Sunday 18 November 2018

Aidan O'Hara: 'Jurgen Klopp will target Gunners' first-half weakness - and expect goals to flow'

 

Everton’s Dominic Calvert-Lewin fails to square the ball for Richarlison...
Everton’s Dominic Calvert-Lewin fails to square the ball for Richarlison...
Aidan O'Hara

Aidan O'Hara

The statistic of Expected Goals - or xG for short - has a bad reputation among those who prefer hunches over analytics.

Essentially, it is calculated by a combination of the chances created and the difficulty of them to assess a team's performance rather than just relying on the final result. In other words, if a player misses an open goal from six yards out, that would rate highly on expected goals chart. If they scored a 35-yard screamer, it wouldn't.

Football is notoriously resistant to new language and data and any losing manager who points to the game's xG statistics to support their point that the result was harsh would immediately be laughed at by those who prefer a grading system of "gilt-edged chance", "half chance" or "sniff of a chance".

They would both, basically, mean the same thing but, in football, it's dangerous to be thought of as somebody who puts their faith in numbers rather than gut instinct.

Bernd Leno denies Troy Deeney against Watford....
Bernd Leno denies Troy Deeney against Watford....

The five teams who played Arsenal at the Emirates this season all had that same gut instinct that they could easily have taken something from the game, particularly in the first half before Arsenal find their fluidity.

Accumulated Arsenal lost at home to Manchester City on the opening weekend of the season but have since accumulated 12 points from 12 ahead of this evening's game against Liverpool. A repeat performance of those four games, however, will almost certainly not yield the same result, particularly in the first half when Liverpool are capable of killing off almost any team.

Against West Ham, Arsenal won 3-1 in a game where the xG - according to understat.com - was 1.79 to 1.18, in other words, the statistics suggested they deserved a narrow victory. Moments before he scored, Marko Arnautovic blasted a one-against-one into the side-netting and, after Arsenal equalised, Robert Snodgrass meekly put the ball into the grateful arms of Petr Cech from 12 yards out. At 1-1 at half-time, West Ham had missed their chance.

It was a similar story for Arsenal against Everton when Dominic Calvert-Lewin broke away but hadn't the composure to either go around Cech or square it to Richarlison. Theo Walcott had a one-against-one soon after but, again, Everton didn't punish Arsenal's first-half sleepiness. In the end, Everton won the xG battle by 1.07 to 0.93, but lost the match 2-0.

A week later, Arsenal won by the same score against Watford with the visitors leaving slightly bewildered after a game in which the xG tally was 2.62 to 1.57 in their favour.

Even against Leicester, in a game that they won 3-1 with some sublime football in the second half, Arsenal should have trailed at half-time; instead they went into the break level at 1-1.

while Robert Snodgrass fails to convert a glorious chance. All three would have put Arsenal behind during the first-half of those games
while Robert Snodgrass fails to convert a glorious chance. All three would have put Arsenal behind during the first-half of those games

Teams would, obviously, rather have points on the board than any moral, or xG, victories but they are a useful tool to analyse whether a team is punching above their weight or getting away with it.

Somewhere, Arsene Wenger must have been watching the last few home games and wondering where all this opposition was in the final couple of seasons of his reign but, this evening, it's unlikely that Liverpool would be so kind if presented with the same opportunities.

If Mo Salah is presented with a similar chance to Snodgrass, he'll score. If Sadio Mane or Roberto Firmino get behind the Arsenal defence like Walcott and Calvert-Lewin, Arsenal won't get away with it which is why Jurgen Klopp will probably target a first-half blitz to put the game out of sight, even though they are away from home.

In the first half of their nine Premier League games this season, Arsenal have allowed an extraordinarily high 63 shots against them and conceded six goals. By contrast, in the same period, Liverpool have given up 30 shots and conceded once.

Diving into the numbers further, of the four goals in total which Liverpool have conceded, three of them have come when they were already leading by two goals or more against Leicester, Tottenham and Cardiff with only Eden Hazard's goal putting them behind.

This, again, contrasts starkly to Arsenal's Premier League campaign which even in the last seven games from which they have taken 19 points, they fell behind against West Ham, Leicester and Crystal Palace and conceded goals that made the game level against Cardiff and Fulham.

The positives in these numbers, of course, is that it shows an element of resilience among Arsenal that conceding preventable goals away at both Cardiff and Fulham in games that they dominated didn't send them into a second-half tailspin as it may have done in the past.

The negative, obviously, is that if teams in the bottom half of the table can find such chinks in the armour but fail to go for the kill, the same opportunities will be ruthlessly exploited in clashes like the one they face tonight.

If Klopp was designing a team to play against, Arsenal's characteristics would be pretty close to perfect given that their desire to pass the ball out from the back is not always matched by their ability to carry it off.

Consequently, if Unai Emery doesn't adapt his game in the manner that even Pep Guardiola did against Liverpool earlier this season, Arsenal will find themselves swamped by a wave of opponents who will test their technique to the limit.

If Arsenal can escape the initial press, they will have a chance to build an attack; if they can't, they run the substantial risk of playing into the hands of the opposition.

In their last five games against Arsenal, Liverpool have scored an astonishing 17 goals and conceded 10 due to a combination of Wenger's stubbornness to stick to his principles and Liverpool being unable to prevent a trickle turning into an avalanche, particularly when they met in London.

Control Two seasons ago, it was 1-1 at half-time before Arsenal found themselves 4-1 down after 63 minutes and a late rally couldn't prevent a 4-3 defeat. Last season, Liverpool were in complete control, leading 2-0 after 52 minutes but were hit by a crazy five-minute period in which Arsenal scored three times before the game finished in a 3-3 draw.

In both of those games, Liverpool's defence was built on the foundation of Simon Mignolet in goal with Dejan Lovren and Ragnar Klavan in front of him with none of them capable of stemming the tide once it turned slightly in Arsenal's favour.

In Alisson and Virgil van Dijk, Klopp has upgraded to the point where they have conceded four goals in nine games to start the season, having previously allowed three in the opening 90 minutes of the previous two seasons and, like Manchester City, the basis of any title challenge will be built from the back.

City have already taken seven points from away matches at Arsenal, Tottenham and Liverpool and victory tonight will allow Klopp's men to match that from trips to Arsenal, Tottenham and Chelsea.

To do that, Klopp will target the opening 45 minutes knowing that, with Arsenal having scored 16 of their 24 league goals in the second half, they could be punished if they don't lay down an early marker.

Like the probability of goals between these two teams, Klopp will expect nothing less.

Irish Independent

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