Arsenal 21-22: Brexit FC

Morgan's Magic Snowplow

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Supporting Arsenal these days requires you to constantly hold two (or more) thoughts in your head at the same time.

It was a terrible, terrible season from a results standpoint and that simply needs to be centered in any discussion. But we were 2nd in the table from Matchweek 15 onward, averaging nearly 2 points per match (although helped by significantly outperforming XG in that period).

Mikel Arteta is a smart tactician with upside as a manager given his relative inexperience and the overall trajectory of the team’s performances. But he also made some absolutely disastrous choices while learning on the job – from tactics, to man management, to squad building – that really hurt us this past year. Usually we think of managers as fixed quantities but in this case the manager (and I’d lump Edu into this category as well) really does need to get better and learn from his mistakes.

We’ve finished 8th twice in a row and basically deserve the banter about being a midtable club in recent years. But, assuming this summer goes more or less as planned, during that period we’ll have turned over nearly the entire roster since the 18-19 season, with only three of the top 18 players in league minutes played from that season still around (Auba, Leno, Xhaka). We’ve basically dug out from under a series of calamitous decisions in the late Wenger/Emery transition years and we can see an emergent roster that makes sense and has a core of very young and very high upside talent.

Looking forward:

A season out of Europe may hurt us in the long run (in the form of a reduced UEFA club coefficient) but will undoubtedly be a boon in the short run, as it will allow for more rest and more time to train the team and prepare league matches. From a roster construction standpoint, however, it really increases the onus on Edu to move a high number of players out the door this summer, as we simply won’t need a first team squad of more than 22-23.

This is what I would like to see (ages as of 8/14 when the season starts).

Striker: Aubameyang (32), Balogun (20), Martinelli at times.

I don't see a reason to buy another striker given that we're not in Europe. Auba will start most matches and has an excellent career injury record. We need to find more ways to get Martinelli on the pitch and there are plenty of reasons to believe that Arteta may see him as a striker eventually, so I’d like to see Martinelli get some real minutes off the bench and starting matches where Auba isn’t fit or the tactics favor a striker who gets more involved in the buildup. Balogun can get his feet wet by playing in the two domestic cups and garbage time league minutes here and there.

Three Behind the Striker: Saka (19), Smith-Rowe (21), Pepe (26), Martinelli (20), new creative midfielder.

Its crystal clear that we need another creative player in the center that can be the link between midfield and attack. Odegaard in his best matches (IMO, West Ham and Brighton) has really elevated the overall fluidity of our play. Whether we bring him back or go for an option like Emi Buendia or (in a dream scenario) Jack Grealish, we need somebody in this role and it seems like Arteta and Edu are fully planning for this. Add that player and I think we have a nice mix of goal scoring wide forwards (Pepe, Martinelli), creators to link play (ESR, mystery addition), and a hybrid player with the potential to be really good at both (Saka).

Central midfield: Partey (28), new central midfielder, Xhaka (28), Elneny (29), Azeez (18).

Xhaka was actually one of our better players this season IMO and probably gets too much stick from the fanbase. But starting central midfield is both an area where we can upgrade and where we really need something a little different. None of Partey, Xhaka, or Elneny (or Ceballos for that matter) really offer anything in the final third and we essentially got no goal contribution from midfield this season. IMO, we need a more all action player who can legitimately do the work of a central midfielder in terms of running and passing but also pop up with 4-5 goals and 4-5 assists. I am as high on Miguel Azeez as you can possibly be on a youth player and think he could play this kind of role for us eventually but that is a few years away even if he develops well. I am ambivalent on keeping Elneny but lean toward doing so simply because he has almost no sale value, his wages are small, he’s a good squad player who won’t raise a stink if he never plays, and he provides a reliable fourth option while Azeez is basically a wild card at this stage in his career.

Fullbacks: Tierney (24), new right back, new backup left back, Chambers (26).

