DATA DIVE INTO THE ARSENAL MIDFIELD PUZZLE (LONG READ)

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Today’s guest post is brought to you by Adam Rae Voge (@AdamVoge). He’s a data wizard based in Minnesota, he likes to take complex datasets and make them easy to understand. This is a fun post, hopefully, you’ll nerd out on it like I did!

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If Arsenal is going to return to the Champions League any time soon, it’s going to start with the midfield. No matter which way you look at it, it was a liability this past season. But how can the club fix its problems in the middle of the pitch? Is anyone we’re being linked to capable of fixing what ails the starting 11? And is anyone out there a solid option if current targets don’t work out?

That’s a complex issue, but thanks to data, we can get an idea of where to start.

Here’s a breakdown of a host of midfielders, including Arsenal’s currently-owned assets, using 25 key data points from Football Reference.

Arsenal’s current midfield: Defined by weakness

Any analysis of the road forward has to start with a glimpse at the present.

Thankfully, data seems to indicate that Thomas Partey, if he can remain healthy, can be a major asset moving forward. This past season, Thomas ranked among the best midfielders in the top five domestic leagues at ball progression (89th percentile), passes into the final third (91st), progressive carries (89th) and successful dribbles (89th). For all his strengths as a progressive midfielder, Thomas also ranked well in several defensive metrics. He was 87th percentile in tackles won per 90 minutes, 97th percentile in dribbler tackle rate, 89th percentile in tackles + interceptions per 90 and 91st percentile in ball recoveries.

He didn’t press the ball successfully as often as some (55th percentile), but when he did, he succeeded at a high rate (80th percentile). These data point to an aggressive midfielder who can win the ball back and quickly start the action going the other direction, which is perfect for what Arsenal needs.

Granit Xhaka, the most frequent partner for Thomas, proved to be statistically middling. Across the 25 metrics I measured, his average percentile rank was 54th, which is about the definition of bang-average. Xhaka consistently ranked highly in passing metrics, with pass completion, passes into the final third, progressive passes and switches all 85th percentile or better. But his shot- and goal-creating actions (SCA and GCA) ranked in the 28th and 42nd percentiles, respectively, indicating Xhaka did most of his best passing before the attacking third.

But where he really struggled was defense, typically a strength of someone of his athletic profile. While his success rate tackling dribblers was better than 94 percent of his counterparts, Xhaka rarely actually executed tackles, ranking in the 31st percentile in sheer quantity. He struggled to pressure the ball (sixth percentile) and was woeful in tackles + interceptions (20th). These aren’t the traits of a dynamic midfielder who can play in a press-heavy system.

Some Arsenal supporters may be surprised to know that the data were friendly to Dani Ceballos. This is due to his key passes (90th percentile), through balls (97th), progressive carries (97th) and shot-creating actions (88th). Anyone watching the games wouldn’t be surprised to know Dani struggled in the more noticeable areas such as being dispossessed of the ball (20th percentile), ability to pressure the ball (24th percentile) and errors committed (ninth percentile). Clearly Ceballos has positive traits but he needs a different type of midfield partner than Thomas or Xhaka.

Elneny’s rankings also come as no surprise. Elite in terms of pass completion (99th percentile), but in the bottom 10 percent in key passes, and non-penalty expected goals and assists (npxG+xA). Basically, he’s passing backward and sideways. He was in the bottom 20 percent in number of tackles completed, successful ball pressure and tackles + interceptions. Unfortunately, there’s not a worldie category.

One of the more interesting options for Arsenal is Joe Willock. Thanks in part to his hellish run of scoring late last season, he finished 96th percentile in npxG+xA. But with a couple of exceptions, he was dismal in most other categories. Willock has shown a tendency to lose the ball (second percentile in miscontrols and fourth in dispossessions). He gets dribbled past more than almost any midfielder (first percentile). He does poorly pressuring the ball (first percentile). Unless he can develop in these areas, and maybe he can, Arsenal would be foolish not to cash in on the narrative his goal streak created.

What of the other Arsenal midfield loanees? Matteo Guendozi averaged a 46th percentile rank, putting him ahead of Willock and Elneny, but certainly not worth the personality that comes attached. He wasn’t dribbled past often this season and successfully pressured the ball at a high rate, but nothing else ranked in the upper 25 percent.

Lucas Torreira was statistically the worst midfielder on Arsenal’s books this past season. He won the ball back (98th percentile) and held onto it (99th percentile) this year, but only cracked the middle of the field in a couple of other categories.

When you put them all together, Arsenal’s midfield lacked a true attacking threat. Only Ceballos and Willock were above average in their contributions to offense, and starting Ceballos was sometimes inviting goals for the opposition. Nobody consistently created shots.

