Man Utd, Chelsea, Arsenal: are they really on the up?
Are Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester United improving? We take a deep dive into Opta numbers to assess three of the FA Cup semi-finalists.
Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester United are in different stages of transition, but an FA Cup triumph would make any of their seasons feel a bit sweeter.
In the Premier League, things feel a bit mixed. While top-four finishes are on the cards for United and Chelsea, they are five points down compared to last season after the same number of games played. Arsenal, meanwhile, are a damning 16 points worse off.
League tables will naturally be far from the thoughts of Frank Lampard, Mikel Arteta and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer at Wembley this weekend, but the form of their teams in the top flight does give a good insight into how, if at all, they are overseeing some improvement.
Here's how they compare in terms of this season and last season in league football - bearing in mind, of course, that the campaign is not yet finished...
Chelsea have scored 64 goals in 2019-20 after 36 league games, one more than last season. United are on 63 (down two), and Arsenal on 53 (down 10).
In Expected Goals, Chelsea were at 59.3 last term but are now at 67.3. Arsenal's xG last season was 60.6 and has dropped to 44.8, while United have also slipped, decreasing to an xG of 60.8 this season compared to 61.9 last.
Still, those numbers suggest each side has scored about as many goals as could realistically be hoped in 2019-20. So that's good news.
7 - Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford have now assisted one another a combined seven times in this season's Premier League, the most of any pairing in a single season for @ManUtd in the competition. Wavelength. pic.twitter.com/s0uZRIYJZK— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) July 16, 2020
FINDING THE TARGET
United are top in shooting accuracy, with a rating of 52.1 per cent this term. Chelsea are at 50.1 per cent, with Arsenal at 49.7 per cent.
That might look balanced, but only Chelsea are showing an improvement: their accuracy is up by nearly two per cent on last term, while Arsenal's has dropped (by a tiny 0.5 per cent) and United's has slipped by a more concerning 4.7 per cent.
What about conversion rates? Chelsea are at 14.9 for this season, a drop of 0.5 per cent; United are down by 0.7 per cent at 15.7. With two games left, those numbers are pretty much the same as last season. Arsenal, more worryingly, have dropped by 3.5 per cent.
Of course, chance conversion depends on the quality of the opening - all strikers would prefer a certified 'big chance'. Chelsea have created the most of those (70), with United on 54 and Arsenal on 45. In 2018-19, Chelsea created 80, United 65, and Arsenal 72.
As for converting those big chances, United's rate is up by around 0.8 per cent. Chelsea's is three per cent lower this term, perhaps highlighting some of Lampard's concerns about not taking their opportunities. As for Arsenal, their big chance conversion rate of 56.3 is far higher even than those of Liverpool or Manchester City. Just where would they be without Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang?
50 - Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang has scored his 50th Premier League goal in fewer appearances (79) than any other @Arsenal player, and is the 6th fastest to this total among all Premier League players. Clinical. pic.twitter.com/YWjDZJzFsP— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) July 1, 2020
Chelsea have the worst defence this term, conceding 49 goals in 36 games. United have let in 35, while Arsenal have shipped 45, also in 36 matches.
United's Expected Goals Against figure is fairly consistent with the data at 35.7 for this season, with Arsenal on 52. Chelsea, however, are down at 37.1 - in other words, they are conceding more than they should. That suggests they have faced some ruthless centre-forwards or that goalkeepers Kepa Arrizabalaga and Willy Caballero have not played their part.
Chelsea also had a slightly lower xGA of 36.8 for last season, suggesting they are conceding a greater number of good chances now than before. United and Arsenal have each improved in that regard - the Red Devils, for instance, had an xGA of 51.2 last term, up almost 16 compared to this season.
Clean sheets are also telling. United have 12 this season, already five more than they managed throughout last season. Arsenal are up by two, with 10. Chelsea have managed eight this term - half the number they reached in 2018-19.
