Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger has previously been accused of not spending enough time on the training ground practicing set pieces, but statistics from the past two seasons suggest that the Gunners are dispelling the myth that Wenger’s side don’t score enough headers.
Defeats to Liverpool and Watford this season were an example of how Arsenal have struggled against physical sides, with Hornets striker Troy Deeney describing Wenger's team as lacking 'cojones' during his post-match interview after the two teams met in October.
However, the numbers down the opposite end of the pitch show that Arsenal have scored the most headed goals over the last two seasons and only eight teams in Premier League history managed to better their tally of 17 last season. Somewhat surprisingly, West Brom rank bottom in terms of headed goals and shot lengths from the 2016/17 season onwards, going against the widely-held theory that former manager Tony Pulis was master of set pieces.
The football purists who have grown up watching Wenger’s side play a fluid brand of attacking football predominantly based on ‘passing the ball into the net’ may be surprised by the aforementioned numbers, yet they are the product of a number of factors.
Interestingly, the length of the pass or cross of headed goals scored for Arsenal is shorter than all other Premier League teams which perhaps pays testament to Wenger’s intricate style of play, where the likes of Alexandre Lacazette nodded in his debut goal from a small Mohamed Elneny cross and Mesut Ozil has scored against Everton this season via a deft Alexis Sanchez effort.
Wenger’s men are scoring headed goals from measured chips into a player rather than hopeful crosses or long balls into the box. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain was allowed to join Liverpool in the summer after he rejected a contract extension at Emirates Stadium and his style of crossing would be defined in the latter category. An amazing pin-point cross for Olivier Giroud against Manchester United last season was a rare occasion where a long-range cross was converted.
There are several explanations for Arsenal’s set piece prowess, one of which comes in the form of France striker Giroud. While the ex-Montpellier forward has started more games on the subsitutes bench recently, he’s still scored seven headers since August 2016, a stat which makes him the league’s most clinical player in the air. Giroud has only made 11 starts in that period with only Alan Shearer scoring more headed goals in the last 15 minutes of games.
Mesut Ozil is the top Arsenal assist maker since the start of last season and it’s worth noting that he has created 30 goalscoring chances from open play this season in the Premier League; more than any other player. The German’s efficiency in the final third shouldn’t be understated and it’s one reason why Arsenal should do everything they can to tie him down to a new contract.
Ultimately, Arsenal’s intelligence from set pieces is an underrated element of their game and one many people wouldn’t traditionally link to a Wenger side. Giroud, Ozil, Granit Xhaka and teams defending narrow when they expect the Gunners to play through the middle all explain in part why their numbers are so impressive.
Finally, the threat Arsenal pose at set-pieces is largely underplayed. Giroud, Per Mertesacker, Shkodran Mustafi, Laurent Koscielny and Danny Welbeck add significant height to the Arsenal team and perhaps it shouldn't be a surprise that they score so many headers.
Wenger will hope that record continues on Sunday when Arsenal face a Burnley side who are also known for their physical qualities all over the pitch.