The big issue with our fullbacks is that Tierney is central to our attacking setup but also tragically injury prone. Arteta likes to set up in this way where in possession Tierney is essentially our left winger and then the “left wing” player is like a left-sided 10. Fine and good but we have absolutely nobody else who can do what Tierney does. So we either need a backup LB who can do a better Tierney impression or a RB who can do Tierney-like things on that side if necessary, so that the whole thing just flips. We have neither right now. I think the best solution in terms of options is a cheap backup LB who is actually left footed (Ryan Bertrand on a free has been rumored) and then a RB to rotate with Chambers who has a bit more of a technical quasi-winger skillset.

Centerbacks: Gabriel (23), Saliba (20), Mari (27), Holding (25).

We look set at LCB for a while, with Gabriel being groomed as the starter and Mari capable enough as a backup. But RCB might be the weakest link in the entire squad right now. Rob Holding is a great backup option – decent all-around game, excellent teammate by every account, knows the system – but he just isn’t good enough to be the starter for a team with real ambitions of getting back into the top four. One of the biggest questions of the off-season is whether William Saliba is capable of being the player that pushes past Holding to take the starting job. Rightly or wrongly, I think Arteta is not sold on Saliba but is willing to give him a hard look this summer. I’m going to optimistically hope that Saliba impresses enough to be given a real chance this year but I also think its fairly likely that we end up buying another more polished RCB instead who can step in and play immediately. Where that would leave Saliba I don’t know. His handling is probably the number one criticism I have of Arteta and Edu from a squad management standpoint.

Keepers: Leno, new backup (likely Ryan).

This looks to me like the easiest position to handle. Leno had some wobbles this year but he still is excellent as a shot stopper and adept enough with his feet for us to play out from the back. Ryan has been reliable when called upon, seems like he really wants to return on a permanent basis, and I can’t imagine that we’d have to pay Brighton more than a couple million pounds to make it happen. This seems like a no-brainer solution for backup GK.

Outgoings:

One of the best things Arsenal has going for them right now is a lot of players to sell that should have real value even in a Covid-impacted market. Mainly, this is the result of having gone through such a tumultuous last couple years in which a lot of youth players got real looks and proved that they’re Premier League quality but don’t seem like good fits (Willock, Maitland-Niles, Nketiah) while other players bought by Emery ended up surplus to requirements but still are young, on fairly cheap wages, and have established track records in first team football (Guendouzi, Torreira). Throw in a couple more veteran players that will be harder to move but should still have some suitors (Lacazette because he scores goals, Bellerin is still only 26 and not on massive wages). And then there are a couple we’d be happy/lucky to give away for free and might even help partially subsidize a move away (Cedric, Willian).

Realistically, we’re not going to get rid of all nine of these players in one summer but I think moving on from 6-7 of them could happen if Edu takes care of business (which I do have some doubts about his ability to do). Maybe one or two ends up back in the squad (Willian and/or Cedric most likely) and one or two end up out on loan. There is also Reiss Nelson, who we really should be loaning to a PL or Championship team to see if he could grow and become a real option for the behind-the-striker group after this year when we are (hopefully) back in Europe and need to grow the squad a bit again. If we can actually move on 6-7 of these players, I think it will be very possible to fund the five incomings (two of which, backup LB and backup GK, are dirt cheap) discussed above.

Edit: Forgot about Kolasinac (likely in the "give away for free" category) and Mavropanos (the rumor is that Stuttgart want to loan him again while we'd prefer a sale for a nominal fee in the 6-8m range).

Overall prognosis:

I’m actually surprisingly bullish about the team going into next year. How much we improve will depend on the quality of our summer business, getting some continued growth from our young core, and Arteta actually learning and improving as a manager. But I think we’re finally seeing the emergence of a squad that has positional balance, some exciting young talent, and was built with a real plan in mind rather than a mishmash of players haphazardly thrown together by three different managers, power hungry rival executives, and shady agents. I’m not sure it’ll be enough to break into the top four given that City, United, Chelsea, and Liverpool all look pretty strong. But I’m very confident that we won’t be finishing 8th again. Arteta may or may not be the answer beyond next year, but no matter what he'll leave the squad in far better shape than the one he inherited.
 
