Does Arsenal’s form hide striking vulnerabilities?

James Benge
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Does Arsenal’s form hide striking vulnerabilities?

Win on Monday night against Leicester City and Arsenal will be on their hottest streak of the past decade.

Unai Emery’s men are the form team in the Premier League and, whilst early season defeats to Manchester City and Chelsea highlighted the gap between them and the very top of the league, their recent displays have put them firmly back on the radar. Why then is it so hard to shake the feeling that, even if the protagonist has changed, we have seen this tale before?

It was early in the 2007-08 season that the Gunners last fired so ferociously, winning 12 in all competitions between August 25 and October 28. Come the match where that run ended, a thoroughly impressive 1-1 draw at Anfield, Arsene Wenger’s side were top of the league and looked on course to win their Champions League group.

An impressive start to the season might not be all that the classes of 2007-08 and 2018-19 share. Whilst both rank among the most talented squads assembled in the post-Invincible era there remains a nagging doubt over just how ‘real’ this fine form is.

Arsenal’s numbers this season in advanced areas are indisputably impressive. Only Manchester City better their tally of 19 goals from their first eight Premier League games. Already there are 10 players with goals to their names in the top flight. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette each have four, enough to put them in the top 10 of the Golden Boot race.

Equally encouraging is the manner of the goals being scored. The early games of the Emery era perhaps saw Arsenal struggle for consistent fluidity in the final third. That is certainly not a problem now. Aaron Ramsey’s flicked strike against Fulham to wrap up a stunning counter-attack was equally ‘Emeryball’ and Wenger’s vision of “football as art” incarnate. The other four they scored weren’t too shabby either.

And yet perhaps that is part of the problem. Arsenal are scoring very, very good goals. Can they keep doing that? According to Caley Graphics’ expected goals (xG) model Emery’s side just shaded the contest, with 1.6 xG to the 1.4 of Fulham. Instead the match proved to be a 5-1 rout.

That has been typical of Arsenal’s season so far, where the goals have flowed perhaps more freely than they ought to have. Understat data gives them a total xG this season of 10.41, meaning an average side would expect to score 8.59 fewer goals from the chances the Gunners have created this season.

No other Premier League side’s xG and goal tally vary so dramatically. Leicester are nearest to Arsenal but even they are outperforming their xG by a relatively meagre 4.86. In short the quality of opportunities they have created this season is roughly on a par with that of Watford and Southampton and by some way the worst of the big six. Manchester City's xG is more than double that of Arsenal.

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It should go without saying that it is highly unlikely that Arsenal can continue to convert chances at such an impressive rate. Even with Aubameyang, Lacazette and the cavalcade of attacking options Emery can call on a regression to the mean seems inevitable.

Similarly a 36-year-old Petr Cech cannot be expected to continually deliver performances on a par with that he offered in the 2-0 win over Everton last month. Shkodran Mustafi might have put in performances more befitting of a £35million centre-back but it will be a long time before he inspires much confidence in fans.

To his credit Emery acknowledges that his project is far from finished. “I think we have to continue doing a lot of things to get better,” he said in his pre-match press conference. “Our demands need to be very high. The supporters can enjoy it with us but also we’re speaking with our reality every day.

“If we are remembering the last match at the Emirates [against Watford], we won but not playing like we want, with the control against the opposition.”

Lingering doubts over the sustainability of this form should not detract from the progress being made on and off the pitch from Arsenal. There is a renewed optimism around the club, a zip and purpose in training that at times was lacking in the past. A medical department that had fallen off the pace is now looking to set the Premier League standard. Emery's personal overhaul has ranged from the major (installing a tented gym next to the training pitch) to the minor, for instance by keeping his squad waiting until the final hours ahead of kick-off before he names his team.

These changes are all being reflected on the pitch in performances of a swagger that goes some way to explaining why these players are so outperforming the numbers.

But how often in the past have we seen Arsenal as the team for October? No team has won more Premier League points or games in this month than they have. How often has that been followed by a dramatic tailing off, whether it be in November or around the turn of the year?

It was not just the squad of 11 years ago that petered out. Take your pick from the second half of Wenger’s reign. Notably a sizeable clutch of Emery’s current squad were also in the team that was zooming up the Premier League in October 2016. They would end that season outside the top four for the first time in 21 years.

That perhaps explains why the perfectly understandable optimism of recent weeks must be tempered to a great extent. Emery has not yet been able to prove this is an Arsenal for all seasons.