DATA BLOG: REPLACING HECTOR BELLERIN

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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.

Arsenal’s RBs

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.

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MONDAY ROUND-UP

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Well team, I’m at that point in a footballer’s career where I’m having to lie about my age to get a new deal. The only Technical Director in the world willing to give me a three-year contract is Edu, and he’s been told to be on his best behaviour this summer. It’s a sad time in a man’s life when the only people your age in the professional game are in Serie A or China. Even sadder that every 3 weeks, someone I used to play football with tells me they blew their ankle out taking a panenka penalty at the park.

If you are young, bless those quick recovery legs you have, it won’t last, then all you’ll have is pickleball and fast walks around the park for exercise.

Still, with age, comes wisdom and better writing… so here we go.

Where are my damn signings?

The sluggish pace of this window is painful viewing BECAUSE I NEED INFORMATION TO SUSTAIN MY WORLD. The deal that sounds the closest is Sambi Lokonga. Apparently, the player wants a move to London, so the late interest from Sevilla and Atalanta means little. The final price looks like it’ll be around 20m euros. An absolute steal if he can do all the things he’s doing in Belgium over here.

I can’t work out exactly who he’s coming in for, because he’s such a blend of midfield disciplines. He moves the ball from deep like Granit, but he’s also nimble over short distances. Is he the upgraded Xhaka? Vision with an athletic profile? Or is he the replacement for Dani Ceballos, who could move the ball nicely, but had zero pace.

Who knows, but I like the idea behind him. It feels clever and I like being a fast-mover on talent.

The left-back back-up situation is all over the place. YOUNG > OLD > YOUNG > OLD. This week, we’re being linked with Holland starter, Patrick van Aanholt. He’s 30 years old, super solid, and surely interested in a last hurrah at a bigger club. This is a bit like the signing of Ryan Bertrand we all went to hell over. Is it a progressive move? No. But if you accept that your best left-back is 24 years old and likely to be a stalwart in that role over the duration of his 5-year deal, you probably don’t want cover that’s too ambitious… because how good would you have to be to displace Tierney?

This signing wouldn’t thrill on any level, but when did back-up left-back ever do that?

Duncan Castles is linking Arsenal to the signing of Andre Silva. The 25-year-old Portuguese striker was one of the most prolific marksmen in Europe last season. He scored 29 goals and dropped 10 assists for a Frankfurt that rocked to 5th last season. The story is that we’ll sell Lacazette to make room for him. Honestly, this would be a very, very weird signing to make. Sure, it makes sense, because we lack that sort of specimen in our forward line… but I’m struggling to see how this would map to a priority and I’m also wondering how you marry a big move like that with the reality that you spent £350k a week on Auba who is still our captain? You don’t sign 30 goal strikers to sit on the bench… I’m also not sure we re-signed Flo Balogun to be 93rd in the pecking order next season.

There are a number of Italian outlets pushing Aaron Ramsey our way. I love the player, I love the man, I could easily be swayed into believing he’s coming home to win the league with Arsenal… but the reality is we’ve been here before. Bringing players back to Arsenal almost never works. We know what his weakness is: He’s rarely fit. He’s dropping £300k a week over there, he’s managed 6 goals and 6 assists in 2 seasons at Juve, what would we be buying outside a nice feeling?

NEW KIT ALERT.

I’m on the struggle bus with this one. It doesn’t feel grounded in anything. Maybe it looks better on the players? But it feels like a weird deviation from where the kits have been and though I am always game for something new, it has to have some anchor in club. This feels like one that didn’t make it to the final cut for Ajax.

What do you think?

SEE YOU IN THE COMMENTS x


FATHERS DAY TRANSFER ROUND-UP

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Well my darlings, I took the day off yesterday because I deserved it, I was hoping we’d see some movement in the transfer market but my hopes have been cruelly dashed.

The main story rumbling through the internet is that Arsenal are looking at Camavinga to partner with Thomas Partey next season.

I won’t lie, this is the sort of story that keeps me up at night. I spent about 12 hours on the internet hunting out crumbs that we’d move on him. I’ve watched every video going. He’s an absolute dream of a youth talent.

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TRANSFER ROUND-UP: ARSENAL BUYING A FAST START

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It feels like I’ve been cranking content all week and what do I have to show for it?