Somehow, the same unit also lacked true defensive teeth. Only Partey was above average at pressuring the ball and winning it back. Xhaka wasn’t dribbled past often, but he committed more errors than the supporters are willing to tolerate.

Current rumours: Who could help?

The good news for Arsenal is that there are a lot of serviceable midfield replacements on the market today, and several of them are forcing their way out of their current club. With the exception of Albert Sambi Lokonga, due to a lack of data available, here’s what my analysis says about the options out there:

It’s unlikely that one player will come in and solve every problem Arsenal have in the midfield. But among those credibly linked to the club, the best positioned to do so would be Manuel Locatelli from Sassuolo. Locatelli fits the Xhaka profile and would likely play a more defensive role, allowing Partey to focus more on the attack. But Locatelli would also bring plenty to the attack himself.

By the numbers: Locatelli was 98th percentile in both passes into the final third and progressive passing. He was 80th or better in switches, shot-creating actions, key passes and pass completion percentage. So he’s going to contribute to some goals no matter where he ends up. And of course, he does well defensively. Among the statistics I measured, he was only below average in the number of times he pressured the ball (23rd percentile) and errors committed (15th percentile). He was above average in number of tackles, interceptions and successful ball pressure rate, so perhaps getting the chance to put more pressure on the ball would benefit him.

After Locatelli, there’s a bit of a divide defined by play style. But the most all-around skilled player is Ruben Neves. Despite the venom coming his way from about half Arsenal’s fan base, Neves is an improvement over Granit Xhaka in the vast majority of metrics. He contributes far more to goals (62nd percentile in npxG+xA, 65th in SCA, 71st in key passes), and he’s also a statistically strong tackler (75th in tackles won, 69th in percentage of dribblers tackled). Neves’ real weaknesses are pass completion percentage, successful dribbles, and progressive carries, all of which could be explained at least in part by his willingness to play a long pass over the top. He’s an interesting option to say the least.

After Neves, all-around quality dips, but stylistic strengths remain. Offensively speaking, Rodrigo De Paul and Houssem Aouar are both leaps up from Xhaka’s output. De Paul is 97th percentile in npxG+xA, 98th percentile in key passes, 93rd in progressive passing and 98th percentile in both shot- and goal-creating actions. He can dribble (99th percentile) and carry into the final third (99th percentile). He loses the ball far too often (bottom 10 percent), and can’t tackle, pressure the ball or win it back, but offensively his contribution is outstanding.

It’s a similar story with Aouar. He’s in the top 10 percent in npxG+xA, key passes, through balls, dribbles, progressive carries, SCA and GCA (in a supposed down year, mind you). He does lose the ball more often than most any midfielder in the big five leagues, however, and he contributes very little to the defense. He’s a true 8 type of midfielder, or maybe even an attacking midfielder, so don’t look to him to contribute outside of the attacking third often.

Among the more defensive options, Yves Bissouma stands out. He tackles well (92nd percentile), he wins aerial duels (95th percentile), and he can pressure the ball (85th percentile in successful pressure rate). His dribbling prowess (86th percentile in dribbles completed) means he can recover the ball and push up the pitch a bit before passing. He’s not going to contribute a lot to the attack, but as a partner for Thomas, he’s enticing to say the least.

After Bissouma, both Guido Rodriguez and Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa offer upside over Xhaka. Rodriguez is a prolific tackler (90th percentile) and wins aerials (84th percentile). His real weakness as a defender is committing errors (12th percentile). And once he does get on the ball, he doesn’t provide much. He ranked just fifth percentile in key passes, 28th in progressive passes, 12th in SCA and 2nd in GCA.

Zambo Anguissa is a little more interesting as an all-around midfielder. He ranked in the top 15 percent in only two metrics (dribbles completed and tackles + interceptions per 90). If he could clear up his ball security issues (bottom five percent in dispossessions, bottom three in miscontrols), he wouldn’t have many glaring weaknesses from a statistical standpoint. He could be a good third midfielder at the top level.

Midfield options: Who else is there?

OK, now let’s ditch reality for a bit. Who else could make sense to shore up the midfield? There’s plenty out there to pick from. Let’s start with three of my favorites from a defensive mindset.

Aurelien Tchouameni, 21, Monaco: If you’re looking for a midfield partner who could allow Partey to focus on the attack, I lean Tchouameni. He’s only 21, but he just helped a fallen club find their way back to the Champions League. Sound familiar?

