Arsenal fall short of Dortmund test but can take plenty of positives
October 23, 2013
The tendency, when a team loses the game in the manner which Arsenal did, is to dissect the winning goal in such detail that nothing else prior to that really mattered. And in a sense in the Champions League, that’s right.
For large periods of the 2-1 defeat to Borussia Dortmund, Arsenal dominated but were dealt a sucker punch when Dortmund broke quickly and scored when Robert Lewandowski arrived unmarked at the back-post. There were a series of flashpoints leading up to the goal, however, which were particularly influential; why Bacary Sagna had committed that far up the pitch; why Tomas Rosicky and Mesut Ozil only cantered back; and why Kieran Gibbs decided to get tight to the player in possession instead of holding his position as Arsenal were outnumbered. In the end, Arsenal might want to focus on the wider issues that contributed to the defeat, namely how tired they looked, especially as they played very well on the whole. But in the Champions League, the margins are thin, as Borussia Dortmund themselves found out two years ago when they crashed out of the group stages, that it’s imperative to take advantage of the good spells you have, and to stay firm when you’re on the back foot.
Former Bayern Munich goalkeeper, Oliver Kahn, underpins perfectly what makes the Champions League different to the Premier League: “The Champions League can hardly be compared to the respective domestic leagues,” he said. “The tempo is higher, the teams play tactically smarter, mistakes are ruthlessly punished and the referees are more lenient. In the European game, you have to be well organised, wait for your chances and take them when they come.”
At the final whistle, Arsene Wenger was particularly hurt, saying that for the two goals (Aaron Ramsey was dispossessed for the first) Arsenal were “naïve” (in contrast, Jurgen Klopp praised the “maturity” of his team). However, the problem of naivety has been levelled at The Gunners for a while, and indeed, except for the run in 2006 when they reached the final, Arsenal haven’t altered their approach much for the European stage and they’ve been punished. Could defeat be a turning point?
To be fair, Wenger’s side have shown more awareness recently and they started the game in cautious fashion – although perhaps overly so. They were unable to enforce the same intensity on the game as they did in the early minutes when they defeated Napoli 2-0. Instead, they dropped back, looked to get into shape and build a platform from there. In short, it was the perfect defensive strategy for Europe. But on the flip-side, Arsenal were guilty of being too passive when they allowed Dortmund to open the scoring. Mikel Arteta intercepted the pass, played it to Ramsey who, shorn of options, and the best option really was to punt the ball away as Arsenal were so deep, was dispossessed. Again, you can level at Arsenal that they were a bit naïve because Dortmund come to life when they force opponents back. When Ramsey received the ball, Klopp pressed the button from the stand to activate Dortmund’s gegenpressing and in an instant; he was surrounded by three yellow shirts. Marco Reus stole the ball away, Lewandowski passed it to Henrikh Mkhtarian, and the Armenian finished.
It took a while for Arsenal to get back into the game, and when they did, they moved the ball magnificently. Initially, they found it hard as Dortmund got tight to the midfield and denied them space. Passes went astray: Jack Wilshere had a pass success rate of 50% from 30 passes. But then again, it was players like Wilshere who helped Arsenal negate the early press, by gliding past with skill. It was ironic that Arsenal conceded the opener when Ramsey was dispossessed because Arsenal’s close-control was outstanding and indeed, it was Ramsey’s sidestep away from Sven Bender which opened the space for Bacary Sagna, and his cross fortunately found it’s way for Olivier Giroud to score.
Increasingly, the most space was to be found out wide because of the narrowness of both midfields. Arsenal played a 4-2-3-1 without wingers and similarly, Dortmund’s front four prefer to interchange. That meant Mesut Ozil was unable to influence, and although he likes to drift to the flanks, it showed how successful Dortmund’s tactic was that they able to shepherd him wide at every opportunity. “They are difficult to break down,” said Wilshere. “They have good team shape. We wanted to get Mesut [Özil] on the ball but they made it difficult for us.”
