Recommendations for Arsène’s Summer Shopping Spree
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.
Need #1) Superstar Forward
This is probably the most prominent need for Arsenal this summer, and it’s certainly the one that is getting the most media attention. Arsenal’s forward progression went something like Henry and Bergkamp, to (good) Adebayor, to Van Persie in full pomp, and then… to Olivier Giroud. Awkward.
It’s time to bring back the glory days, when Arsenal forwards were wanted by every team in the world, but delighted to be playing in North London for us.
Option 1) Gonzalo Higuain
Team: Real Madrid
A month ago I analysed the forwards on the market and came to the conclusion that one guy was probably the best of the lot, especially for certain tactical systems that thrive on creating chances and need someone efficient to put them away. Among the group of Cavani, Lewandowski, Jovetic, Aubameyang, and Higuain, one guy had a better goals per90 average, was clearly a better passer, and gave away the ball considerably less than anyone else in the group. He also had a better conversion rate than any forward in Europe bar Leo Messi over the last five years.
That player was… Gonzalo Higuain.
It is difficult to convey my excitement as both an Arsenal fan and a stats geek that Arsenal are apparently on the cusp of signing him. Still only 25 years old, Higuain is just entering the prime of a career that saw him score 22 goals and 9 assists at age 20 for Real Madrid. Since then, he has been one of the most consistent, reliable, and incredibly underrated scoring machines on the planet, and his efficiency in doing so is off the charts. There simply is no one else that you would rather have filling the forward slot for Arsenal than Higuain, and for him to be available for a cut price of £22-24M is crazy.
Buy him, Arsene. Pay whatever wages are necessary to get him to North London, and do it now. If he stays healthy, we have a future legend on our hands.
He is that good.
Likely price: £23M
Until Higuain is actually photographed at the Emirates stadium with an Arsenal shirt on, it’s possible the deal could still follow through. If that is the case, Arsenal still have some strong options at filling the centre-forward position, lead by this kid.
Option 2) Adem Ljajic
There is one young player out there that potentially offers up almost everything Higuain does plus a little bit more. Ljajic is his name.
I wrote a piece recently about how Olivier Giroud’s poor passing percentage actually harms Arsenal’s attack, possibly at least as much as his mediocre finishing this season. Adem Ljajic is the opposite of that. 88% pass completion for a forward is nearly unheard of, and he’s involved an average of 27.5 passes per game, which is was more than Aguero was with Manchester City. Dribble numbers are higher than Higuain, loss of possession numbers are amazing, and that goals per 90 rate is off the charts for a 21-year-old.
If you watch film on Ljajic, you see that he’s powerful, quick, and has amazing body balance. This gives him the ability to just shrug off defender challenges with surprising ease – a bit like Wayne Rooney did constantly when he was younger. Ljajic has allegedly had some minor disciplinary tiffs, but it’s hard to know if those are actual problems or merely growing pains for an incredibly talented youngster.
If Arsenal miss out on Higuain, I’d be happy to roll the dice on Ljajic. The upside is so incredible that he’s worth the chance, and if things don’t pan out, he’ll still have strong resale value down the line.
Likely price: £25-30M
Option 3 – Mario Gomez
Team: Bayern Munich
Mario Gomez gets a bum rap. All the dude does is score goals at a rate almost no one else in Europe does, and somehow no one loves him. Is goal scoring boring? ARE YOU NOT ENTERTAINED!?!
People complain about his lack of involvement in build-up play, but Gomez’s passing stats are fine (and average of 78% the last two seasons), and he’s always there to get on the end of a ball into the box. His transfer price will likely be cheap compared to his production, and his wages could be lower than Dzeko’s, so he’s an easy buy if none of the younger options pan out.
Likely price: £11M and big wages
Need #2) Defensive Midfielder
This has been a need for a while at Arsenal, but one that was exacerbated by Song’s move to Barcelona last summer. Not that Song had really been playing DM that often the previous season. His tendency to forget all sense of positional responsibility in search of the killer pass was overwhelming as the season went on, but his departure meant that only Arteta (converted from a more forward role at Everton), and the Glass Man (Diaby) were the only two obvious candidates to fill the role.
Diaby is a complete write-off at this point, but Aaron Ramsey stepped forward toward the end of last year as a potential new candidate. This is a good thing, because Ramsey is one of the worst shooters in the league and the further away from goal he plays the better (he had the second worst conversion percentage of anyone in the league going into the last couple of weeks, topped only by the dreadful finishing of one Shaun Wright-Phillips), but I’m not convinced he’s a long-term solution instead of a stop gap measure.
Anyway, it would be nice if Arsenal could once again fill this spot on the pitch by a player with some bite, but who can still pass the ball.
