We have another sexy data blog from the main man with the spreadsheets, Adam Rae Voge (@AdamVoge)
It would have been hard as an Arsenal fan in 2014 to imagine that the day would come, in just seven years, that the majority of the supporter base would be against keeping Hector Bellerin not only as a starter, but as a squad member altogether. But that’s where we find ourselves entering the summer of 2021.
Arsenal played three players at right-back in different stretches in one of the club’s worst seasons of the past 40 years. First it was Bellerin, then Cedric got a long run. Calum Chambers closed the door on a bad season with a few surprisingly good performances. Ainsley Maitland-Niles is still out there somewhere, but doesn’t really want to play right-back. So despite the plethora of options, Mikel Arteta finds himself in search of a better option.
So where did Arsenal’s right-backs fail to perform in 2020-2021, and who’s out there that could make a difference? Let’s take a look.
For the sake of this discussion, I broke down 24 data points tracked by Football Reference and Stats Bomb and grouped them into three categories: Passing, Defense and Possession/Ball Carrying. None of Arsenal’s right-backs were truly abysmal, as some might have you believe. But it’s fair to say none of them really accomplished much this past season.
Calum Chambers is the leader in the clubhouse, having ranked in the 55th percentile on average, in a smaller sample size than Cedric or Bellerin. Cedric was next, in the 53nd percentile, while Hector Bellerin ranked in just the 44th percentile.
Where did things go wrong? That depends on which right back you’re studying. But the ability to actually defend was a consistent sticking point. Bellerin ranked on average in the 33rd percentile across eight defensive statistics, as did Cedric. Chambers did significantly better, but was still only in the 54th percentile, meaning Arsenal’s best defensive right back was average in 2020-2021.
The group didn’t fare especially well in carrying and possession, either. Cedric did best, ranking on average in the 67th percentile in three statistics – carrying, progressive carrying and dribbling. A lot of that rank was buoyed by his having ranked in the 91st percentile in progressive carries, a very impressive number. Bellerin was unsurprisingly in the 59th percentile, showing himself as a decent ball carrier, but didn’t exceed the 62nd percentile in any statistic. Chambers carries the ball well, ranking in the 78th percentile, but rarely carried in a progressive way and completed very few dribbles.
The strength of the three was passing, Cedric especially. The Portuguese back ranked in the 73rd percentile across nine passing statistics I tracked, carried especially by his passing into the penalty area (86th percentile) and his goal-creating actions (84th). Chambers was in the 63rd percentile, also working well as a goal creator (84th percentile), with good ranks in passes completed (76th), npxG+xA (75th) and crosses into the penalty area (73rd). Bellerin struggled to distinguish himself in this area, ranking high in completion percentage (80th percentile), but otherwise gravitating toward the mean as a passer.
The data collectively suggest that Arsenal got good passing from its right-backs, and decent carrying actions, but rarely saw a plus defensive contribution from the position. Looking beyond the data for a moment, it was clear at several times throughout the season that the club’s better passers at right-back, Cedric and Chambers, struggled to “click” with wingers, so perhaps a bit more attacking guile should be considered a need as well.
Arsenal’s credible connections
As always, let’s start with credibly-linked right-backs. By my count, there are seven – Zeki Celik, Ridle Baku, Noussair Mazraoui, Tyler Adams, Emerson Royal, Max Aarons and Jonjoe Kenny. Unfortunately, I don’t have enough data on the latter two, since they played in the Championship and Scottish Premiership last season, respectively, so let’s count them out for now.
Looking at where Arsenal did best last season first, Baku offers the biggest upgrade as a passer. He was in the 85th percentile for key passes among fullbacks last year, and in the same percentile for passes into the penalty area. Those passes created a lot of goals, putting him in elite company among fullbacks in goal-creating actions, the 98th percentile. Some of that is buoyed by his Saka-esque splitting time between the back and front lines, but the skill is certainly there as an attacking threat.
Moving on from Baku, there would be no upgrades on Cedric or Chambers from a passing perspective. Zeki Celik ranked highest, in the 63rd percentile. He is a good progressive passer (75th percentile) and passer into the final third (85th), but his aggregate rank was only in the 63rd percentile, same as Chambers, thanks to average ranks in passes and crosses into the penalty area and shot-creating actions. Emerson Royal ranked just a little lower in passing, dragged down by his poor progressive passing numbers.
Below even Bellerin were Noussair Mazraoui (disclaimer: his sample size is small because FBRef doesn’t track Eredivisie but does track the Champions and Europa Leagues) and Tyler Adams. While Mazraoui was slightly above average in the 53rd percentile, Adams only ranked in the 45th, which I might argue is a little more concerning when you consider how much he played as a midfielder last season.
