The fact that the football culture war between stat aficionados and obstinate traditionalists continues to rage is proof it has not been won by either side. Those who adopt a more balanced view acknowledge that statistics can shed light, but also obscure; they can be revelatory or act as a work of misdirection. At the moment, at least, numbers are still an adornment to football, rather than the key to unlocking its inner secrets.
Still, one particularly impressive stat which did the rounds at the weekend threatened to reveal something significant about Arsenal. Following a 1-0 win over Burnley, it was trumpeted that Arsenal are yet to concede a goal when Nacho Monreal, Shkodran Mustafi and Laurent Koscielny play together in defence.
As well as the stirring late win at Turf Moor — the third time in a row Arsenal have beaten Burnley with a goal in injury time, and the second time in a row that goal has been a penalty scored by Alexis Sanchez — the trio have kept clean sheets in a 3-0 home win over Bournemouth, the 0-0 draw away at Chelsea, a 2-0 home win over West Brom and the 2-0 victory over Tottenham on Nov. 18. Hardly a roll call of the division’s easiest sides.
It was not widely noted that in each of these games, Hector Bellerin and Sead Kolasinac have started either side of the back three and Aaron Ramsey and Granit Xhaka have occupied the space in front of them. The focus has been on the nub of the defensive unit and it is worth looking at why it seems to work for Arsenal — for now at least.
Successful football teams are all about balance. Think of how Robert Pires and Freddie Ljungberg complemented each other with very contrasting styles on either flank, or the interplay between Dennis Bergkamp and Ian Wright. The alchemy of winning comes in discovering partnerships and collectives which allow all component parts to play to their strengths.
This particular back three gives licence to Koscielny to attack the ball when he wants, and take the ball out from the back when he wants, too. For Monreal, on the opposite side of the three, it allows him to occasionally indulge his full-back sensibilities: as well as making some crucial defensive interventions like his goal-line clearance to prevent Jay Rodriguez scoring for West Brom, the Spaniard is also venturing forward regularly, firing off a few shots against Burnley to widespread amusement.
But it is surely the central member of the unit who has benefitted most from its deployment.
Mustafi finished last season in a state of dislocation. He featured in the new back three but alongside a rotating cast of partners. Injured for the FA Cup final win over Chelsea, he was reportedly close to a move to Inter Milan at one stage over the summer. But given another chance to show his credentials, he is certainly proving his worth now.
For Mustafi, the stats are even more pronounced. Arsenal have conceded only once in the seven league games he has started. In the six he has missed, they have conceded 15. Not the biggest physically, his strengths lie instead in defensive organisation and anticipation. Following a monumental display in the win over Tottenham, he was exceptional again when facing a tough test at Burnley. He has become quietly crucial to this team.
If the move to Milan had materialised then Mustafi would have been a footnote in Arsenal’s recent history. But sometimes the best football solutions are messy ones and, for now, this back three appears to have developed a very good understanding. Mustafi is the brain at the centre of it all.
“I’d like to congratulate our three centre-backs again today,” Wenger said after the Burnley game, “because they did a remarkable job.” Whether you want numbers to bolster your argument or not, the evidence is clear.