NOTHING.

No one sold.

No one purchased.

I am starting to lose my patience. Thinking of sending Edu a seriously firm Instagram DM about my feelings.

The Granit Xhaka story is dragging like an N’Zogbia transfer rumour of yester-window. The clubs are in the final stages of negotiations, it looks like it’s going to happen, just get it done. After watching the Italy game, I couldn’t be happier. Xhaka is solid, but you’re simply not going anywhere with a good technician with no pace in midfield. If you are going to have no pace, be Locatelli with the low-punch shots. What a talent.

The story we’re all purring over is Sambi Lokonga. We really have no idea why, other than it feels intelligent and like a Wenger singing of old. New Youtube channel Latte Firm dropped this infographic.

Do I know what it all means? No. Am I going to draw sharp conclusions that this guy is taking Arsenal back to the absolute pinnacle of European football? Absolutely.

There is business to be done this summer and I think there’s a fine balance between making sure we’re ready for next season, whilst raiding European clubs on their knees. Sambi looks like a shadow player for Thomas Partey. Both seem to boast similar features. We need squad players with levels and we need to own them. Our Madrid loan options last season gave us the worst of both worlds. Odegaard did well, we wanted him, but Madrid saw enough promise to keep him. Ceballos had an absolute shocker, stunk out our first team for the most part, so we wasted development minutes on someone else’s player.

I am diving two-footed into the Premier League talent we’re trying to sign. James Maddison, without doubt, would be an excellent signing for Arsenal. Ben White, without doubt, would be an excellent signing for what need from a defender. There’s a lot of scoffing from Arsenal fans that spent 10 years demanding we ‘spend some fucking money’, now we’re doing it on players that will settle into the first team and deliver from day one, people are complaining about fees?

Ben White is a ball-playing centre-back that has made his mistakes at other clubs, he will complement our defence and pick up the good bits of David Luiz, whilst adding what he didn’t have… pace, motivation, and focus. You do not survive a season with Bielsa if you don’t put the work in, boast high levels of fitness, and have finesses on the ball with the ability to move the ball forward. While the internet was purring over Bissouma, their fans were purring over Ben White, who was named their player of the season in the fan vote. That’s the difference between actually watching Brighton and watching comps of Brighton.

James Maddison is an unquestionable talent that we lack. He’s 18 months younger than Grealish, 5 years younger than KDB, and since his Premier League debut he’s one bested by KDB for chance creation. How am I reading Arsenal fans scoff at this name? Someone moaned that he dresses like he’s buying from Hypebeast, what sort of criticism is that? If anything, signing him feels unrealistic because he’s the sort of player that ends up going to Chelsea or United.

Moving on two players of that age and profile moves us up a level instantly. You can’t argue the impact that would have on our season. When you ask Arsenal to spend some money, this is where the pennies should be going. If we’re trying to replicate the City model, this is our attempt at KDB and Dias.

I don’t even want to start on the Calvert Lewin rumors, that’d just be far too sexy for all of us to handle right now.

There’s still smart money to be spent elsewhere. Josh Doig, the Hibernian left-back, is being heavily linked. He’s 19-years-old and 6ft2, but he’s attracting a lot of attention. The worry is if Tierney breaks down, which is likely, you’ve an untested quantity filling in, but also, the benefit is then you are building out someone with a resale value and you also have a succession plan for KT (hopefully we don’t need one). The lesson from last season is young players are hungry and tend to take their chance. I’d be excited to have a promising back-up system being built out.

There’s a good keeper out there, somewhere, that we’ll have to pick up. Aaron Ramsdale for £20m does not feel like smart money when you can pick up someone like Onana for a pittance. Arsenal has been shocking with keeper signings over the years, our best #1 was Emi Martinez and we bombed him off. I know it goes without saying, but if you want an example of why a Ben White type player needs to be signed, just look at how our playing out the back dipped when Martinez left. The best keepers in world football these days can play through the lines better than Mo Elneny, we need to find one if we want to be more effective and unpredictable in this new system.