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Nice summary. Thanks for taking the time.

Has anyone ever properly studied the effects over time of playing in Europe on Thursday on domestic performance thereafter? They must be deleterious, but like, how many points better off might Arsenal expect to be in the league next season, on average?
 

Morgan's Magic Snowplow

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Nice summary. Thanks for taking the time.

Has anyone ever properly studied the effects over time of playing in Europe on Thursday on domestic performance thereafter? They must be deleterious, but like, how many points better off might Arsenal expect to be in the league next season, on average?
I don’t actually know. It’s widely assumed to be bad and for pretty good reason. But I can’t think of a rigorous study.
 

teddykgb

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It’s also impossible to control as the variables change too much to measure. Teams who do t qualify for Europe change their squad as a result and if they requalify can usually invest again.

To me Arsenal need to move the deadwood and if they’re going to persist with Arteta then they need to get him 2 8s and get Partey going. The industrious workhorse is not a fit in that Pep system and the midfielders carry so much burden. Bissouma has been linked, Aouar previously….probably 2 or 3 true ball playing creative midfielders who will put in representative defensive performances would be the name of the game. No more Aubameyang out wide or any of that nonsense. Get your best goal scorer central and surround him with two tricky wingers and the creative engine behind.
 

Morgan's Magic Snowplow

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To me Arsenal need to move the deadwood and if they’re going to persist with Arteta then they need to get him 2 8s and get Partey going. The industrious workhorse is not a fit in that Pep system and the midfielders carry so much burden. Bissouma has been linked, Aouar previously….probably 2 or 3 true ball playing creative midfielders who will put in representative defensive performances would be the name of the game. No more Aubameyang out wide or any of that nonsense. Get your best goal scorer central and surround him with two tricky wingers and the creative engine behind.
Arteta generally has not had enough confidence in his defense to flip the midfield triangle and play with a single pivot, although that changed a bit in the last month or so, first when Tierney got injured so he had to play a more stay-at-home fullback on the left and in the last few games, even with Tierney back, he has played a system where the midfield shape would morph in game from a two man midfield and one ahead to a single pivot and two ahead. IMO, we really need a better player alongside Partey who can do the sort of Gundogan type role of flipping from being a partner in a two man midfield to a more advanced midfielder who operates between the lines and can make late runs into the box.

Auba out wide has been a mess under three different managers and is mainly the legacy of Wenger's bizarre decision to buy two center forwards within six months who both demanded inclusion from a talent perspective but couldn't actually play together. We should finally get out from under that this summer and I would expect Auba to start at CF going forward, even though he isn't really what Arteta seems to want from a striker. Squad management for this club was a calamity from about 2016-2019.
 

lars10

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Arteta generally has not had enough confidence in his defense to flip the midfield triangle and play with a single pivot, although that changed a bit in the last month or so, first when Tierney got injured so he had to play a more stay-at-home fullback on the left and in the last few games, even with Tierney back, he has played a system where the midfield shape would morph in game from a two man midfield and one ahead to a single pivot and two ahead. IMO, we really need a better player alongside Partey who can do the sort of Gundogan type role of flipping from being a partner in a two man midfield to a more advanced midfielder who operates between the lines and can make late runs into the box.

Auba out wide has been a mess under three different managers and is mainly the legacy of Wenger's bizarre decision to buy two center forwards within six months who both demanded inclusion from a talent perspective but couldn't actually play together. We should finally get out from under that this summer and I would expect Auba to start at CF going forward, even though he isn't really what Arteta seems to want from a striker. Squad management for this club was a calamity from about 2016-2019.
I feel like what has been especially odd is that Laca seems to insist on playing in the middle.. which has forced the more talented player to play in a position that he’s clearly not as good as. It’s also eaten up a lot of space in the middle where Auba could usually run into.

I feel like Wenger should’ve handed over the reigns at least three years earlier.. a lot of his moves near the end seemed to try and keep his job rather than in the best interest of the club. Those decisions have basically led us to where we are imo.
 