SO, CHELSEA ARE IN TROUBLE AT THE BACK?
Yes and no. You could argue Chelsea do not do enough defensively, given the number of goals going in and the xGA tally. But the truth is they, like United, are tracking for improvement in terms of those defensive metrics that rely on players improving their own numbers. It's Arsenal who should be more worried.
Chelsea have made 599 tackles this season, close to last term's 618. United are on 550, down from 581 - not a hugely significant slide. Arsenal are on 567, a more dramatic drop from 610 in 2018-19.
As for interceptions, Chelsea have made 444 in 2019-20, up from 350 last season - a huge increase in terms of winning back possession without committing to challenges. United have surpassed last season's 355 already, reaching 362. Arsenal, though, have managed 340, a drop of 72 from last season.
Unsurprisingly, this means the Gunners are exposed to opposition firepower too often. They have faced 526 shots this season, already 27 more than last term. Chelsea are at a commendable 307, down from 350, while United have dropped from 496 all the way to 363. That's a solidifying defence in action.
All three teams can at least point to fewer errors leading to shots (and goals). Chelsea have committed 14 mistakes leading to a shot, down two from last season; Arsenal are on 18, down from 28; and United are on 13, down from 26. However, seven of those 13 shots have ended up going in - not a good look for David de Gea.
7 - David De Gea has made seven errors leading directly to an opposition goal in the Premier League since the start of last season, the joint-most alongside Martin Dubravka and Bernd Leno. Shocker. pic.twitter.com/WNoCTxhxds— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) March 1, 2020
WHAT ABOUT A STYLE CHANGE?
Possession figures are much the same. Chelsea average 60.86, down roughly three per cent from last term; Arsenal are on 53.37, down 4.9. United's figure is up to 55.93, but that's an increase of less than 1.5 per cent.
More interesting is where they regain the ball when they don't have it. Chelsea have won it back 163 times in the final third, more than Arsenal (151) and United (134) - but they are down compared to last season in that regard, whereas United are trending upwards (Arsenal are about the same as they were). Solskjaer seems keener than most to get his players pressing higher than before.
HOW DO THEY USE THE BALL WHEN THEY HAVE IT?
United have had more fast breaks (32) this season than Chelsea (21) and Arsenal (19). They and Chelsea have each scored six goals from those, showing the value of committing to more swift breaks than before (they're up by nine and six respectively compared to 2018-19).
Lampard appears less inclined towards letting players run with the ball. Chelsea have attempted 744 dribbles this term, short of last season's 788 with just two games left, but United (786 compared to 605) and Arsenal (727 compared to 583) are already on far higher numbers. You can see why Solskjaer thinks Jadon Sancho would be a perfect fit.
For Chelsea, the priority seems to be getting the ball into dangerous areas more quickly. They have managed 217 successful crosses/corners this season, way up on 135 for the whole of last term under Maurizio Sarri. Arsenal are up slightly (138 compared to 128) and United are down slightly (124 compared to 133).
20 - There were 20 passes in the build up to Chelsea's first goal against Everton, scored by Mason Mount - the second longest passing sequence leading to a Chelsea goal in the Premier League this season. Silky. #CHEEVE pic.twitter.com/TFWEupxKaJ— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) March 8, 2020
AND DOES THAT CREATE MORE OPENINGS?
Not for Chelsea. They created 493 goalscoring chances last season (including assists), and are trending down on that in 2019-20 at 447. Arsenal are down, too, with 283 chances created falling well short of last term's 363. United have passed last season's 382, reaching 390 with two games to go.
And yet, we've seen with xG that Chelsea have theoretically created the best good openings. That's reflected in the number of shots taken from inside the box this season, too: Chelsea have managed 396, with United way back on 289 and Arsenal on 265. Those two are trending down compared to last season.
Since Chelsea seem to be creating more good chances from close range, perhaps having Timo Werner in the box really will make a big difference. For now, he'll just have to watch the action at Wembley like the rest of us.
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