Arsenal were stronger in the second-half and as they sensed they had the ascendancy, tried to increase the tempo. Rosicky, on a yellow card, dropped back in midfield to play a more conservative role, helping Arsenal distribute the ball better (as in the first-half, he was often penalised for over-zealous tracking back) while Ramsey pushed higher to press Dortmund. But, they only created one real chance when Santi Cazorla hit the crossbar after a flowing move and were later punished by Lewandowski for over-committing. (The importance of Theo Walcott is obvious when Arsenal have days like this; lots of good approach play but need something else, someone to make runs behind, to break from the neat and intricate).
Indeed, the second-half raises an interesting question, one which Wenger might have to find a solution to if his side are to succeed in Europe: if creating chances is the hardest thing to do in football, perhaps instead of pushing too much (too early) when in control, maybe it’s better to assert the dominance (and then push towards the end)?
Arsenal’s style has always been a bit gung-ho, although the signs are they are beginning to add greater game intelligence to their game and learning how to “manage moments”. Had Mathieu Flamini not been concussed, he surely would have started, given Arsenal the protection they sorely needed. Mikel Arteta did a fantastic job – making 11 tackles – but there’s no doubt Arsenal missed Flamini’s guided hustle in front of the back four.
Finally, there was another question raised about Arteta’s passing; that it was too ponderous, too safe. That’s a little unfair but certainly; he could do a little more to make Arsenal’s passing game quicker. That was mostly down to his positioning as he’s always looking to move up the pitch to give space to the centre-backs in the build up, when perhaps he should be doing more to create better passing lanes for himself. What that entails is moving wider to pick up the ball or occasionally drop in between the centre-backs. Flamini’s passing is often under-appreciated but one thing he does well is to always move into the channels to create better angles to receive the pass. The double-pivot is probably Wenger’s preferred option in Europe – and that means Aaron Ramsey will have to miss out playing in his favoured position. However, it might be the right choice to allow Arsenal to prodress in Europe.
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Mesut Özil’s mastery of space makes Arsenal play
October 4, 2013
In the end, it was the only thing Mesut Özil had to break sweat to do. Not the finish – which was a master class in watching the ball all the way and not hurrying the technique – but actually getting there, as he was still a long way away from play – the only time in the match – and as he reached Aaron Ramsey’s cut-back, he expertly guided on the half-volley into the top corner.
Özil’s goal set Arsenal on their way to a superb 2-0 win against Napoli, scoring from the type of move that when Arsenal perfect, is usually too slick, too evasive for opponents to handle. It has been an impressive start to the season, one though, which has seen Arsenal make a slight shift to the way they normally play. Because in six league games, Arsenal’s average possession has dropped from 58% last season, 60.2% in 2011-12 and 60.3% in 2010-11, to just 53.7% this season. That may just be a case of a streamlined Arsenal side still working out how best to play with each other but this is an Arsenal side also, which manages moments better.* In that, it might be more similar to the early 2000s Wenger sides, and not the nearly teams of 2007-08 and 2010-11, which played a mixture of joy and ruthlessness that can be both intoxicating and devastating - as Napoli found out in the first 15 minutes.
* Roy Hodgson says that football matches are not decided over ninety-minutes, but in a handful of incidents (or transitions as it might be said in coaching terms) and it’s about picking these moments to be truly effective.
The Arsenal Way, though, has taken a bit of a battering in recent years, exacerbated by the trophy drought. Previously it was vibrant brand of football – mixed with discipline and steel – that weaved intricate patterns up the pitch like delicate fingers up Chantilly lace. In the past few years it became ever more intricate, more possession-based (as popularised by Spain and Barcelona) and even comical as moves could feature 15-20 passes but be soiled by a miss-kick in front of an open goal (sorry Gervinho). The old way, though, looks like it is coming back (probably even inspired by Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich), owed in large part, to a record-breaking German: Mesut Özil.
