I was digging through statistics and something really jumped out at me that I hadn’t realized as the season progressed. That unpleasant fact was that Arsenal were absolutely dreadful at creating shots from set play situations.
For this season Arsenal created 87 shots from set plays this season. 63 of those shots came from corner kicks, 13 from set play free kicks, and 11 from direct free kicks. 87 shots created was good enough for... well it was the worst in the Premier League this season.
Premier League Set Play Shots
To put some more perspective on this: Arsenal had the most set play opportunities of all teams in the Premier League as well. In total Arsenal had 723 set play situations. Of these 209 came from corners and 514 from free kicks. This, admittedly, is a very crude measurement, because not every free kick is in an attacking position. Overall, even considering that, Arsenal converted just 12% of their free kicks into shots, well below the league average of 22%.
Looking specifically at corner kicks, which are always a place that you can attack from, Arsenal turned just just 30% of their corner kicks into shots, which was the lowest in the league.
I had hoped that this would be an area that Unai Emery would be able to improve, with his talk of video work and extensive preparations. With the talent that is in the team as far as passing, it is a huge mystery to me how this team created so little from these opportunities, and I wonder if it’s something that the coach wasn’t able to communicate to his players. This isn’t a long term issue; this season was a huge drop off from previous seasons. Arsenal went from being a league average team to the worst.
From 2011/12 to 2017/18, Arsenal were incredibly consistent, producing between 120 and 135 shots from set plays and converting about 20% of their opportunities into shots. The big decline from the 2009/10 and 2010/11 seasons happens league wide and might be an issue with how Opta collected data when they first started.
If Arsenal were to have created shots at the same rate that they had previously, that would have meant about 58 more shots this season. The average xG for shots from set plays is 0.09 and that would have meant about 5 to 6 additional goals this season for Arsenal, if Arsenal could have created on a similar level to Liverpool, who had an average xG for their set plays of 0.12 (and that probably undercounts their excellent set play designs), it would have meant an additional 7 goals.
If you are remotely familiar with the great work done by Ted Knutson and StatsBomb, you know that one of the biggest areas that teams overlook is in set plays. Arsenal are a great example of how costly this can be. The margins between 3rd and 6th place this season were razor thin (just 6 points between 3rd and 6th, Arsenal missed top 4 and the Champions League by 1 point), and as we are painfully aware, leaving goals on the field has a huge cost.
If Arsenal want to get smarter to make up for a lack of money compared to rivals, this is a huge area where they can improve. Considering how much Arsenal outperformed their underlying numbers this season, just improving on set plays still might not be enough. An return to previous levels, let alone any improvement, might only keep them from falling even further behind as they rebuild the squad.
This post originally ran on The Short Fuse