Andrew Beasley: Liverpool’s Vital Edge Over Arsenal

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Liverpool’s Performance at Arsenal: Beyond Shearer’s Words

Without wanting to refashion this column into some kind of weekly Alan Shearer Show, the former Newcastle striker and pundit recently made some strange comments relating to a Liverpool match for the second week running.

Rather than airing his opinion regarding the award of penalty on social media, as he did during the Reds’ record setting expected goal battering of the Magpies last week, Shearer was on co-commentary for Liverpool’s excellent 2-0 win at Arsenal in the FA Cup.

Photo: IMAGO

First Half Performance Analysis: Liverpool’s Luck and Arsenal’s Missed Opportunities

There is no question that Jürgen Klopp’s side had to ride their luck a little in the first half, a period in which the Gunners led the shot count 13-2 and had four Opta-defined big chances (which in simple terms are opportunities where you would expect the player to score).

But it’s little surprise it was something of a struggle for Liverpool when looking at the calibre of the players they were missing. The Reds were without 10 members of their first team squad, and although it’s impossible to know who Klopp would have selected to start had they all been available, it’s reasonable to assume the majority would have been in the match day 20 at the very least.

Arsenal were missing players too, in fairness. Oleksandr Zinchenko is key to how they play and his spot was taken by the unfortunate Jakub Kiwior, whose own goal gave the visitors the lead. There’s every chance Gabriel Jesus would have started had he been fit, but his absence meant that Kai Havertz got a rare start at centre forward, an opportunity he has not yet had in league or Europe for the Gunners.

Mention of the German and his Brazilian forward teammate bring us back nicely to Shearer’s comments. In the first half, he frequently voiced the opinion that Arsenal should be comfortably ahead. That wasn’t a truly ridiculous shout but one came forth when he uttered shortly before the interval that the home side “should be four or five up.”

Photo: IMAGO

Statistical Analysis: Expected Goals and Arsenal’s Performance

Oh, Alan. Overperforming against xG happens all the time, it’s inevitable. But let’s try to put Arsenal’s first half into some kind of context. Per Fotmob, their 13 shots were collectively worth 1.32 expected goals. Therefore, to score four they’d need to overachieve by 2.68 goals.

In FiveThirtyEight’s database of over 36,000 matches, there are 814 instances of a team bettering their xG by at least that much. It drops to 302 if we look for sides with a maximum of 1.32 expected goals, and 20 of them took place in the Premier League.

Yet maybe Arteta’s boys would’ve scored five; the above figures drop to 126, 30 and one respectively if we increase the overachievement bar to 3.68 more goals than xG. As a wonderful coincidence, the sole instance from the English top flight was achieved by Arsenal, who won 5-1 at Fulham in 2018 despite only amassing 1.29 expected goals.

Or we could put the xG values of the shots in to a simulator. Doing so suggests there was a 2.2 per cent likelihood that the Gunners would score four, just 0.37 per cent they’d get five. Let’s be clear, nobody expects Shearer to be dealing in probability or expected goals when talking off the cuff but we were clearly a long way from a position where Arsenal “should” be scoring four or five.

And the fact they failed to score at all helps highlight an important difference between the squads which Arteta and Klopp have at their disposal, one which may separate the clubs both this season and perhaps in the future: Arsenal have built a squad of largely unreliable finishers.

Photo: IMAGO

Analysis of Individual Arsenal Players’ Finishing

Let’s return to Sunday’s match. The home side’s first and third big chances fell to Reiss Nelson. His Premier League career is too small for any serious analysis but he has scored four times from 2.3 xG and has converted all three chances valued at 0.35 expected goals or above. Nelson probably should have scored when going past Alisson Becker, his second big chance was well blocked by man of the match Ibrahima Konaté.

Arsenal’s other two best opportunities in the first half were taken by Havertz, the better of which was a header from a corner. However, the former Chelsea man has scored 11.5 non-penalty goals fewer than expected in the Premier League (per Understat, 7.4 below with FBRef) and has underachieved with headed efforts by 2.3. How often is it reasonable to expect a player with that record to score with those chances?

The same is true of Jesus, who might have played instead, but who has underachieved xG by 13.8 goals in top flight English football since 2017 (per FBRef). The Gunners’ only big chance of the second half was hit by Bukayo Saka, who has at least performed at par for non-penalty xG, while substitute Eddie Nketiah (-2.8 against career xG) failed to have a shot.

Liverpool’s Finishing Prowess in Contrast

Liverpool don’t have the same finishing issue. Yes, there is Darwin Núñez who is underperforming by 6.7, but he’s the only one of the senior forwards for whom this is the case. Mohamed Salah has outshot his non-penalty xG by 9.6 in the league for Liverpool, while Luis Díaz, Cody Gakpo and Diogo Jota are all within about a goal of expectation in the Premier League, the latter up 3.7 for the Reds specifically.

Four of Klopp’s five main options are reliable-or-better whereas Arteta can’t say the same at all. He has Gabriel Martinelli, who has scored three goals more than xG suggests he should have in the league, but that is down to being a massive and unsustainable +5.7 last term. And in an inverse of Jota, Leandro Trossard is above par in the Premier League but below for Arsenal.

Final Reflections and Upcoming Challenges

You could access a time machine and line up peak proper Ronaldo, Lionel Messi and Jimmy Greaves up front and it would still be ridiculous to assume they’d get five goals from the Gunners’ first half shots. I’d give Liverpool’s forwards a better chance of hitting those heights than their Arsenal counterparts, though, and that could prove decisive when the sides meet next month.

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