To understand Mesut Özil’s movement, I refer you to a scene in the Minority Report (about 1:36:00) where Tom Cruise, on the run from the police in a crowded mall with a pre-cog as hostage (somebody with the ability to see the future), suddenly finds himself surrounded. On all sides police are zeroing in and for a moment, amid the flurry of movement and busyness, he has nowhere to turn. The pre-cog, though, tells him not to move because in a few seconds, a man selling balloons will obscure their view, allowing a convenient escape. What Özil would do on the pitch, wouldn’t be too dissimilar, except he wouldn’t hold his position because he never stops moving, but to use the man with the balloons as a decoy, running in behind in the space he has just vacated.
Özil’s spatial awareness is extraordinary. He’s a little like WALL-E, surveying the area and then scuttling into the spaces where others don’t go. His special move is drifting into wide areas (I write for Arsenal.com that his role might be best described as an inside-forward) and this is why he works so well at Arsenal. Wenger has always maintained he prefers wide players who roam inside, but with Özil then moving into those spaces that the wide player vacates (in recent games, it has usually been Jack Wilshere in that role), it means Arsenal always have a zone occupied: Özil makes the fluidity complete.** Indeed on the training ground, Arsenal practice a drill called “through-plays” which is an exercise which aims to help players learn where their team-mates are. With Özil always slotting in, filling the empty spaces, it’d make finding each other on the pitch more natural. One can also see why Özil’s lateral movement (and indeed the team’s) helpful in the defensive phase as it means whenever Arsenal lose the ball, there is somebody always covering, ensuring that the players are still evenly distributed across the pitch. Indeed, that was one of the things Arsenal’s front four did so well against Napoli because whenever the attacking players swapped over, they made sure that they stayed in that position until the next phase of play.
** Santi Cazorla expands on Arsenal’s fluidity in an interview with talkSPORT: “I speak with the coach and tell him I can play wherever you want. My preference is to start on the left but then [as the game unfolds] go to the middle. Wenger speaks with me before every game and he’ll say: ‘You play on the left, but only left when we don’t have the ball. When we have the ball, you can come in – you are free.’”
Özil also has this unique dribbling style that makes him so effective, running with the ball almost side-on as if showing the opponent the ball, with his head always up. He’s always looking to change direction or slip a quick pass. Indeed, Arsenal have submitted to his creed as much he has Arsenal’s, with it especially notable against Napoli, Mikel Arteta slipping quick passes to Ozil because he knew swiftness would be key to making the most of his strengths. In the same way Santi Cazorla made Arsenal tiki-taka again after signing, Özil’s master of space makes Arsenal fluid. “I think he is like the team,” said Wenger. “He had an outstanding first half (against Napoli) where you had everything you want to see from a great player – individual skill, team play, finishing, final ball… just sit there and enjoy it. I believe as well that he enjoys playing football and you could see that. He enjoys playing with his partners; he has integrated very quickly into the team, with the mentality. He came as well in a period where we are doing well and that maybe made it easier.” Özil’s team-mates will probably concur too; he’s certainly made things easier.
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Aaron Ramsey makes the difference in battle of 4-2-3-1
September 19, 2013
After Arsenal’s 2-1 win over Marseille, Arsene Wenger attempted to explain Theo Walcott’s form in front of goal as “cyclic. You have cycles where everything goes for you and after every game where it’s a bit less,” he said. The same can be said of most things in football: of the success of club sides and nations, and similarly, formations and tactics.
For a large period of the 2000s, 4-2-3-1 was the favoured approach replacing 4-4-2 as the default way of playing. And while there tends to be more variations of play these days – hinting at football moving onto its next cycle – the 4-2-3-1 still remains the most popular approach. The reason behind this is simple: the 4-2-3-1 affords coaches the most even way to distribute players across the pitch. It’s not infallible, however, and as interpretations of players’ roles change, gaps have been exploited in recent times.
