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!
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.
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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.