Arsenal’s Passing Expertise May Actually Hinder Them Against Weaker Competition [Opinion]

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Hall of Fame New York Yankees manager Casey Stengel once suggested that the key to winning the pennant every year was to split the games against the good teams while absolutely demolishing the league’s weaker teams. Arsenal, a perennial contender for a spot in the Champions League, but often goaded as an underachiever for not winning more Premier League titles, has often suffered from failure in the second half of that equation, losing points to weaker competition that end up costing the team at the end of the season.

While there are a number of theories as to why this is, including the typical “the team has no heart” argument, one potential cause has begun to come to light: the team’s greatest strength has created a costly weakness. In their maniacal pursuit of “the beautiful game,” with interconnected movement and passing leading to a number of beautiful goals, the team has eroded its dribbling skills, which has in turn caused them to suffer against weaker teams.

It makes a lot of sense for Arsenal to focus on passing and movement without the ball. It has been statistically proven that each player will have possession of the ball for a very small percentage of their time on the pitch, meaning that a large portion of their value is tied up in defense and attacking movement off the ball. Dribbling, in a sense, is overrated. However, there is a time when it does matter, and that narrow margin may be all that separates Arsenal from its top competitors.

When Arsenal plays a weaker team, they will almost always have the athletic advantage. Arsenal, with a high payroll and a number of star players, is faster, quicker, and more skilled than their weaker opponents. The opposing manager will then most often employ a strategy in which their defense sits back and packs defenders in front of goal, waiting for one of Arsenal’s passes to go awry and hoping to score on the counterattack.

This strategy is employed with a fundamental understanding: the opposing players are not as athletic nor as skilled as Arsenal’s players. In any sport in any professional league, you will have superstars who are physically gifted beyond imagination, while the common player must use positioning and intelligence to succeed. This is most often cited as the reason why the large percentage of successful managers and coaches were not star players — they had to employ the intricacies and fundamentals of the game to carve out a career. Soccer IQ is much more difficult to measure, and as such is much more evenly spread throughout the league. A team like Arsenal has little use for a smart player with less athleticism.

Due to this factor, teams are relatively similar in their ability to maintain defensive shape against a possession passing attack. Arsenal has about the same chance of breaking down Leeds United in this way as they do Liverpool, unless they can win a physical matchup. This is where superior dribbling comes in, and this is one of the ways in which Arsenal finds themselves lacking.

Here are the offensive stats for the Top Six, according to WhoScored.

Team Shots per goal Shots on target Dribbles per goal Fouled per goal
Liverpool 15.8 6.3 9.2 8.9
Spurs 12.7 5.4 8.3 10.3
City 18.1 6.9 10.8 8.1
Chelsea 16.2 5.4 9.9 12.5
Arsenal 12.7 4.8 6.6 12.2
United 13.1 6.4 7.4 11.2

Here is the breakdown of the top attackers on each club.

Team Player Dribble per game Key Passes Goals + Assists
Salah 2.1 2.2 18
Mane 1.7 1.3 8
Firmino 1.2 1.2 7
Kane 1.4 0.9 15
Moura 1.2 0.9 6
Alli 1.1 0.8 5
Son 1.1 0.9 10
Sterling 2.4 2.1 15
Sane 2.2 1.6 13
Aguero 1.1 1.4 13
Bilva 1.1 1.9 9
Hazard 2.9 2.8 19
Willian 1.7 2.6 5
Pedro 1.3 0.7 7
Kovacic 1.2 1 2
Morata 0.4 0.5 5
Iwobi 1.3 0.6 4
Auba 0.7 0.9 16
Laca 0.8 1 11
Ozil 0.8 1.8 4
Mkhi 0.6 1.1 5
Rashford 0.9 1.1 9
Martial 0.9 1.5 8
Lingard 0.7 0.7 6
Pogba 1.9 1.4 10

While Arsenal’s passing proficiency allows them to be extremely efficient in scoring goals, the charts also show that players who dribble often are involved in more scoring events, either via scoring or assisting others. According to a Reddit user, this suggests that if Arsenal were more proficient at dribbling to create space, their attack would be by far the most formidable in the Premier League, and as such, perhaps all of professional football.

It also could mean that Arsenal might be more adept at breaking down less athletic players if they could break them down via the dribble, either by threatening the defense with the ball at their feet or by creating space to pass to an open teammate.

While there are certainly more causes for Arsenal’s apparent inability to consistently overcome weaker teams, not the least of which is a persistent habit for defensive breakdowns, an improvement and commitment to beating opponents off the dribble might get them a little closer to the Premier League pinnacle that has eluded them for so long.