Option 1) Maxime Gonalons
Team: Olympique Lyon
Lyon’s captain would provide the perfect fit for this role. He has a great engine, 88% passing success, averages 7.1 combined tackles and interceptions a game, and he’s tall enough to provide a noticeable difference defending set pieces or from opposition goal kicks.
The other big bonus Gonalons provide is the ability to hit accurate long balls, which he completed almost seven times a match. This skill is becoming an increasingly important tactical element for the best teams, as pinging long balls to the flanks is one of the best ways to defeat pressing teams and high lines. It’s also an important element of counter-attacking football, and something that Wenger tries to get his teams to execute every season, with various degrees of success.
This is one of those rare times that buying a player from Ligue 1 seems less like a gamble and more like a no-brainer.
Likely price: He’s on a long-term deal, so it might take £15M to steal him away from Lyon.
Option 2) Milan Badelj
Already a Croatian international, Badelj put up excellent numbers as a central midfielder last year in the Bundesliga.
Badelj has the ability to do just about anything as a midfielder, but those sorts of tackling and interception numbers are elite for the defensive midfielder role. Though he’s perhaps best suited as the DM in a double pivot pairing, he could fill in anywhere in the Arsenal midfield in times of need. Key Pass numbers are solid and he also has the ability to complete long balls when necessary.
Likely price: Hamburg bought him for £3.5M, so I’d put Badelj in the £10M price range. Maybe Arsenal can get some money knocked off the tab in exchange for taking Djourou off their hands.
Option 3) Luca Cigarini
I had jotted Cigarini’s name down a month ago as an interesting statistical player to look at, but then got busy with other stuff and forgot about it. When I came back, I couldn’t remember why I’d be interested in a random 26-year-old midfielder who spent the season on loan with Atalanta last year.
Then I did a stats comparison of Cigarini to the undisputed best player in SerieA the last two seasons, and realized that yes, Luca Cigarini is a poor man’s Andrea Pirlo.
Interceptions aren’t quite as robust as the other two guys I have listed for this slot, but those key pass numbers from a deeper position are very rare. Cigarini is one of a relatively short list of guys who could be the next Xabi Alonso for the right team.
Likely price: He was on loan to Atalanta last year, which may mean Napoli don’t value him very highly. Maybe float a £10M bid out there and see if you could take him off their hands for slightly more than they bought him for.
Need #3) Left Attacking Mid/Wide Forward
Embarrassing stats guy confession: I have a model that looks at certain key performance indicators for attacking players to predict future success, and it totally would have bought Gervinho. 14 goals and 10 assists in 32 starts for Lille the year before we bought him? 46% of his shots on target? He ticks all the right boxes. And when you watch him play for Arsenal, there are so many times when you can see the potential right there in front of you.
Then he enters the penalty box, and his head falls off.
You know those electronic dog fences where, when a dog passes a certain threshold, a sensor in his collar notices this and gives it an electric shock? Gervinho has the footballing equivalent of this attached to his scrotum, and it goes off whenever he enters the opposing penalty area. That’s the only excuse I can think of for why he often looks so good right up until it matters, and then things go completely tits up.
Anyway, there are strong rumors that he’s going back to France this summer, which would mean Arsenal have an opening to fill on the left of the attacking wedge, one of their weakest and most frustrating elements last season.
Cazorla can play there, but he’s best when distributing the ball from midfield. Podolski features a left boot kissed by the gods, but offers little else beyond his finishing, and just doesn’t have the pace Arsenal need when counterattacking against good teams. And obviously Gervinho has, uh, Gervinho problems.
So what do Arsenal need from a left-sided attacker? My view is that they need quickness, some dribbling ability, excellent passing, and at least decent finishing. That’s a lot to ask for, but thankfully this is a position that is loaded with more talent than almost anywhere else in Europe’s big 5 leagues.
The painful irony here is that as of two seasons ago, Arsenal owned the guy that would probably be my number one recommendation. Unfortunately Carlos Vela – he of the 14 goals and 9 assists for Real Sociedad – decided he’d rather stay in Spain for good and pushed for a permanent transfer. One of Arsene’s young player moves finally came good, and yet the player no longer wanted to play for Arsenal. Argh!
Option 1) Stephan El Shaarawy
Team: AC Milan
It’s unusual to hear about a big team’s 20-year-old star forward as a potential transfer, but El Shaarawy’s name has been floated in multiple rumors already this summer. The fact of the matter is that Milan are haemorrhaging money, their owner was just sentenced to seven years of jail time, and the club may be looking for a way to fund their massive wage bill for this season and next. If so, Arsenal should jump into this one like a Vincent Kompany tackle, because El Shaarawy is already fantastic.
Those numbers, combined with his extremely young age, make El Shaarawy one of the 10 best young attackers in Europe. 85% is a great passing percentage for a forward, the loss of possession stats are good, he dribbles well, has an amazing goalscoring rate, and one helluva quiff.