Tuff Ghost

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Emery seemed to like to play Aubameyang centrally most frequently. Emery also experimented with a 4-4-2 at times.

When Arteta took over in December 2019, he immediately moved him to LW primarily for the rest of the season. This season has been a bit more of a mix, starting out wide more frequently at the beginning, and ending the year with him playing centrally most often.

For what it's worth, he has scored at a similar rate at LW and CF while at Arsenal. Premier League numbers since 2018-19 (his first full season at Arsenal) below:

41425

Those are just the quick and dirty numbers compiled by using Transfermarkt and they are not minutes adjusted, but it gives a rough idea.
 

Tuff Ghost

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It's silly season as far as transfer rumors, but one that I have seen a few times and I have found interesting is Tapsoba, the 22 year-old centre-back from Leverkusen. Everything that I have read on Saliba during his latest loan spell at Nice has been positive, so I had been thinking he would be competing with Holding for the job next season, but looking into Tapsoba a little bit has intrigued me.

Tapsoba is a good distributor, capable of passing and dribbling, so with an Arteta team intent on playing out of the back, he could be a valuable resource with the loss of Luiz. Saliba also rates pretty highly as a distributor; however, Tapsoba seems like he could be more well-rounded, rating highly in all of the defensive metrics (unlike a Luiz). I was surprised to see how poorly Saliba has rated in some metrics (Fbref numbers below) and on SmarterScout.
41494

By comparison, Holding's numbers are pretty mediocre overall, while Luiz was a good passer and less than ideal defender:
41495

Saliba's pressures, tackles, blocks, and clearances are somewhat reminiscent of Luiz, which surprised me. He does get a lot of interceptions, so maybe he is preventing offensive actions with speed, positioning, and good reading of the ball. (I have not watched any of his Ligue 1 time, besides highlights, so I don't know.)

SmarterScout's numbers on Saliba's defensive contributions are so low that they almost seem off:
- Defending Quality: 3rd percentile
- Defending Quantity: 12th percentile

Arteta also obviously judged Saliba not ready for the first-team squad last season, so he may be more flawed of a player than Arsenal supporters had hoped. He's still young, so I am not giving up on him, but I am realizing that a player like Tapsoba actually could be a big difference maker to the quality of the squad. Centre-back had not been a top priority in my mind, but it definitely seems like it could be a potential area of improvement. A stronger centre-back like Tapsoba could also free up the midfield to get more adventurous. I'm intrigued, but not expecting anything to happen. It sounds like Tapsoba would be in the range of £50 million, so he would not be a cheap investment either.

41498
 

Morgan's Magic Snowplow

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A lot of those defensive metrics have to be taken with a shaker full of salt, as they are very highly dependent on tactics, team play, and maybe even the peculiarities of the scoring system itself. For example, across his two half-seasons at St. Etienne, Saliba averaged 2.55 tackles per 90, higher than Tapsoba and assumedly somewhere in the 90s from a percentile perspective. Now he is averaging .69, in the 4th percentile. It seems unlikely that Saliba has gone from being one of the most prolific tacklers in the world to one of the worst, its much more likely that he is just playing in a different system asking him to do different things.

However, I do think that Saliba is probably not actually ready to start full time for a club like Arsenal and therefore presents a real conundrum. You just can't find many 20-year-old CBs starting in the Premier League, especially for big clubs, and for good reason. Its a position where experience matters a huge amount and one mistake, physical or mental, can lose you the match. People point to Wesley Fofana, particularly given that they were teammates at St. Etienne, but his case is really exceptional. Not many players can do that. He also played a lot of the season as part of a back 3, which I think is probably easier from a responsibility standpoint than playing in a back four. I think there is a question of both whether Saliba is ready in general but also whether that Saliba-Gabriel partnership would work given that the latter is still fairly young himself and still learning to play in the Premier League.

The ideal solution IMO would be to buy a player like Tapsoba to start at RCB, or a cheaper/older placeholder, and sell Holding, giving Saliba rotational minutes in the league and starting all the cup matches. But Arteta seems to like Holding and value him as a squad player and squad member. So I have no idea what they will do. I don't think Holding is good enough to be the starting RCB for a club with ambitions to break back into the top four.
 