Tchouameni wins more tackles than almost any midfielder (99th percentile). He succeeds at pressuring the ball at an elite rate (98th percentile). He wins his aerials better than 98 percent of his midfield contemporaries, and he recovers the ball well (85th percentile). Doesn’t that sound like a midfielder who can cover the defense and allow Partey to commit to the attack?

Cheick Doucoure, 21, Lens: If you can’t get Tchouameni, go for Doucoure. Despite playing at the top tier for the first time this past season, Doucoure ranked in the 96th percentile at pressuring the ball and in the 92nd percentile at tackles + interceptions. Defensively speaking, his only weakness was being dribbled past, but he’s even above average at that (53rd percentile). While he’s only played one season in Ligue 1 (Lens were Ligue 2 for his first two seasons), Doucoure does also provide a bit more offense than Tchouameni, with an npxG+xA in the 72nd percentile and final third passing in the 76th percentile. He profiles as someone a savvy club like Leicester will sign for a pittance and sell at a huge profit.

Maximillian Arnold, 27, Wolfsburg: Maximillian Arnold is on the older side, so some fans may not love the idea of signing him. But he recovers the ball at an elite rate (97th percentile), tackles dribblers (88th percentile) and presses well (87th percentile in successful pressure rate). He also has plenty of offensive talent, ranking in the 88th percentile this past season in npxG+xA, 92nd in key passes, 90th in SCA and 87th in GCA. He helped lead Wolfsburg to the Champions League to a fourth-place finish this past season.

With one of those in tow, here are three offensive midfielders who could help the Arsenal attack:

Fabian Ruiz, 25, Napoli: This isn’t exactly a random suggestion, but Ruiz would be a valuable attacking addition for Arsenal. He’s not a prolific dribbler, but he ranked in the 80th percentile or better in 11 of the 14 offensive or ball-security statistics I tracked for this piece. His weakness truly is his defense, but like Aouar, you wonder if he could succeed as an offensive-minded 8 with Partey or another signing focused more on defense.

Lorenzo Pellegrini, 24, Roma: Pellegrini is another obvious target who would come at more of a cost. His pass completion percentage ranked low (48th percentile), but he was great this past season at carrying the ball into the attacking third (90th percentile). He was rarely dispossessed (88th percentile), with a knack for playing through balls (92nd percentile). Like Ruiz, he wouldn’t offer a lot of value defensively, but his statistics do compare somewhat favorably to Granit Xhaka, so a net improvement would be a certainty.

Bruno Guimaraes, 23, Lyon: Here’s a great example of where G/A can be misleading. Despite contributing to only four goals in 37 Lyon appearances this season, Guimaraes ranked among the elite midfielders (94th percentile) at creating goals. Ball progression is a particular strength of his, with his progressive carries ranking in the 96th percentile and progressive passes in the 85th percentile. He also ranked fifth defensively in my analysis (including Partey), suggesting a true box-to-box midfielder. And he’s Brazilian, so Edu must be aware of him, right?

The final verdict

So who should Arsenal sign, according to the data? Here’s what I would do:

Bruno Guimaraes, hypothetically for up to 40 million Euros, as my box-to-box midfielder. Maximillian Arnold from Wolfsburg for 25 million Euros. And Cheick Doucoure as the DM of the future, for anywhere up to 10 million. For 75 million, that would be a dream summer haul and would allow some focus on the other glaring issues this club has.

Failing that? A Locatelli/Neves summer would be helpful at the least, even if it would cost the same. Unless it’s not, in which case, don’t blame me: Blame the data.

If you liked this, follow me @AdamVoge

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WHAT A READ. If you want to indulge your ears in similar levels of elite content, check out the latest podcast with Mike who penned a midfield scouting report a few weeks ago.

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502 Responses to “DATA DIVE INTO THE ARSENAL MIDFIELD PUZZLE (LONG READ)”

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  1. Mr Serge

    Without for me it’s taken away the spontaneous joy you get from goals and who gives a crap if your big toe is offside

  2. CG

    Memo to Captain T

    Are you taking what that Osana takes?

    Morrison and Pepe are potentially world class?

    And I am sure you stated Benjamin White was a potential ‘ world class passer’ too.

    Get real.
    World class is Mpbabbe,,Ronaldo, Messi not these overpaid , overated and over hyped players the Dopes keeping spending millions on.

  3. andy1886

    I never had a problem with referees making the call on the pitch. You win some you lose some and the big sides tend to win more than they lose.

    As Arsenal fans if you don’t like VAR blame the conspiracy theorists who claimed that we needed something like VAR to stop refs robbing Arsenal.