Picture a forward line of El Shaarawy on the left, Higuain in the centre, and Walcott streaking down the right and suddenly you have one of the best attacks in Europe. You also won’t have any more problems with corporate box sales, or with filling the expensive seats on game day. Who would want to miss that?
Likely price: A budget stretching £32-35M, but it’s a move that would give Arsenal a great player for a potential decade. This is a youth movement fans could get behind.
Option 2) Pizzi
Team: Owned by Atletico Madrid, but loaned to Deportivo last year
He’s 23, owned by Atletico Madrid, and finished third in La Liga last season in Key Passes, behind Ivan Rakitic and Mesut Ozil. He put up 8G/6A last season, with 44% of his shots on target, completing 81% of his passes for Deportivo La Coruna, a team that was relegated from La Liga.
It is nearly impossible to have numbers that good for a bad team, but Pizzi did it. Fully two-footed, he can play on either the right or the left, take free kicks, dribbles well, and has good ball control while on the run.
This is exactly the type of player Arsenal need in the lineup.
Likely price: £12M
Option 3) Kevin De Bruyne
Team: Chelsea but played for Werder Bremen last season.
This one is admittedly a longshot, but seeing as how Chelsea have too many attacking midfielders as it is, maybe Mourinho and Roman would be interesting in selling. After all, they still kind of owe us for selling them the best left back on the planet in Cashley, right?
De Bruyne turns 22 this summer, and his last season was spent toiling away in the Bundesliga for lower-table side Werder Bremen. At the precious young age of 21, playing for a bad team, he put up one of the best statlines for a young player anywhere in Europe.
Key pass numbers are outstanding – tied for 6th best in the Bundesliga. Passing percentage is strong and bound to get slightly better on a better team. 10 goals shows a solid nose for scoring, and he’s an outstanding dribbler, tying Mario Gotze for 8th best in Germany, and a fraction behind Chelsea new boy Andre Schurrle. Check out this highlight video from last season. The balance and body control this kid has are absolutely absurd.
De Bruyne is one of the best young attackers in Europe and it is a damned shame Chelsea own him. (And Hazard. And Shurrle. And Oscar. And Lukaku.)
Likely price: A cheeky £18-20M punt? Chelsea are still striving for FFP compliance, right?
Arsenal have two other fairly obvious areas of need that may or may not get addressed this summer. I have somewhat given up hope that Arsene will ever splash the money to buy a good goalkeeper again. It’s clear that Szczesny needs strong competition to continue developing, and while Lukasz seems to have moved past his Flappy-Handski phase from two seasons ago, neither of them can be considered world class shot stoppers or distributors. It’s a shame we missed out on Hugo Lloris (who is exactly the sort of keeper you want to play behind Arsenal’s ever-present high line), but I get the sense this isn’t an area Wenger will ever spend heavily on. This provides a convenient reason for me not to discuss a series of good alternatives here, because at this point, statistical analysis has a hard time narrowing down the best goalkeepers based on public information.
The other major area of need is at centre-back, and this one I do expect to see filled, but perhaps not with the player I would hope for. Arsenal have been rumoured to be flirting with Swansea’s Ashley Williams for months now, but unsurprisingly, Swansea don’t seem to be willing to sell at a price Arsene’s happy with.
In my opinion, the player Arsenal should be buying at centre-back is Williams’ defensive partner Chico. Two years younger than Williams and 4cm taller, Chico was the real work horse in Swansea’s back line. He had a better passing percentage, more tackles, more interceptions, and committed far fewer fouls per successful tackle. The only area where Williams outmatches Chico is in blocked shots, which are important, but don’t make up for the other discrepancies.
Buy Chico, ship out Vermaelen (what is it with Arsenal “defensive” players who just have awful positional sense recently?), play Jenkinson as the starting right back, and the defence will be even better than last season.
To recap, my ideal set of buys for this summer would look like this:
Forward: Higuain – £23M
Left Attacker – El Shaarawy – 32M
Defensive Midfielder – Gonalons – £15M
Central Defender – Chico – £10M
Total Expenditure: £80M
So there you have it, one man’s opinion on who Arsene Wenger should spend his transfer kitty on, backed up by a giant raft of stats. To paraphrase Phil Birnbaum, stats won’t necessarily help you make all the right decisions, but they definitely help you avoid making the really stupid ones. If teams aren’t using stats to identify and vet transfer targets at this stage, they are absolutely doing it wrong.
Regardless of who Arsenal end up with this summer, the Premier League is wide open, and a few good purchases could make all the difference in the world between battling for 4th and breaking Arsenal’s long, painful trophy drought.
@mixedknuts on Twitter
Filed under: Arsenal, Statistics
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