feels like a positive to your season. But if there is one aspect of this match — a result that left many with very conflicting feelings — that may have been swept under the rug, it was the red flags and warning signs of Arsenal’s play with a lead.

A season in which this Arsenal side has absolutely exploded in every department and produced near-flawless results, it’s hard to identify significant areas for improvement without feeling like you’re approaching harsh territory. Yes, every team has areas to improve on and the team itself has to solve some depth issues, but it’s hard to find a lot of fault in a team that’s produced 74 points in 31 matches.

When we talk about them being “poor” at something, in the context of this season it all feels harsh simply because they have been almost flawless in a league that now demands perfection to claim a title. 

We are stuck looking at tight margins not across individual 90 minutes like we were just a season ago, but the slimmest of margins across 38 games instead.

It’s a product of playing in a league with this Manchester City Goliath. We just accept that a team has to accumulate 90 to 95 points if they even want a sniff at a chance, and yet, earning that whiff in itself mandates a team be exceptional.

But these last two games, Arsenal have twiddles thumbs from positions one assumes they felt confidently “safe” within. At the very least, they didn’t kill things or maintain the result.

Unfortunately for Arsenal, maintaining their levels of control while winning has been a weakness, as pointed out in a tweet from Ali Elfakharany (@alifakharany). These stats look at the xG difference.

To add an additional bit of context and fairness to this, Scott Willis (@scottjwillis) notes that 15% of the xG conceded by Arsenal while winning came from a single match — Liverpool — which is a significant chunk for a single game.

A few notes:

  1. Just about every team has a worse xG difference when winning
  2. xG Difference is not the determining factor in match control

What this does tell us is that Arsenal have a tendency to take their foot off the gas and perhaps have yet to develop that killer instinct that sees a team like City’s production maintain it’s exceptional levels, regardless of game state.

This season, Arsenals improvement in controlling games has been astounding. The team’s possession of the ball; their control and dominance of spaces; and their pressing and defensive structures has made strides toward the “death by 300,000 passes” vision Arteta once prophesied.

Yet it’s clear from Arteta’s post-match that he recognizes the keen difference between the attempt to control a game and play around an opponent, and the level of control and dominance he wants from his title-competing side.

The trick is, reaching that level takes a cohesive team on the exact same mental wavelength. Ensuring everyone is on that orchestrated level of pushing for goals as a team with the same purpose versus when they are possessing, stretching, and passing for the sake of control and keeping it away from an opponent. The fact is, the best teams are able to do both and flip the switch to go get a third.

Arsenal’s young team developing this skill is their next step.

In the short term, Arsenal don’t have the time to develop that now, before the end of the season. It’s something that will come with time. But Arsenal have had many occasions this season in which they have been up by two goals, paused their onslaught, and gotten away with it. It’s is important to try and understand why this may be catching up with them.

Thats a question that likely has a lot of variances but it’s the one that Arteta and his team will be looking to answer. Some obvious possibilities:

  • Complacency given they HAVE gotten away with it all season
  • Injuries to key figures have raised the likelihood of errors
  • Fatigue from a season of play is seeing a decline in sharpness
  • Pressure of the season’s stakes is underlying everything

What makes this difficult is exactly what Arteta followed up his earlier answer with:

“Well the pattern in terms of the result is different. In terms of what’s happened, it was very different. But you have to accept that. That’s the last thing we want in our brains – to not have the confidence after having the possibility to kill the game and not doing it. That’s the next stage.”

And the next stage it will be. But Arsenal need to find a way to keep themselves from dropping more points this season. The facts are laid bare and everyone knows the jig – get a result versus City, beat the best to be the best, and you keep the title chances alive and well. First up, Southampton on Friday.

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