On Wednesday night on Matchday 1 of the Champions League, both Marseille and Arsenal played with 4-2-3-1 formations and although for the majority of the match it played out a stalemate, the different interpretations of the system ensured an interesting encounter.
Marseille’s formation was more standard with two holding midfielders playing behind a number 10 and two fairly orthodox wingers although Andre Ayew did tend to drift infield a few times. Arsenal’s, on the other hand, was more fluid, with Jack Wilshere playing narrow on the left and Theo Walcott stationed high up the pitch, almost as a striker. All eyes, however, were on the two playmakers, Mathieu Valbuena and Mesut Ozil, and instantly both were involved heavily. Valbuena attempted a couple of long-range efforts while Ozil put through Walcott for a header, and was snuffed out when he tried to find Walcott again later. But Ozil’s influence soon began to wane while Valbuena’s increased. That’s because Marseille’s 4-2-3-1 was better equipped at disrupting Arsenal’s passing, with the two holders, Imbuna and Romao, frequently breaking up play.
Valbuena, though, kept on influencing, not necessarily directly as he created zero chances in the game, but with the pass before. And that, in an effect, highlighted why he’s so important to Marseille because in this set-up, he’s their only real link-man. The wide players stick wide and stretch the pitch, therefore what Valbuena does so well is drift to those flanks and combine with them. In a sense, he’s just doing what’s natural to him having played the majority of his professional career as a wide-player. Yet, he’s also clever enough to understand that that’s where the space is in today’s game because most teams play with two holding midfielders denying the space in front of the defence. Indeed, for a while, orthodox No.10s were in danger of becoming extinct due to the proliferation of 4-2-3-1, but they’ve since had to evolve and become accustomed to lateral movement, or even further or deeper on the pitch to evade their markers. “The word enganche (playmaker) is dangerous,” says Atletico Madrid manager Diego Simeone. “But, I like enganche, although with some variations. More like the playing style of Zidane, call it a prototype of enganche? That evolved into the enganche roles today of Kaká, Totti, Pirlo, Ronaldinho and Robinho. I believe enganche today must come from another sector, there must be wider variety of options.”
Roaming laterally is what Ozil loves to do too, acting as both a playmaker and auxiliary winger due to the intelligent runs he makes. He was fantastic at exploiting this space on his debut against Sunderland but against Marseille’s flat 4-2-3-1, his root to the channels was blocked. It was different to Arsenal’s 4-2-3-1 where Aaron Ramsey frequently pushed forward and as such, Mathieu Flamini essentially had to cover the spaces on his own. Perhaps on another day, Arsenal might have been exposed but then again, they can because they rely heavily on their astronomical fitness levels to get back, running on average 11.3k km in the match, while Marseille only managed 10.3k km.
Arsenal, however, were more effective going forward because their creativity was plural. Jack Wilshere had a particularly strong first-half drifting off the left-flank and his movement highlighted the other way in which the 4-2-3-1 can be exposed. Because by drifting infield, it asks a lot of the opposing winger to remain alert to track his movement, or if the full-back follows him, slot back into the defence. It’s significant that Arsenal’s opening goal came from such an attack, with Kieran Gibbs taking advantage of this vacant space to cross, and with a little bit of help from Morel, Walcott volleyed home. However, the drawback to Wilshere constantly moving inside was that it horribly exposed Kieran Gibbs; nonetheless he performed admirably with little to no help.
By Wilshere also moving infield, it created an overload in the midfield and thus gave Arsenal a numerical advantage where previously it was stalemate. Indeed, it’s a tactic a lot of top sides are using nowadays, abandoning one flank – usually the left – and then having someone stationed high up the pitch on the other side for a quick switch of emphasis (e.g. Manchester United with Kagawa and Valencia). For some teams, there isn’t a higher tactical purpose for playing an attacking midfielder wide other than a way of fitting all those creative players in (for example, Brendan Rodgers, who christened the clunky term “false 7”, plans to move Coutinho back to the number 10 position as soon as he gets a proper left winger). However, for Arsenal, the benefit is that it gives them a numerical advantage whenever teams pack the middle and encourages the type of combination play that makes them so deadly.
