Arsene Wenger: Have Arsenal improved since legendary manager's exit?
- It is two years since Arsenal said farewell to Arsene Wenger, but are they better off for having parted with him?
Two years ago, Arsene Wenger saluted and bowed to the Arsenal fans as his incredible 22-year reign as manager came to a close with a 1-0 win at Huddersfield Town.
The travelling supporters showed their admiration for Wenger's achievements, which encompassed three Premier League titles – including an unbeaten 2003-04 campaign – and seven FA Cups, with a standing ovation in the 22nd minute.
However, while there was respect for what he delivered to the Gunners, there was at the same time hope for a future without him. The Frenchman drew heavy criticism in the final years of his tenure as Arsenal stagnated, finishing what was, by his standards, a lowly sixth in 2017-18.
There has been little sign of those hopes being realised since his departure, and Arsenal were ninth in the table when the Premier League was halted in March due to the coronavirus pandemic.
So has anything improved from Wenger's final season? We used Opta data to compare Arsenal's fortunes from 2017-18 to their performances following Wenger's exit.
A common theme of the later years of Wenger's reign was criticism of his failure to fix Arsenal's much-maligned defence.
Between a perceived lack of bite in midfield and paucity of leadership in defence, too often Wenger's Gunners sides were undone by failings in their rearguard.
In his final season in charge, Arsenal conceded 51 goals at an average of 1.3 per game. However, their expected goals against – a metric that assesses the chance of shots against them becoming goals – was 48.1.
That indicates their opponents excelled at converting chances where the probability of scoring was low.
The goals-per-game ratio against has stayed the same under Unai Emery and Mikel Arteta, with Arsenal conceding at an average of 1.3. Yet their expected goals against from the 2018-19 and 2019-20 campaigns tells the tale of a defence that has gradually declined.
Indeed, Arsenal's net was again breached 51 times last season, but they had an expected goals against of 54.45. In the postponed 2019-20 campaign, Arsenal have conceded 36 goals, but have an expected goals against of 40.61.
This suggests that, while Arsenal have given away goals at the same rate in each of the past three seasons, their defence since Wenger left has done an inferior job of preventing clear-cut chances for opponents.
Arsenal's final season under Wenger saw them score 74 goals – tied for third most in the division – at a rate of 1.9 per game. Their expected goals was 69.33 or 1.8xG per game.
The Gunners scored at the same rate in their sole full season under Emery, but with an xG of 60.62 (1.6 per game), indicating Arsenal did an even better job of converting more difficult goalscoring opportunities.
As Arsenal have slumped towards mid-table in 2019-20, both their goals per game and xG have tailed off significantly. They have scored 40 goals at a rate of 1.4 per game and their xG is 36.35 (1.3 per game).
In other words, this season has seen Arsenal struggle to create as many clear-cut chances and they are converting them at only marginally above the expected rate.
At both ends of the pitch, Arsenal are no better off than they were under Wenger. If anything, the data shows a team that has been made actively worse by the departure of arguably the club's greatest manager.
But has the style of play changed since Wenger said his farewell?
Arsenal were regularly derided for trying to "walk the ball into the net" during Wenger's tenure. In 2017-18, they averaged 4.3 build-up attacks – sequences of 10 or more passes that end in a shot or a touch in the box – per game. The 2018-19 season saw them average 3.4 and in 2019-20 Arsenal have produced 2.6 build-up attacks per game.
While that decline suggests Arsenal are no longer trying to pass the opposition into submission, there is little evidence they have become more direct.
The Gunners attempted 2 direct attacks per game in 2017-18, with that average dipping to 1.8 last season before rebounding to 2.2 this term. The difference is negligible, and the disparity in shots per game – 15.6 in 2017-18, 12.3 in 2018-19 and 11.1 in 2019-20 – suggests Wenger's Arsenal were superior at finding a route to goal.
If there has been a definitive change in style, it has been in getting the ball to wide areas. Arsenal delivered 9.3 open play crosses per game in Wenger's last season but ramped that up to 11.8 last term and 13.9 this season.
11 - Arsenal have gone 11 games without defeat away from home in all competitions (W4 D7), since a 0-2 loss at Leicester in Unai Emery’s final away game in charge of the club – the Gunners longest unbeaten run on the road since March-December 2016 (a run of 15). Adapting. pic.twitter.com/DdbxgJ9H8e— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) March 2, 2020
The data for 2019-20 season comes with the caveat of being split between Emery and Arteta, who took over on December 20 and had engineered an upturn in fortunes. Arsenal were unbeaten in their last eight league matches when the coronavirus pandemic led a suspension of fixtures.
Arteta's work in implementing his style is on hold for the time being but, having learned under Wenger and Pep Guardiola at Manchester City, it will be intriguing to see whether his long-term vision is based on their possession-dominant philosophies.
Arsenal have at best gone sideways in the post-Wenger era. The early signs have been promising for Arteta but the same old problems that brought about the end for Emery's illustrious predecessor remain and appear to have been exacerbated. Arteta will have to finally find a way to fix them if he is to fill the massive void left by Wenger.