We also need to build out the right side of our defence. Cal Chambers is a very decent player, his delivery is excellent and he’s tactically astute (everyone at Arsenal loves him as well). The worry is that he very much looks like a centre-back playing right back. I have no idea where we’ll go here, but we need to find a player with the correct athletic profile that can invert. I know, I know… Ainsley could do that role, it’s such a shame he’d rather bum around in center-midfield at Watford than make a career at a club that could take him to the top but there we are. Delusions of grandeur is a bit of a problem with some of the Hale-Enders on the fringes.

We’ve also not spoken much about the #9 position, that might be because our hands are tied. I’m not sure anyone is giving Lacazette £180k a week and Auba on £350k a week is immovable unless he decides like Willian he just doesn’t fancy the slog. To be honest, I don’t think we’ll have a year like the last one from Auba again. The pattern of players we’re bringing in all points towards freeing him up earlier with better chances.

I also think Flo Balogun is going to be a very special player, he’s the closest player we have to Aguerro in style and athletic profile. I’m not sure how Arteta is going to manage his career because there’s a real story to be told with regards to loans. Do Arsenal keep Balogun on the bench like we did Eddie? Or do we send him on a short loan at the start of the season so he can develop in a starting 11? People get absolutely hysterical about loans, but forget that players like Harry Kane went on four of them. Same could be said of William Saliba. There’s no European football next season, what is best for his development? Our bench for 4 months, or Newcastle’s first team for the same time period to adapt to the language and the pace on someone else’s dime? Who knows, but the fact people get so emotional about it is a very, very Arsenal fan thing.

Finally, let’s talk about that time we spent a load of money with Lille that looked VERY odd. Remember I told you to look at the sort of people we were dealing with? Remember the exBarca exec that was at Lille at the time? Remember that outrageous fee we paid Lille who were in deep, deep shit that summer unless they sold at a big price?

If I speak, I am in trouble.

Football is a dirty game. Genaro Gattuso lost his job at Fiorentina after two weeks because he brought his super-agent buddy to the table. It is stunning that now Spurs are negotiating with him, mainly because he’s a bang-average coach, but also because it shows their lack of ideas… if you are outsourcing your Sporting Director role to a super-agent, you are fucked.

Talking of the Spurs manager job, let’s use this moment to highlight what I told you in December… fear what comes next. Spurs, for all the banter, is a London club with an elite stadium and a squad people thought could contend the title last season. They’ve been rejected by Poch and Conte. They had to lower themselves to Fonseca, who is a good coach, but coming out from under a cloud. Now they are bumming around with passion merchants and their unsavory handlers.

I’m telling you this because it feels like there’s a pattern emerging. The Premier League is the most competitive league in the world and rockstar managers will only join if they have to tools to win. The idea that we’ll sack Arteta and get Conte or Nagelsmann is fanciful because our project lacks elite levers. Spurs are struggling because no one wants to come here and fight four Goliaths with David money.

It’s still really funny though… really funny.

On that note, remember to check out the two podcasts we produced this week. They are of fine quality. Johnny is no full-time on the team, he changed his bio to reflect the blood agreement we have. Give him a follow on the internet here.

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ANALYTICS BLOG: IS JAMES MADDISON THE ONE?

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Number cruncher sent by the footballing gods, Adam Rae Voge (@AdamVoge), has dropped in with ANOTHER brilliant piece. Today, he’s focused on the potential signing of James Maddison. 

For all the talk of potential midfield, centre-back, and right-back additions at Arsenal this summer, there really hasn’t been talk about the incoming attacking midfielder. Why? It’s always been Martin Odegaard.

Until now.

With Odegaard being pretty consistently linked with a return to Spain, Arsenal fans got their first glimpse of a new creator this week, as reports linked the club to Leicester City creator extraordinaire James Maddison.

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ARSENAL LINKED WITH ANOTHER EXPENSIVE ENGLISH NAME. WHAT IS HAPPENING?

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Well, Arsenal transfer rumours took a rocket ship to the moon with stories emerging about a potential summer blockbuster of JAMES MADDISON TO THE GOONERS.

It’s a weird one, right?

It tells you a few things.

Firstly, there’s clearly a big pot of money on offer if we’re considering an English creator as part of the business this summer.

Secondly, if there’s a pattern emerging, it appears to be that we’re fixing the spine of the squad with Premier League ready players.

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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.

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