The final say, though, went to Aaron Ramsey, not Ozil or Wilshere, despite conceding a last minute penalty. And in a sense, it was logical. The other two playmakers started much closer to the two holders but Ramsey’s positioning, by playing 10 metres or so deeper, meant he had more time and space to assess the game, to measure his passes and crucially, time his runs into the box. When Gibbs played the ball up to Ramsey with five minutes to go, he had three players around him. But by the time they could react, Ramsey had already made up ground against them and was able to fire the goal that gave Arsenal the three points.
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How Olivier Giroud can improve in front of goal
August 16, 2013
A deft flick. An Ibrahimovic-style swivel and shot. A power header. A half-volley across the goalkeeper. A chip, an overhead kick and an edge of the box curler. Olivier Giroud’s pre-season goals have been impressive for the variety they have come in, indicating an improvement to the one part of his game that needed most work – his finishing. Last season, Giroud scored 11 goals (and 17 in all competitions) which is a fair return considering Arsenal shared its goals among the front four. Yet, digging deeper into the numbers and it shows that it could have been so much better.
Those 11 goals Giroud scored in the league came at a conversion-rate of 10.3% – a poor return for any top striker considering 17-18% is believed to be par. (To put that into context, he had the worst efficiency of any striker who scored more than ten goals and the 10th lowest in the league, putting him alongside the likes of such esteemed company as Carlton Cole and Andy Carroll).
To further compartmentalise his shooting, we can see just how erratic Giroud was inside the box. Last season, he took 64 shots from the central area (figure 1), scoring 9 times but those goals came only at a conversion rate of 14%; hardly an improvement from his overall figure of 10%. (As a comparison, Luis Suarez was just as uncouth as Giroud around the box but scored more goals: 23 at a conversion rate of 12%. But filtering those shots he took from the central areas of the box, and his conversion rate jumps to 26%).
Looking at where Giroud shoots from in graphic form further highlights how he can improve:
In simple terms, it’s obvious that Giroud must show more composure to improve his finishing. That’s why his pre-season form has been so encouraging: his strikes have been of a wide variety. Indeed, after Giroud scored with a spin and a shot against Indonesia, even Wenger was unable to hide glee; it’s this type of dexterity that Giroud must show if he is to improve on his goalscoring record.
Certainly, that’s one of the misconceptions about Giroud. To look at him, you wouldn’t associate him with good footwork but that’s what he specialises in, to varying success (which we’ll talk about more in depth later). When he was signed for the club, it was thought that he’d add another dimension to Arsenal’s attack and while he’s a viable Plan B, it’s his heading which has really let him down.
We can see from the graphic below, courtesy of @11tegen11, that actually Giroud is not bad with his feet. Of course, a large number of his shots still find the stands but when he hits the target, he is great at finding the corners.
However, when we superimpose those shots he takes with his head, he frequently hits it straight at the goalkeeper. This is bad because by not finding the corners, Giroud is limiting his chances of scoring by 40%.
BUT, and there’s a big but here, the reason why Giroud’s headers are letting him down because often they’re from outside the 6-yard box. Studies by the authors of StatsBomb show that actually, headers have more chance of scoring than a normal shot because often they’re taken from closer to the goal. Giroud, though, frequently heads from outside the 6-yard box, either because his movement is not good enough or that Arsenal’s game doesn’t encourage headed shots therefore when he does, he often has to head from further back to get away from defenders. (The good thing about analysing Giroud’s shots is that it helps us learn the type of movement that Giroud makes. Typically, he likes to peel to the left side of the box so that he can open up his body to shot across goal or meet a low cross. When it comes from the right-hand side, the movement is again similar, however, he’s more reluctant to shoot with his feet. Instead, he’s a better threat from the air but if he does, he’ll often try and get in front of his marker and poke the ball towards goal).
