Arsenal are top of the Premier League at the midway point of the season and are on pace to reach 100 points, equalling the highest-ever points total in the league. At the rate they’re going, they’ll pass last year’s points total before the end of March. It’s a remarkable feat for a side that had not finished in the top four since 2016, and it marks a steady progression under Mikel Arteta: eighth to fifth to first.
Yet while he and the players are, rightly, getting tons of plaudits and will likely be rewarded with contracts and bonuses, the Kroenkes, who own the club, might want to consider a bonus pot for another part of their staff: the sports science, fitness, medical and physiotherapy teams. Because, simply put, where Arsenal are now is astounding and near unprecedented.
This is, by some distance, the most settled starting lineup in the league. Seven players have started every single game this season. Of the others, Martin Odegaard has missed one, Thomas Partey three and Gabriel Jesus (who is out injured) five. Oleksandr Zinchenko also had a significant spell out injured, missing eight starts. All told, the 11 players who have started the most games for Arsenal this season have started 91.9% of their matches, making them the most settled side in the league.
(Explaining the table: “Players” refers to the number that started every PL game this season, “Total starts” refers to total starts by the 11 most frequent starters divided by total possible starts, and “%” refers to the percentage of all total starts by the 11 most frequent starters)
What does this “settled team” metric tell us? For one, they’ve largely avoided injury and Arteta was happy enough with their performances that he saw no need to tinker with the team. And, perhaps as a result, they’ve developed plenty of chemistry and cohesion.
Obviously, having a “settled team” does not necessarily correlate with success. Everton are the seventh most “settled team” in the league and they have the fewest points in the table and have just sacked their manager, Frank Lampard. It’s also worth considering that this isn’t some “holy grail” of a metric, because there are factors well beyond your control.
Sometimes players are injured going into the season or they arrive at the end of the transfer window when the season has already started or they leave in January, all of which impacts the numbers. Some, like Gabriel Jesus, get hurt on international duty. Some managers may choose to rotate and rest players more than others — particularly if they’re involved in European competitions like the Champions League — have a deep squad or simply like to adjust their team to their next opponent, hoping to gain an edge. Manchester City, who clock in at 77.7% — below the league average (78.7%) — are an obvious example of this.
And, most of all, this is a physical sport in which impact injuries can happen at any time. While there are experts out there who will tell you that you can cut down on soft-tissue injuries if you know what you’re doing, they too can be unpredictable. There’s definitely an element of luck and statistical variance in this and, viewed from the outside without access to the players or their medical records, in the vast majority of cases, it’s extremely difficult to say definitively whether an injury could have been avoided. However, as a lagging indicator to help understand a team’s success, there’s value in this.
It’s a bit tautological — most managers aren’t going to tinker with a team that’s doing well — but most fans would agree that Arsenal, Newcastle United (89.1%), Brighton (84.7%), Fulham (84%) and Crystal Palace (85.5%) are meeting or surpassing expectations this season. Maybe it’s not surprising that they represent the top 5 in this metric. Chelsea (dead last, at 69.5%) and Liverpool (74.6%) are below expectations in terms of results, so it’s probably not a surprise that they are well below the league average either.
Now, bear in mind this is a single vantage point and it’s not an exact science. Brentford are also below the league average (77.3%), yet they are eighth in the table and enjoying a tremendous season relative to their resources. It’s not that they’ve been hit by an epidemic of injuries — though they’ve had a fair amount of would-be starters get hurt, like Kristoffer Ajer, Pontus Jansson, Aaron Hickey, Christian Norgaard — it’s perhaps more that their style of play and Thomas Frank’s approach can absorb injuries better.
Equally, Nottingham Forest are four points clear of the relegation zone — probably higher than you would have expected at this stage — and yet only Chelsea has a lower score than theirs (70%). You can probably chalk that up to the enormous number of transfers they made in the summer, the fact that many of those new arrivals came late in the window and that manager Steve Cooper, understandably, took a while to figure out his Best XI.
OK: back to Arsenal, where Arteta quite clearly has priorities. Of his 11 most frequent starters, just two (Granit Xhaka and Gabriel) started more than three Europa League games. Just one, William Saliba, played the League Cup against Brighton, when they were defeated 3-1, and only three featured in the 3-0 FA Cup third round win over Oxford United (Bukayo Saka, Gabriel and Gabriel Martinelli). They play Manchester City on Friday in the FA Cup, and I wouldn’t blame him for, again, preserving his starters.
There is little question that this approach has yielded results for the Gunners. Equally, they know that history and probability suggest they won’t be largely free of injuries for the remainder of the campaign. Nor can they take for granted that one or more of Arteta’s automatic choices in the starting XI won’t suffer a sudden loss of form, prompting a change — that explains why they committed some 50 million this transfer window to add depth in defence (Jakub Kiwior) and attack (Leandro Trossard) and, if reports are accurate, they may bring in a third reinforcement. (Heck, before they went for Trossard they were ready to go even bigger to land Mikhailo Mudryk.) Not to mention the fact that if they go deep in the FA Cup or the Europa League, they’ll want their best XI out there.
Has luck played a part in ensuring Arsenal have had the luxury of a settled lineup in the league? Sure. But then so have the medical sports science and fitness staffs, so has the players’ professionalism and so have Arteta’s choices in terms of priorities.
What matters is that they recognize this and are doing the most they can to address it.