Mikel Arteta played down his 100th win as Arsenal manager by re-emphasising that the milestone does not equal a title. That much is true but, given the uncertainty his team has had to navigate to reach this point, it definitely constitutes an impressive achievement.
Since being appointed in December 2019 he has taken charge of 168 games in all competitions, drawing 24 and losing the other 44. That gives him an overall win percentage of 59.5 per cent, which is the highest of any manager in the club’s history.
To reach 50 wins took him 92 games. He’s doubled that figure in a further 76 matches, showing the rate at which his team has evolved. There have been FA Cup final and Community Shield wins, 292 goals scored, 170 conceded, and the most common winning scoreline has been either 2-0 or 1-0 (17 times each).
If anything captures just how dramatic the trajectory has been, though, it is the graphic below showing the arc of their npxG (non-penalty expected goals) for and against since he replaced Unai Emery three and a quarter years ago.
At that point, Arsenal’s xG — the number of goals a player would be expected to score based on the quality of chances presented in open play — was below their xG against, with both sitting at just about a goal. This hasn’t been a rapid transformation, as it can be seen that things got worse before they got better with Arsenal dipping further in Arteta’s first full season, 2020-21, when they were languishing four points above the relegation zone after 14 games.
As this is a 10-game rolling average, there is a lag in the upturn appearing but a third of the way into last season everything seemed to click. Arsenal’s creativity went through the roof at the same time as they started limiting the opponent to a greater extent than at any other point in the previous three years.
This season, Arsenal are averaging 2.0 npxG per 90, compared to 1.4 in 2020-21, and conceding 0.98 per 90 as opposed to 1.1 back then.
A criticism often levelled at struggling managers is that they don’t know their best team. If results aren’t going their way, selections from game to game can start to appear like they are throwing mud at the wall and seeing what sticks but it can’t be said that Arteta hasn’t settled on a winning formula this season.
He has named his 10 most regular players (Aaron Ramsdale, Ben White, William Saliba, Gabriel Magalhaes, Oleksandr Zinchenko, Thomas Partey, Granit Xhaka, Martin Odegaard, Bukayo Saka and Gabriel Martinelli) plus Gabriel Jesus six times, and the same 10 with Eddie Nketiah up front on another six occasions.
For context, Arsenal’s Invincibles team that won the club’s most recent title in 2003-04 named their most common two XIs only three times each, and Leicester City’s shock 2015-16 champions saw the same XI line up together 13 times in the 38 games, which was a high point in the 30 years of the Premier League.
It has taken time for Arteta to reach this level of consistency but the progress has been stark. In the 20 Premier League games he took charge of in that first 2019-20 campaign, he averaged three changes to his starting XI per match and the next season there was even less consistency between February and May when the average was at 4.5 over a 16-game spell.
But Arteta gradually settled on his ever-presents and, as he began to trust them as integral parts of his team, that figure has come down to 0.9 this season — we even saw a six-game run between January and February this year without a single change.
Arteta’s road to a settled XI
Evolving the squad
Arteta has built a young squad with five of his strongest XI yet to enter their peak years, another five in that prime period and only Xhaka over 30.
The vibrancy has been key to Arteta bringing to life his football as it had been imagined. All of Arteta’s strongest XI have played more than half the minutes available in the Premier League, with eight players comfortably over the 80 per cent mark.
A team needs time to evolve and take shape organically, and that is what happened with certain crucial junctures. Only four players remain from the squad named in his first game in charge away to Bournemouth — Xhaka, Saka, Reiss Nelson and Emile Smith Rowe — while the average age of the squad has decreased from 25.7 in 2020-21 to 24.3.
The starting XI of each milestone win show how great the change is:
Win 25 vs Manchester United (November 1, 2020): Leno; Bellerin, Gabriel, Holding, Tierney, Saka; Willian, Partey, Elneny, Aubameyang; Lacazette
Win 50 vs Burnley (September 18, 2021): Ramsdale; Tomiyasu, White, Gabriel, Tierney; Partey; Pepe, Odegaard, Smith Rowe, Saka; Aubameyang
Win 75 vs Leicester (August 13, 2022): Ramsdale; White, Saliba, Gabriel, Zinchenko; Partey, Xhaka, Odegaard; Saka, Jesus, Martinelli.
Win 100 vs Fulham (March 12, 2023): Ramsdale; White, Saliba, Gabriel, Zinchenko; Partey, Xhaka, Odegaard; Saka, Martinelli, Trossard.
Manchester City’s ability to control a game from start to finish has been unrivalled in their near-seven years under Pep Guardiola. Arsenal are not quite at that level of domination yet but in recent times they have also been suffocating teams into submission.
One metric that we can use to quantify their off-the-ball aggression is PPDA (passes per defensive action). This records the average number of passes the opposition is allowed to make before a tackle, interception, failed tackle, or foul happens.
The Athletic’s football analytics glossary: explaining xG, PPDA, field tilt and how to use them
Arsenal’s average PPDA this season is the third-most intense in the Premier League behind Liverpool and City, and there has been a significant jump from last season. The below rolling PPDA graph illustrates a steady improvement, particularly from the start of the last campaign, with the stabilisation in recent weeks, at their most intense rates across the last four campaigns, representing an encouraging sign that such a high-pressing system can be sustained.
Across 2022-23, Arsenal’s average PPDA stands at 11.1 — a vast improvement from the rate of 14.3 in Arteta’s first season — showing how much quicker his side looks to win back the ball. They are also now averaging 4.6 high turnovers a game, compared to 3.1 in that first season, with recent performances against Leicester, Bournemouth and Everton seeing Arsenal post some of their most proactive numbers in this regard.
Granted, Bournemouth went ahead inside 10 seconds at the Emirates the other week, and so the game state affected their willingness to go forward, but the sheer grip Arsenal had on the game was impressive given the visitors did still score twice.
Arsenal’s field tilt (the percentage of final-third passes) is at 67.7 per cent, behind City on 70.6 per cent, but against Bournemouth that day it was 90 per cent. The average positions maps for the two teams below illustrates just how one-sided the game became as Arsenal penned Bournemouth back on the way to turning a 2-0 deficit after an hour into three points.
Goalkeeper Ramsdale almost makes it all 11 Arsenal players inside the opposition half while Bournemouth did not have a single player who connected with a team-mate often enough to register a passing link.
Playing through teams
Teams may be adapting to counteract Arsenal’s style but when Fulham tried to be semi-brave and lock onto them at Craven Cottage on Sunday, Arteta’s players displayed the ‘initiative’ to work out the puzzle for themselves.
They now reach the final third with 48.8 per cent of their build-up sequences, compared to 41.4 per cent last season and 41.3 per cent in Arteta’s first full campaign. Only City pip them in this metric, but they are comfortably closest to Guardiola’s team in that regard with the next best being Brighton at just over 40 per cent.
It is a complete transformation from 2020-21, when they simply couldn’t progress the ball through the opposition. Arsenal have had 385 sequences of 10-plus passes in open play, with 107 of these build-up attacks resulting in either a shot or a touch in the opposition box. At 28 per cent, that is the highest rate in the Premier League.
Arteta has his first century of wins but he and his team are in such a healthy place that it is easy to imagine them knocking off the next 50 before the calendar year is over. The difference now is the team that does it may look exactly the same as the one that delivered victory number 100.