However, despite saying all this, there’s one statistic that stands out from the rest last season and that is that Giroud missed 19 clear-cut chances (which is basically a free attempt on goal with just the striker and the goalkeeper). It’s not made clear what proportion of those chances are headed or ground efforts but at least he’s with the type of company he could get used; because only Robin van Persie (23) missed more clear-cut chances than Giroud. At least he’s getting into the right positions….
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The Numbers Game
July 4, 2013
By now, you’ve probably all seen the video; Harry Redknapp is forced to defend himself against an angry fan over his supposed favouritism of 17-year-old Frank Lampard – his nephew – over other, supposedly more talented graduates of the academy system. When Redknapp argues that Lampard is better than those players, the angry fan disagrees, to which Redknapp replies that football “is a game of opinions. You’ve got a right to your opinion and I’ve got a right to my opinion.”
For a long time, this is how football operated – and still does – largely based on instinct and intuition. Over time, this has created accepted truths in the game, truths that only now we find out aren’t entirely correct. For example, that a team is most vulnerable after scoring (in fact, this is the moment they are less likely to concede); that more shots on target means better a chance of winning (actually it’s true only 50-58% of the time) and that the manager has a big influence on where their team will finish in the league (only 15%).
The revelations are probably not groundbreaking, although that’s what Chris Anderson and David Sally promise in The Numbers Game: Why Everything You Know About Football Is Wrong. But they are certainly thought-provoking and highlight the edge, should you use it properly, that data can give teams.
The book is littered with some great examples. Such as how Manchester City adjusted the way they took corner-kicks to win the Premier League in 2011/12, and appropriately, it was a header by Vincent Kompany which confirmed the title. The next season, Manchester United did the same thing, profiting from Robin van Persie’s in-swinging deliveries to score the most goals from set-pieces in the way to the championship. And how Roberto Martinez went against the grain to miraculously keep Wigan Athletic in the Premier League. But these are contradicted later in the book, which only goes to show why the interpretation data is an art rather than a science. Football is a fluid game and as such, actions cannot be isolated and for teams to get an edge, they will have to learn to master it. Wigan went down the next season because they didn’t have the quality to win games, often passing for passing sakes, while relying massively on Shaun Maloney’s free-kicks. And that actually, corner-kicks are largely wasteful as only 0.02 of the total corners taken resulting in goals. (Actually, the numbers are similar to the research I did on open play crosses, and later by Jan Vecer, which would have been a better topic).
The best managers and teams realise that data is one tool among many which can back up the way you think about the game. That’s what Arsène Wenger does and actually, many of the revelations in The Numbers Game make you wonder if the Frenchman actually ghost-wrote the book himself!
Of course, Wenger was one of the first to embrace statistics. As coach of Monaco in the late 1980’s, he would use a program developed by a friend, called Top Score, to judge players (the program would assign points to players depending on the actions they performed to give a final score). Nowadays, Wenger uses data to validate the way he thinks about the game. “Technical superiority can be measured,” he said in 2008 for Total Youth Football Magazine. “If I know that the passing ability of a player is averaging 3.2 seconds to receive the ball and pass it, and suddenly he goes up to 4.5, I can say to him, ‘Listen, you keep the ball too much, we need you to pass it quicker.’ If he says ‘no’, I can say look at the last three games – 2.9 seconds, 3.1, 3.2, 4.5. He’ll say, ‘People around me don’t move so much!’ But you have the statistics there to back you up too.”
