Fulham 1.46 Arsenal 1.22.
That was one of the more bizarre scorelines generated by Arsenal’s actual 5-1 victory over Fulham, with many using this xG scoreline – and an eight-game season average that would put Arsenal’s xG close to their xGA – as evidence that the Gunners have somehow been incredibly lucky to be currently sitting in fourth place, just two points behind the Premier League leaders. The theory goes that there will eventually be something of a comeuppance. As Paul Merson said of the team who have conceded just eight goals in a nine-game winning run in all competitions: “Sooner or later they will be on the end of a big score.”
Merson is unlikely to have looked at the xG statistics before deciding that Arsenal’s current run is a smokescreen for deeper problems; he has simply used his eyes and concluded that the Gunners look as defensively unsound as they look dangerous going forward, and thus trouble must be just around the bend. Then it will be back to the same old Arsenal: Sometimes scoring; and then always bloody conceding.
But that is to wilfully ignore the principal reason why Arsenal are outperforming their xG or – in layman’s terms – making the most of their chances. Is it lucky to spend over £100m on two prolific strikers? Is it lucky to spend £100m on two prolific strikers who scored a total of 59 league goals in their last full seasons before joining Arsenal? Is it lucky that the Gunners finally spent serious money on serious goalscorers in the very last campaign of Arsene Wenger’s reign? It sounds rather more like belatedly good judgement than luck.
This change was a-coming even before Unai Emery took over from Wenger. You need only look at an annual Premier League table for 2018 to see the pattern; only Manchester City have outscored the Gunners since January brought Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Henrikh Mkhitaryan to the club to join the now-settled Alexandre Lacazette. The Gabonese striker reached double figures for Premier League goals in a half-season; now only Mo Salah and Harry Kane have scored more in the Premier League in 2018.
His scoring record is not an anomaly or lucky; he has scored four goals from 16 shots in the Premier League this season, which puts him at a similar scoring rate to both his last full year in the Bundesliga (31 goals from 116 shots) and his last half-year (13 goals from 58 shots). The chances may not be coming with the same ferocity at Arsenal – where he is taking 2.5 shots per 90 rather than around 3.8 – but he is finishing chances simply because that is what he does. A total of 22 players have had more attempts on goal than Aubameyang this season but only five have scored more goals. And Lacazette is not too far behind with his own conversion rate. Arsenal have absolutely got what they paid for.
‘The vast majority of your players are those Arsene Wenger left’ wrote Stan Collymore before he accidentally predicted that Arsenal would end the season on 102 points. He did not mean it as a compliment but perhaps it should be used as such. Wenger did not leave behind a wonderful team, but he did bequeath some excellent players in need of fresh ideas and tactical guidance. He had somehow made Arsenal less great than the sum of their parts, but those parts remained at Arsenal to be improved by another, more proactive coach. Think post-Ferguson Manchester United. And then flip it on its head.
Of the 11 players who started against Fulham on Sunday, nine had indeed played under Wenger last season, but seven of those nine were between the ages of 22 and 27. This was not a set of tired old players who had reached their ceiling; this was a group of players who screamed unfulfilled potential. Hector Bellerin, Rob Holding and Alex Iwobi were three of Arsenal’s most impressive performers against the Cottagers and none of that triptych are above 23. Hell, even Granit Xhaka looks a lot less like Granit Xhaka.
Emery brought in reinforcements but three of those players were on the bench on Sunday; the excellent Lucas Torreira is the only outfield signing who has established himself as a key player. The rest are all part of the inheritance, with Arsenal’s squad now so deep that Aaron Ramsey and Aubameyang can come off the bench even with Mesut Ozil missing through injury. It’s important to note that Wenger never stopped being able to identify a good player; he just lost the ability to make them better.
There may well be a point where there is a regression to the mean with Arsenal’s results – and if you want to look at countless graphs then you will find many on Twitter who support that view – but discounting the small matter of the club spending an unprecedented amount of money on prolific strikers is foolish. And equally foolish is ignoring a young, promising squad of players who could simply improve with more intense coaching.
Wenger’s players. Emery’s coaching. It could well be that the end result is an Arsenal side who are exactly as good as we should expect.