Moving on to ball carrying, it wouldn’t be hard to find an above-average option among the lot. Mazraoui ranked in the 77th percentile across three statistics, with carrying (85th percentile) a particular strength of his. Celik was just below him, in a much larger sample size. Adams and Emerson both ranked in the 61st percentile, while Baku was in the 57th thanks to lower carrying (49th percentile) and progressive carrying (50th) numbers.
But what about the area where Arsenal’s RBs struggled the most, defense? With Tierney’s proclivity for involving himself in the attack, this may be an area of particular importance next season.
If Bellerin or Cedric set the bar, fear not. Among the eight backs charted here, no one was worse than those two. Even Ridle Baku, who came in below average among fullbacks, would be a substantial improvement over those two. He pressured the ball much more often last year (89th percentile) and committed a lot of blocks (88th). He didn’t win aerials (3rd) or tackle well (30th percentile in success rate).
The rest of the group would all be an improvement over even Chambers. Best among them was Mazraoui, who ranked in the 70th percentile overall thanks to elite ranks putting pressure on the ball (97th percentile), blocks and recoveries (both 99th) and tackles + completions (97th). Next was Celik, who performed well in terms of sheer quantity of pressures (94th) and tackles won (90th). Celik showed that aggressiveness can lead to being dribbled past, however, ranking in the 11th percentile there.
Emerson Royal and Tyler Adams each ranked well above Chambers as well. Royal is a proven tackler (90th percentile in each of two categories) who like Celik can be dribbled past (29th). Real Betis asked him to pressure the ball often and he didn’t succeed as often as you’d like, ranking in the 33rd percentile and only recovering the ball in the 30th percentile.
Adams, while splitting time in the midfield, ranked in the 98th percentile in quantity of ball pressures. He was 95th in ball recoveries, but aside from that was relatively average among fullbacks, save for his tendency to be dribbled past (21st percentile) and his low success rate tackling dribblers (23rd).
When you consider the entire picture, it would be hard to pick an option among Arsenal’s credible links who wouldn’t help in some way. Chief among them is Zeki Celik. The Lille right back is in the 65th percentile in my analysis, is 24 and has experience in European football. Mazraoui’s performance in the Champions and Europa leagues placed him second, with Emerson Royal not far behind them. Given their reported prices, both in the teens, either of the two could prove a great value.
Scouring the market
If none of the above work out, who else could Arsenal chase? I have a few ideas.
Starting with passing, there are a number of good names out there. The best I found was Leo Dubois, the 26-year-old Lyon man. He made more key passes than almost any other back (96th percentile), and was an elite progressive passer (96th) and shot creator (97th). That could make him a very valuable addition to the puzzle.
Next, Junior Sambia. Montpelier’s right-back is 24 and has four years’ experience in Ligue 1. He had an elite season creating goals, ranking in the 97th percentile, and really showed an all-around talent for passing. He ranked in the 76th percentile among fullbacks overall, higher than the next back by a sold 15 point.
How about in terms of carrying? Dubois came third, but the best I found was Youcef Atal, 25-year-old from Nice. He missed 20 games this past season thanks to injuries and COVID-19, but proved an elite ball carrier when he did play. He ranked in the 96th percentile in dribbles completed and 94th in progressive carries.
Among those who played the full season, no one could measure up to Wolves’ Nelson Semedo. The 27-year-old ranked in the 95th percentile for dribbling and the 93rd for progressive carrying.
Moving on to defense, there was one clear winner: the right-back from Wolfsburg. No, not Ridle Baku, but rather Kevin Mbabu, the 26-year-old Swiss. He started 19 games for the fourth-place finisher in the Bundesliga, and was an asset when he did. He won more tackles than 94 percent of fullbacks, pressured the ball better than 97 percent and also ranked 85th percentile or better in dribblers tackled, percentage of dribblers tackled, blocks, tackles + interceptions and recoveries. That could point to a great security blanket opposite Kieran Tierney, and he’s likely to be cheaper than Ridle Baku.
But can he do the other things well? Turns out, well enough. Mbabu ranked about average as a passer (53rd percentile) and did well as a ball carrier (76th percentile). When I pooled all 23 stats together, Mbabu ranked in the 71st percentile on average. For reference, Zeki Celik was 65th! Sambia and Dubois were also great options, each ranking 66th.
For my money, there isn’t a better option than Mbabu. If you’re looking to latch onto a name Arsenal have been linked to, it’s Celik. As the data here shows, any of the above would be a substantial step up, particularly from Bellerin and Cedric.
If it’s not? Well, I’m just telling you what the numbers say.
Thank you Adam, another thought-provoking piece!
Before you go, head over to this link for the chance to win a signed ball in a raffle for the awesome charity Home Start, a charity that supports struggling families through challenging times. The money raised will enable Home-Start to help more local families with much-needed emotional and practical support across Richmond, Kingston and Hounslow, many of whom have been impacted significantly by the pandemic. Get those wallets out people!
Now, for more content, check out the latest podcast Johnny and I have pulled together. We talk Saliba and Johnny gets very emotional about it all.