One can envisage a similar scenario from last season where those numbers might have been of use. It concerned Aaron Ramsey and his form in the middle of the season which was so poor; it was hard to find a place for him in the team. But an injury to Mikel Arteta transformed his season, giving him a chance in a new defensive-midfield position. This was a great risk by Wenger because Arsenal don’t usually win without Arteta (their success rate is 23% when he doesn’t play) and Ramsey’s confidence was so low he couldn’t surely replicate Arteta’s smooth passing. But Wenger realised the psychological effect that getting more touches of the ball could have on Ramsey and sure enough, his confidence increased. From losing the ball through hesitation, miscontrol or dispossession 4.8 times a game, it decreased to 2.7 times per match after the 5-1 win over West Ham United in January. If the passing speed figures were readily available to us, surely they’d show an improvement. Nevertheless, Ramsey indicates that that was the case: “I’m feeling good. My confidence is coming back and I’m getting stuck in more, winning more balls back and doing more with the ball as well, moving it around quickly,” he said after the West Ham win.
In the last season too, Arsenal began to learn mastering their own luck. In The Numbers Game, Anderson and Sally reveal that 50% of a match is down to luck. The other 50% means that Arsenal already have won half of the match through their superiority but random variation can swing it the other way or towards their favour. Certainly for the first-half of the season, Arsenal’s’ play was riddled with so many mistakes that it undermined their their ability to win matches, and it wasn’t until they rectified their defensive shape that they saved their season. Indeed, the extra focus on the defence concurs with what was said at the end of The Numbers Game: that keeping a clean sheet helps a team more than scoring lots of goals does. “That’s where we’ve improved the most,” Wenger told Arsenal Player. “It’s very important for the confidence of the team that we have such a [defensive] stability. As I said many times, we are an offensive team, but you are only a good offensive team if you have a good defensive stability. In the last two months that was much better.”
Data might help Wenger make informed decisions on whom to purchase in the transfer window. But as The Numbers Game suggests, it’s often better to improve your worst player than to buy a superstar.” In that case, the fans have always been right in regards to their belligerent stance on players which they perceive as being “deadwood.” However, it’s not as if Wenger is in disagreement with them. He was quick to discard Andre Santos, while Sebastian Squillaci, Marouane Chamakh, Andriy Arshavin and Denilson found that they were quickly cast aside (but harder to sell) when performances deteriorated or they didn’t fit the system. And he’s always maintained, rightly so, that he would not simply buy just to make up the numbers – often to the chagrin of supporters paradoxically – but only once a player proves he has the “super-quality” to improve the squad.
One such player who fits the bill is Gonzalo Higuain, and his arrival is notable because it’ll change the way Arsenal play. Firstly, it means they have the goalscorer they’ve desperately been looking for since Robin van Persie left the club. Last season, they tried to compensate by getting goals all over the pitch. It worked – to a degree but the team fell desperately short when looking for a game-changer. Last season for Real Madrid, Higuain goals won more points than any other Arsenal player. On it’s own that doesn’t mean he’s the right choice. In The Numbers Game, they suggest Chelsea should have signed Darren Bent instead of Fernando Torres. That’s only half-correct; Torres has blundered but Bent has shown he hasn’t got the attributes that Chelsea required. Higuain, though, improves Arsenal because his style (through his ability to stretch defences thus creating more space for the team) is one that could make Arsenal’s system. However, that’s an area that can’t easily be quantified by stats. We just have to trust Arsène Wenger’s judgement on it.
NB: There are a couple more interesting points that I could have added. For example, how Wenger is correct in rigidly sticking to his belief that the best time to make a substitution is on the 70th minute mark to try and win a game (although as The Numbers Game points out, if Arsenal are losing, he should consider making changes as early as the 58th minute). And more so when he removes certain players after a certain period all the time because their returns start diminishing rapidly (as he did for Dennis Bergkamp later in his career).
Also another interesting stat: Olivier Giroud has the worst pass accuracy of any outfield player in the Arsenal side (64%) and even lower than the goalkeeper, Wojciech Szczeszny (66%). As Sally and Anderson ascertain, football is game of turnovers and the ball changes sides 380 times per match (or 190 times per side). Arsenal’s average is 175 times but if Olivier Giroud fails to make them stick, then it’s preventing further attacking plays from developing. Perhaps, with the signing of Higuain, Wenger doesn’t really feel the need to have a striker in the build-up. Which is very much unlike Wenger sides in the past.
