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Is Martin Ødegaard's shooting becoming a problem?
What the numbers tell us about the skipper's trigger-happy ways
A narrative is a powerful thing. Maybe that’s why I’m so attracted to investigating them. Maybe I’m just a glutton for argument. Either way, some of the posts and videos I’ve seen on Martin Ødegaard and his shooting this season (and lack of creation) made me really want to dig in here and figure out what’s going on.
Has Ødegaard become too trigger-happy? Has he given up on being a creator? Let’s take a look at some numbers and get to the bottom of this one.
First up: The raw creation numbers. You can see Ødegaard’s live-pass SCA per 90, a stat I really like because it captures his sort of “create for the creator” quality, hasn’t actually budged this season. But his completed passes into the penalty area, despite still being tops among Arsenal regulars, is down about 20%, and his expected assists are down more like two-thirds. This is definitely significant.
So why is this happening? It’s hard to tell! The club’s numbers follow a similar path in xA, down about 40% in xA per 90 (from 1.41 to 1.01 so far this season). But the passes into the penalty area? Those are up to 12.6 per 90 this season, when they were 12.1 per 90 a year ago.
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That extra half-entry into the box per game could be because of increased possession, right? But Arsenal so far only possess the ball 60.5% of the time, compared to 59.3% last season. That change has led to about 32 more touches of the ball per 90 minutes, about 20 of which are in the defensive third, and the other 10 or so are in the attacking third. Touches in the box haven’t changed, right around 34.0 per 90.
Despite the increased touches and possession, one area Arsenal have done worse is turning possession into shots. This is reflected in their drop from 15.5 shots per 90 to 14.1 per 90, which is a drop from third in the league to about ninth. As defenders have dropped deeper against them, Arsenal’s average shot has also gotten to be of a lower quality, going from 0.12 non-penalty xG per shot to 0.10. Their typical shot is about a half-meter farther from the goal, although they are hitting the target more frequently than last season (34.5% vs 32.9%).
The club have actually been remarkably consistent in terms of number of shots taken, with every game in the Premier League coming in between 12 and 18 shots. Last season, they took fewer than 12 shots in 10 games, and had between 12 and 18 shots in another 17.
What’s been harder to come by are the standout games on the positive side, those 20-25-shot contests that made up a little more than a quarter of Arsenal’s 38 league games last season. Whether Arsenal will get many or any of those again remains to be seen.
Ødegaard follows these trends pretty closely. His total shots are actually down about a quarter, while his shots on target have risen (meaning he’s hitting the mark more often). The issue, to me, is more about shot selection, or perhaps quality is a better word.
Here you see each of Ødegaard’s 16 shots taken from open play this season. That’s a lot of little dots, right? His highest-value chance here is 0.13, which he took late against Everton (Pickford saved it). That shot is also his only above 0.11 xG, his *average* non-penalty shot a season ago. He’s not gotten or taken a single shot you’d consider “easy” in these first 8 games.
Compare that to above, his open-play shots last season. Is it bad that he’s taking these edge-of-the-box shots? Not really! You can see he scored three from them last season, with a fourth even farther out. And of course he took a bunch of them that didn’t hit as well.
From a numbers perspective, what’s missing here is those big circles. I count at least six of those bad boys inside the six-yard box or something like an arm’s length away. Those are virtual tap-ins a lot of the time (the green circle just outside the box is a 0.52 xG goal). For perspective, if Ødegaard’s next shot was that, he would go from having 17 non-penalty shots worth 1.0 xG (your roughly 0.05 xG per shot) to having 18 worth 1.5 xG (more like 0.08 xG per shot), so there’s some small sample stuff that could change here.
Arsenal have definitely traded fluency in attack for some control over games, taking fewer shots but also giving up far less threat. They’ve also faced some very low blocks so far. It’s honestly really difficult to tell if Ødegaard, or any player really, is a symptom of something, or the cause.
One thing I’d really expect to help: Arsenal playing full-strength in attack. We’ve not had a single game of Gabriel Martinelli, Bukayo Saka and Gabriel Jesus so far this season. A year ago, those three started all 14 Premier League games prior to the World Cup together.
Ultimately, the club have the points already in the bank. Long may it continue.