  4. PhD2020

    I’m starting to doubt VAR for football.It’s almost like an anti-climax.
    An analogy could be equated to meeting a hot chick in a bar,and she flirts with you, suckering you into buying her drinks, only to palm you off at the end of the evening,and tell you she’s engaged to be married or married.But she enjoyed the company.

    That’s fornicating VAR-when you think what a goal,it’s ruled offside.

    Takes the sting,the excitement out of the game.
    It’s the way,it’s applied.The delay,the inconsistencies.

    VAR works for other sports,but I just don’t get why it is so problematic for football in the UK.I have my own reasons why the resistance, especially in the EPL.I’ve alluded to this since almost 2012 on this blog.

    Me and Gambon did have this conversation many moons ago,concerning the level of erroneous decisions awarded in certain matches.At the time,he did question my thoughts.

    And now with the implementation of VAR,especially how it’s been operating in the EPL,it more than justifies my long held sentiments about a cabal operating within the game.

    Rugby gets it.Tennis gets it.Football the most watched game in the world-does not get it,well within the EPL(which coincidentally happens to be the most lucrative football league in the world).

  5. Nelson

    They should improve the technology so that the offside decision could be detected automatically similar to the goal line technology. They have video replay. Whenever there is doubt, just push the button.

  6. Gonsterous

    Camavinga not doing anything for me. Too expensive for project youth and at that age it’s a risk to think he can impact the PL.

    If we sign him, I’ll support him but I prefer someone with more experience at the moment

  7. PhD2020

    Fin vs Russia
    Terrible finishing by both sides.The worst in this tournament so far-I reckon.
    Based on the first half,mind you.

    0-0 or 1-1 if we are lucky for this bore fest of a spectacle, masquerading as some form of entertainment.

  8. Marc

    Serge

    Rubbish why would any player knock back the chance to play under a generational coach (who’s he’s already had a taste of) and London is a fantastic City.

    What’s the excuse going to be when he moves to ButtFuck Nebraska?

  9. Useroz

    Track records for Arteta and Edu suggest they wouldn’t opt for obvious, logical and strategic options in most cases,
    unfortunately, or we wouldn’t be where we are…

  10. PhD2020

    andy1886June 16, 2021 15:01:23
    she knows her stuff too, makes Micah Richards look a bit dim.

    ———-
    Yes,she does know her stuff,I’ll give her that.

    Not sure ,what to make of Micah Richards as an analyst.

    Yep,great guy,funny,brings a lively,bubbly personality.But in terms of input-not so sure.The jury is out on him from my end,but not entirely impressed by his analysis of the game,if I’m being honest.

    In addition,seeing his physique.He reminds me of a rugby player, rather than a football player.His frame is weird for a footballer or an ex-footballer.

    Just something odd,having him on the analysis team.
    But maybe,he’ll grow into the role as time goes on.

    As for Alex Scott,she’s on fire today!!

  11. andy1886

    Back to VAR goals like the Finnish one that was ruled out earlier should stand for me. That’s close enough to be ‘level’, I seem to recall that at one time to be offside there had to be clear daylight between attacker and defender.

  12. Useroz

    Great write up regardless.

    At face value, €75 for the three MF recommendation would appear money well spent.

    Again, per metrics, once acclimatised to the PL they’d form formidable team with Partey and our kid options in popular MF shapes.

    Only if…

    But be positive and keep on dreaming… at least till the end of the TW

  13. AFC Forever

    Had to laugh, some journos are reporting Villa made a bid for ESR at £25m turned down. Arteta asked them if they liked sex and travel, in other words f**k off.

    According to the DM, Real Madrid are interested in an exchange deal plus cash between ESR & Odegaard.

    Meanwhile, the moon is made of cheese and my wife has the arse of a 23 year old.

  14. Gonsterous

    Andy

    Yup at one point, attackers had the advantage when it came to offside rules. If it’s borderline, the attacker should get the benefit of the doubt.

    These days with vAR, It can get controversial so I understand why they draw those tiny lines trying to ‘ve as accurate as possible

  15. Marc

    Andy / Gons

    I think it was Wenger who had the idea of switching the offside rule from any part of the body you can score with can’t be offside to if any part of your body you can score with is onside then so are you.

    Personally I think it’s a good option – gives the attackers the advantage whilst still keeping the rule to a black and white situation.

  16. Gonsterous

    Comparing lonkonga and azeez, they both seem equally talented so it begs the question, why spunk 17m for lokonga when Azeez can do everything he can and we cam just promote him.

