In many ways, Arsenal’s 2017-18 season seems to be following the pattern the Gunners set last year. They fell short of 4th place by one point, and through 15 matches this year they are in the same position, a single point off Liverpool once again. But the underlying numbers suggest a different story. Arsenal’s plus-20 expected goals difference last season was clearly the weakest in the Premier League. This season Arsenal has already produced three-quarters of their xGD from a full season last year—their expected goals difference of plus-15 is behind only Manchester City’s stratospheric plus-27.
This Arsenal team, then, has maintained its level in the table while significantly improving its underlying statistics. What appears to be a team holding steady may really be a club striding forward.
The increasingly effective Arsenal back three system has been the secret to the club’s steady improvement. The linchpin of the system is Aaron Ramsey. While recent matches have seen big performances from forwards Alexandre Lacazette and Alexis Sanchez, it is Ramsey’s all-around midfield play that has enabled Arsenal to consolidate and move forward from last season. Arsenal have played nearly the whole season with three center backs. This has helped the Gunners’ defense in obvious ways, as a midfield that lacks a clear ball-winner can be covered by the extra man at the back. But to make the attack work after dropping numbers up front requires a player who can offer shot production from an unusual position. For Arsenal, that player in Ramsey.
The Welsh midfielder’s 36 shot attempts and 4.8 expected goals are the most of any central midfielder in the league, and his 3.5 expected assists trail only David Silva, Kevin De Bruyne and Cesc Fabregas. With his late runs into the box, Ramsey can destabilize a defense and create quality scoring chances for himself or his teammates, as he did with his one-touch assist to Lacazette for Arsenal’s goal against Manchester United last week.
What makes Ramsey’s shot production stand out, of course, is that he lines up in central midfield. And this is not a nominal position. Over the last four matches, which have produced three victories and one hard-luck defeat, Ramsey has been one of Arsenal’s most consistent contributors across every dimension. His Twelve Football dashboard shows nearly 5000 pts produced up and down the pitch. Ramsey has contributed tackles in the defensive zone, pressing in midfield, progressive passing around the box and those quality shot attempts as well.
Arsenal’s new back three system both depends on Ramsey and seems to get the best out of him. The three-man attack would be too easy to mark if they did not have a midfielder making runs into the box to unsettle the defenders and create space for Lacazette, Sanchez and Ozil. With those three forwards leading the press, he has time to track back into position or join them in the high press, and with three center backs behind, there is coverage if Ramsey is caught up field.
It is hard to see Arsenal’s system working without the peculiar talents of Aaron Ramsey. His manager has built a system which maximizes his talent and enables a little extra defensive cover for the whole team. So long as Ramsey stays healthy, it is likely this Arsenal team can maintain its early season success and make another run at the top four.