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Recommendations for Arsène’s Summer Shopping Spree
June 26, 2013
March. Having been befuddled by Bradford City in the Capital One Cup, bounced out of the FA Cup by Blackburn Rovers, and humiliated at home by Bayern Munich, Arsenal squared off against Tottenham Hotspur at White Hart Lane. And lost. They were now seven points behind Spurs in the race for the last Champions’ League spot.
Raise your hand if at this point, you thought Arsenal might finally be forced to play European matches on what has affectionately become known as “Spursday.”
I did. I thought the poor finishing from Giroud and Gervinho was going to get us. Or the defence, for years plagued by horrendous individual mistakes would. Or that the general drain of talent that comes from selling your best players year after year would finally bite Arsène Wenger and the board in the ass. Yet, that’s not what happened. For the second year running, Spurs failed to mind the gap. Andre Villas-Boas and company continued to fight for glory in the Europa League, while Arsenal went on a practically unprecedented run in the PL, and once again the Gunners are in the Champions’ League and Spurs fans get the joy of yet another prime showing on ITV Thursday nights.
Which team is the real Arsenal though? Is it the one that was so incredibly frustrating to watch from August to March? Or is it the one that was nailbitingly good for the last two months of the season? A bit of both, probably. I can tell you one thing though – neither of those teams are good enough to win a championship. And finally, after eight long years, the new commercial deals are coming online. The league is more open than it has been for two decades. A championship is exactly what Arsenal should be striving for next season.
To do that, however, they will need better players.
Let’s Go Shopping!
It’s only a minor exaggeration to suggest some Arsenal fans were left with emotional scars from Wenger’s myriad Deadline Day Discount Deals™! that saw future superstars like Park Chu Young, Andre Santos, and Sebastien Squillaci pull on the fabled kit. Combine that with the continual buying and touting of teenagers you hope will eventually, one day, maybe-by-the-time-your-kids-have-entered-university grow into the next Cesc, and Arsenal fans have endured nearly a decade of transfer abuse few fanbases can relate to.
Thankfully, that era looks to be done. The plan worked. Arsenal turtled in the transfer market for years, still managed to stay in the Champions’ League, and the commercial and Premier League television deals have dramatically increased revenue to the point where Arsenal can finally spend like the big team they are.
The 5th richest football team in the world is finally ready to smash their record transfer of £14.5M, and buy some genuine, world class footballers! (5th richest. £14.5M record. Collective wince.)
The thing is, just spending a lot of money isn’t guaranteed to get you anything. Liverpool proved that under Damien Comolli, and Newcastle have seemingly been proving the same thing for most of their time in the Premier League. However, contrary to what Wenger might suggest, it is okay to spend a lot of money on players, provided they are the right ones. But how do you find your true transfer loves?
By letting statistics guide the way.
Today I’m going to focus on three major areas of need for Arsenal this summer, and provide multiple options in different budget and age ranges for each need. In my opinion, every one of these would be at least a “good” option, and a few of them are already legitimately great even most fans don’t even know their names yet.
A few short rules before we get started:
1) Arsenal are willing to break their current wage structure, but would still be extremely unlikely to pay players £200K in wages per week. This means that although Wayne Rooney would likely be outstanding at Arsenal, his signing would be a huge long-shot.
2) Arsenal are also willing to break their transfer record, but that means spending up to £30M for a single player, not the £50-60M that would be required to buy someone like Cavani. This isn’t actually that big a deal, because there are very few players who are remotely worth that type of money in the first place, especially if you are doing smart shopping.
3) Because Arsenal are in the Champions’ League, they can buy basically anyone and don’t have to overpay on wages to attract top talent. This is a big contrast to teams like Liverpool, who would find it very difficult to lure players away from teams that are already in the Champions’ League.
Continue reading Recommendations for Arsène’s Summer Shopping Spree
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