Are set pieces Arsenal's new threat in race for the title?

Arsenal’s 3-1 victory at the Emirates over Stoke this weekend saw the Gunners score all their goals from set pieces.

Stoke City, under Tony Pulis’ reign, had become something of a bogeyman team for Arsene Wenger’s men – Rory Delap’s long throws, flooding the box with their centre-halves at every opportunity, long balls, the visitors on Sunday used to be the biggest aerial threat in the league.

Under the new leadership of Mark Hughes, it was clear from the offset this season the new boss wanted his team to play a different brand of football. Gone are the days of the long throw (Delap is gone too) and Stoke are undergoing a transition – they play football now. On the ground and everything.

However, it had been Stoke’s aerial prowess that had undone the Gunners in recent years – the North Londoners had previously not enjoyed a height advantage against, well, anyone and their defensive frailties from set pieces had become something of a running joke.

Flash-forward to Sunday and Arsenal effectively out-Stoked Stoke. They scored each of their three goals from set pieces. The first, Aaron Ramsey’s rebound strike after Asmir Begovic parried a Mesut Ozil free kick, the second Per Mertesacker’s header from an Ozil corner and the third Bacary Sagna’s looping header from another Ozil free kick.

Arsenal hadn’t scored a goal from a set piece in the Premier League until this weekend, their fifth game of the season – all of their previous 8 goals this term have been from open play.

Incidentally, the team that scored the most goals from set pieces won the title last season – Manchester United scored a total of 26 goals from set pieces. Stoke were third in that respect, scoring 18 and Arsenal were joint sixth with 17, just one less than Sunday’s visitors.

The champions also completed the highest percentage of their passes over the course of the season – as a team, they passed better than anyone else (85.7% completion rate). However Arsenal passed more – they made 1000 more passes than the next best passing team, Manchester City.

City would have topped the table had only goals from open play (conceded and scored) been counted – they scored 48 and conceded 22 from open play last term. Arsenal scored 54 goals from open play and conceded 23 in the same fashion. United scored 59 but conceded 34 from open play.

What does this mean in the context of this season? Well, Arsenal have a great advantage over other teams in terms of their possession and passing – that’s clear. Every manager that brings his side to the Emirates or hosts the Gunners knows his team are going to be chasing shadows for large portion of the game but what used to previously be a good way of combatting that was via set pieces.

Arsenal have become a lot more organized and physically confident defending set pieces in their own box. The days when an Almunia or Fabianski would have flapped and gaffed at a cross or a corner seem to have been mostly eliminated and, what’s more, is Arsenal have added set pieces to their attacking game.

I’m not suggesting it’s a completely new development – their stats from last season show they were up there with the best in terms of their goals from set pieces but what Sunday proved was that, even against tough and physical opponents, Arsenal are capable of getting three points just through rough and tumble in the box from set-pieces, those ‘ugly’ goals we don’t ordinarily associate with them and what that means, if you use Manchester United as a gage, is that it gives them a huge threat and makes them stronger title challengers this season.

image: © Ronnie Macdonald

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