  17. PhD2020

    andy1886June 16, 2021 15:16:47
    Back to VAR goals like the Finnish one that was ruled out earlier should stand for me. That’s close enough to be ‘level’, I seem to recall that at one time to be offside there had to be clear daylight between attacker and defender.
    ————–

    This is another one of the issues I have with football.The constant chopping and changing of rules.The changing of the offside rules,the elimination of the away goals rules in European Club Competitions,the previous silver goal goal,golden goal in international tournaments,etc,etc.

    In short,can you name any other high profile sport,where they constantly chop and change the rules on a whim,on the spin of a coin?

    Does it happen in the following sports:-
    -Rugby
    -Tennis
    -Squash
    -Basketball
    -Hockey
    -American Football
    -Baseball
    -Swimming

    Just some above-mentioned examples.Feel free to correct me if I am wrong,about the above-mentioned sports,where rules are or are not constantly changed on a flip of a coin.

    But,if it’s not the case,why does the footballing community surround itself in secrecy and constantly chop and change the rules,as it sees fit,without regard to the spectator or fan?And without any accountability or address to the fans worldwide who pay handsomely to be entertained or buy into the product being sold.

    Why is VAR such a contentious issue in football,more so in the UK?

    Whereas in other sports,it’s not even an issue?

  18. AFC Forever

    My Brother has just lost his job at the local zoo as a trainee zookeeper.

    He’s absolutely gutted and I have to say I think the zoo has been very harsh. I mean, everywhere you go there are literally hundreds of signs telling you not to feed the animals. So he didn’t.

  19. Useroz

    Arteta and Edu better not get carried away. ESR isn’t for sale. Even in a straight swap with Odegarde. We have seen enough in the 2H and is simply not worth it.

  20. AFC Forever

    Andy

    “Back to VAR goals like the Finnish one that was ruled out earlier should stand for me. That’s close enough to be ‘level’, I seem to recall that at one time to be offside there had to be clear daylight between attacker and defender”.

    Totally agree. I said before that if you can’t tell with the naked eye if it’s offside then it is a goal. Goalscoring is the hardest thing to do. Also, I hate the fact that you cheer a goal and then wait in silence forever waiting for a decision.

    Apparently, Riley and the cabal ruining our game are considering wider lines for offside. Why don’t these morons just take armpits, fingernails, ears, and nipples out of the equation and just use feet? I have never seen a head, arm, or knee run or stand anywhere let alone offside.

    Mind you, I would like to stand on Mike Rileys head. A man so wet he would give Evian a run for their money.

  21. CG

    The’ process’ resumes….

    @ £40 000 000 for White of Brighton Of Hove Albion.

    Who spends this type of money, on a non descript defender, during a pandemic, when the team cant score goals, have x 5 center backs on the books and sit in 8th ?

    (Always spend the money you have on players that score you goals.)

  22. PhD2020

    AFC ForeverJune 16, 2021 15:48:44
    Sid, I’m in my late fifties do you know what a Milf is to me? A sickening thought.
    ——
    Maybe,Mod you’d like to do..Paul Weller your type.. 🙂

    :)-

  23. Vintage Gun

    “Comparing lonkonga and azeez, they both seem equally talented so it begs the question, why spunk 17m for lokonga when Azeez can do everything he can and we cam just promote him.”

    Lokonga’s YouTube clips are of him in professional football. (85apps), whilst Azeez’s YouTube clips are of him in youth football with one brief 1st team appearance. Plus Lokonga is already club captain and has been called up by his country (Belgium).

    High hopes for Azeez though but Lokonga should be ready to play from the off.

  24. DigitalBob

    CG – Agreed 100% it also looks like Brighton want even more than 40 million………..thoroughly underwhelmed with this one

  25. PhD2020

    raptoraJune 15, 2021 22:06:12
    Is AFCON absolutely impossible to be played in the Summer? Is the temperature so unbelievably high? It would make a lot of sense for all continental tourneys to be played at the same time.
    ————–
    PhD2020June 16, 2021 01:31:01
    I guess you would be happy to have the AFCON tournament played out during the monsoon season then?
    ———

    Did the penny finally drop for you-‘Raptora’,as to why the AFCON tournament is not hosted during the June-July-August period, according to your very whims?

  26. raptora

    PhD,
    You’d be shocked to learn that the AFCON 2019 was played on 21 June – 19 July, and so was the plan for AFCON 2020. It means that it’s very much possible to be held in June-July and the CAF (Confederation of African Football) have been trying to move it to that time of the year, when the weather allows it in the country hosting the tournament.

  27. Goldinho

    Fantastic post
    Got to say I love this fella and the other one with the scouting reports
    I’m a bit of a dinosaur when it comes to all this data info
    He made it double easy for me to understand
    Wicked stuff Pedro,bringing fellas like these on board