By Ewan Roberts
Galvanised by the signing of Mesut Ozil, Arsenal have marched to the top of the Premier League in quite sensational style, playing a scintillating, flowing, tiki-taka-esque brand of football that has even opposition fans doffing their caps. Once, the north Londoners might have been accused of over-playing, trying to score an impossibly perfect goal – until they did just that against Norwich.
Arsene Wenger's men could be five points clear come Saturday night, yet, despite the avalanche of positives that have come Arsenal's way since signing their £42 million German – and, looking further back, since beating German champions Bayern Munich – there is a sense that their position in the league paints something of a false picture.
|HOW ARSENAL'S STATS STACK UP COMPARED TO LAST SEASON
|POINTS V SAME OPPO
SHOTS AGAINST P/GAME
GOALS AGAINST P/GAME
The Gunners have benefited from stability, yet they have actually picked up fewer points this term than from the corresponding fixtures last season. They beat both Aston Villa at home and West Brom away in the previous campaign, a feat they could not match this time around. In fact, the last time a league leader had fewer than Arsenal's 19 points after eight games was in the 2001-02 season – then table-toppers Leeds United would eventually finish fifth.
Though it may be approaching a decade since Arsenal last won the league, they can usually be relied on to top the division in one respect: possession. In the last three years they have had the highest average possession in the division, peaking at 60.3 per cent in 2010-11.
This season, however, the Gunners are closer to Stoke than possession leaders Manchester City, ranked only eighth in the Premier League with 54.3%. On three occasions they have struggled to have the lion's share of the ball, with the 41% they managed against Swansea the second-lowest in the last two years - 84 games.
|ARSENAL SHOOTING STATS
|vs.||SHOTS FROM RANGE||SHOTS ON TARGET||SHOT ACC|
Arsenal have generally created a good number of clear-cut goalscoring opportunities this season, even if their conversion rate is down 9%, though the recent games against West Brom and Borussia Dortmund produced some worrying statistics. An astonishing 71% of the Gunners shots at the Hawthorns were from outside the box, while that figure was at 67% against die Schwarzgelben on Tuesday night.
At no point in the last four seasons, since the start of the 2009-10 campaign, have Arsenal posted a higher percentage of shots from long range than against the Baggies. The next highest long-range reliance came in January 2010, when the Gunners posted 67% against Everton in a 2-2 draw. For some context, Manchester City have, on average, taken just 34% of their shots from outside the box, and that figured dipped to 6% in their last league outing against West Ham.
|ARSENAL'S UPCOMING FIXTURES
Against Dortmund, Wenger's charges dominated possession yet mustered just two shots on target; one was a goal, the other saw Mats Hummels clear the ball off the line. Roman Weidenfeller was not forced to make a save. In fact, it took Arsenal 28 minutes after scoring the equaliser to have another shot on goal; Santi Cazorla's effort skimming off the woodwork.
Arsenal have faced few teams prepared to sit deep and dig in, partly because they have taken the lead so early. They have scored within the first 23 minutes in six of their eight league games, forcing opposition sides to abandon any plans of containment, creating more space for the Gunners. What happens when they do not score first? Well, in the case of West Brom and Dortmund, they drop points.
Defensively, Arsenal have also looked a little susceptible – despite having yet to face an attack of any real ferocity in the league. They have conceded 102 shots this season (12.8 per game, which ranks them 10th) – only nine shots fewer than struggling Crystal Palace.
In addition to that, they have kept just one clean sheet in the Premier League this season, while Tottenham and Southampton lead the way with five apiece. The backline are still prone to making errors too, and the Gunners are tied with Palace for conceding the most penalties – their three spot-kicks is more than the rest of the top eight put together, with Laurent Koscielny the prime culprit.
So, how good are Arsenal really? Probably somewhere between the back-to-earth shuddering tone of this piece and the unadulterated praise lavished on the Gunners to this point. But we will soon find out for definite. Wenger's men have a particularly tricky run of fixtures on the horizon and, as the Emirates groans on Tuesday night will attest, it does not take much to burst the bubble of optimism in football.
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