This Saturday’s match-up is an unexpected top of the table clash. Arsenal have put together a run of four wins, moving from the bottom of the table up to a tie for fifth behind… their opponent this Saturday, Watford. Most people would have expected Arsenal to be near the top but Watford being among the top four is the big surprise from the early results.
Watford have put together a legitimately good defence this season.
They are over performing their expected goals (‘xG’) this season but still have excellent statistics to suggest this could continue and isn’t just down to a hot goal keeper keeping out goals. They are allowing just 9.8 shots per match (fourth fewest in the league), 1.5 big chances per match (seventh fewest) and 4.7 shots from the danger zone per match (sixth fewest).
Watford have also done a great job of cutting out the ability of teams to attack them through the middle. The Hornets have faced the second highest proportion of shots from crosses, leading to a higher proportion of shots from headers. This works into the strengths of their new keeper, Ben Foster, who is very good at claiming crosses which limits the quality of the shots the team has faced.
In offense they have the sixth most goals but are tenth in expected goals. Their over performance is driven primarily by a league leading 16.2% conversion rate overall (against a league average of 10.5%) and a league leading on target conversion rate of 38.7% (league average is 29.2%) with a shot accuracy that is the third best at 42%.
Even with leading the majority of their games (when leading teams tend to have better shots as they are not as desperate to score), Watford do not have a great shot profile. 42% of their shots are coming from outside of the box and of their shots inside the danger zone, just 62% are coming from shots taken by feet. What Watford have done this season is be incredibly direct with their offense.
Watford is weird y’all pic.twitter.com/gQ03i07P8n
— Michael Caley (@MC_of_A) September 25, 2018
Watford are not a big pressing team (they allow 10 passes per defensive action which is exactly league average), but they do take opponents’ turnovers and turn them into shots at a high pace. On offense they take just 34 offensive actions per shot which makes them the third most direct team in the league. They take just 18 completed passes per shot, making them the second most direct team by this measure.
This tactic could lead to attacking against less set defences and explain some of how they have been able to score more than expected with higher shooting accuracy, but with just a six game sample it is too early to say with certainty.
This tactic is one which has the potential to be effective against a team like Arsenal. While Unai Emery has worked to make Arsenal more counter attack resistant, the transformation is far from complete. Andre Gray and Roberto Pereyra, who has been Watford’s best player this season (and Twelve’s top player in week one), could have lots of space to attack.
Over the last four matches, only Manchester City have scored more goals than Arsenal (11 vs 10). The results have been good, but the underlying numbers show that there is still plenty to be worried about with the process of Arsenal’s attack.
While Arsenal have the second most goals, they have managed to produce just the ninth most expected goals over that period. The wins have come despite playing poorly, thanks to excellent finishing from their attacking players (with 51% on target, 18% conversion rate and 36% on target converted). The balance in the team has not been found with fitting in all of the attacking talent Arsenal have on their roster.
Looking at the leader board for the four matches it is really concerning that arguably Arsenal’s most important player in Mesut Özil has been just the eighth best player. Over the four game stretch (he played in three of the matches) Özil had just 127 touches; just 42 touches per 90 minutes.
Last season he only had one match where he played more than 60 minutes in which he had fewer than 42 touches and averaged over 80 touches per 90 minutes. He has been played on the right wing in Unai Emery’s 4-2-3-1 system and thus far has been unable to find the space to influence the game like he did under Arsene Wenger.
The other concern is that Pierre Emerick-Aubameyang has been marginalized with his move to the left wing to accommodate Alexandre Lacazette in the striker role. Lacazette has played well producing the fourth most value for Arsenal but with the transfer fee and pedigree that came with Aubameyang his production has been less than expected. I took a deeper look at how this change has effected his shooting this season at the Short Fuse, with this major conclusion:
This season under Unai Emery, Aubameyang’s shot distribution is as follows: 36% of his shots from the danger zone, 14% from the wide areas of the box and 50% (!!!) from outside the box. [Compared to his time under Arsène Wenger: 68% of his shots came from the danger zone, 16% from the wide areas of the box and just 10% from outside the box.]
I was thrilled with the signing of Aubameyang but the team that Arsenal have built is not balanced. There are a number of very good attacking players in this team but many of them play in the same positions and spaces on the pitch. Making it so they all can play at the same time comes with major trade offs, one of them is that Aubameyang has been forced to play out of position on the wing and the resulting drop in production that comes along with that.
It is still very early in the Emery era at Arsenal, but after seven competitive matches finding the process he is working towards has been hard to figure out. Arsenal seem to have similar defensive fragility and susceptibility to counter attacks while also seeing their attacking numbers stagnate.
It is hard to not look at the Chelsea team with envy. They are far from a perfect Maurizio Sarri team but it is obvious what he has them working towards while Arsenal have mostly been the embodiment of the shrug emoji when it comes to what they are trying to do.
Arsenal are the favorites to take the three points from this match. However I am concerned that Watford are an opponent that will give Arsenal trouble and I think that I would mentally adjust the odds down for Arsenal in this match. If I were a betting man I would think that a draw would be a good value and I am going to predict a 1-1 draw in this match.