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teddykgb

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MMS you have the wrong Turk but I agree in general that system matters a lot in defender stats.

I’m also not sure how strong the Bundesliga is right now which matters a lot when a lot of the expensive options are coming out of the BL. Bayern are Bayern but most of the Bundesliga teams went out of Europe in the CL and ELin early knock outs. Hoffenheim and Leverkeusen went out to Young Boys and Molde. Dortmund lost to City and Bayern to PSG and those are more explainable but it is at least possible that the middle tier of the Bundesliga is softer than the league’s reputation. Of course these are two legged knockouts in the middle of a grueling season — they may be simple aberrations but I think the level of the PL has continued to rise in the manner people were worried about a few years ago. Even players like Werner and Havertz more or less tore apart the Bundesliga and have struggled to adapt. Teams may need to increasingly expect that adaptation period which fans always talk about anyway but may be even more of a factor moving forward
 

Morgan's Magic Snowplow

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MMS you have the wrong Turk but I agree in general that system matters a lot in defender stats.

I’m also not sure how strong the Bundesliga is right now which matters a lot when a lot of the expensive options are coming out of the BL. Bayern are Bayern but most of the Bundesliga teams went out of Europe in the CL and ELin early knock outs. Hoffenheim and Leverkeusen went out to Young Boys and Molde. Dortmund lost to City and Bayern to PSG and those are more explainable but it is at least possible that the middle tier of the Bundesliga is softer than the league’s reputation. Of course these are two legged knockouts in the middle of a grueling season — they may be simple aberrations but I think the level of the PL has continued to rise in the manner people were worried about a few years ago. Even players like Werner and Havertz more or less tore apart the Bundesliga and have struggled to adapt. Teams may need to increasingly expect that adaptation period which fans always talk about anyway but may be even more of a factor moving forward
Good point about the Bundesliga. Also quite relevant for thinking about how much Jadon Sancho is really worth IMO.
 

Morgan's Magic Snowplow

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As usual, there are lots of transfer rumors floating around, with little way to know what is real and what is not.

The two exceptions from what I can tell are Xhaka going to Roma, which seems very likely to happen for somewhere around £18-22m, and the club seemingly very likely to bring in Ajax keeper Andre Onana for a nominal fee in the £5m range.

Onana has a strange situation as he received a year-long doping ban in early February for ingesting (he claims accidentally) a banned substance. The CAS just ruled on his ban appeal and reduced it to 9 months, making him eligible to play November 3rd and to start training September 3rd. The kicker is that Onana's contract also runs out next summer so he is kind of useless to Ajax, thus explaining the very small fee. But he is a 25-year-old keeper with really top shelf talent who also is good with his feet and Arsenal may, for once, be doing something smart by taking advantage of the situation, bringing him in as a backup to Leno and then letting him either inherit the job next year or win the job from Leno by the spring.

View: https://twitter.com/harveydownes92/status/1400038658590269440
 

Zososoxfan

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As usual, there are lots of transfer rumors floating around, with little way to know what is real and what is not.

The two exceptions from what I can tell are Xhaka going to Roma, which seems very likely to happen for somewhere around £18-22m, and the club seemingly very likely to bring in Ajax keeper Andre Onana for a nominal fee in the £5m range.

Onana has a strange situation as he received a year-long doping ban in early February for ingesting (he claims accidentally) a banned substance. The CAS just ruled on his ban appeal and reduced it to 9 months, making him eligible to play November 3rd and to start training September 3rd. The kicker is that Onana's contract also runs out next summer so he is kind of useless to Ajax, thus explaining the very small fee. But he is a 25-year-old keeper with really top shelf talent who also is good with his feet and Arsenal may, for once, be doing something smart by taking advantage of the situation, bringing him in as a backup to Leno and then letting him either inherit the job next year or win the job from Leno by the spring.

View: https://twitter.com/harveydownes92/status/1400038658590269440
I think this is excellent business. Onana is a top notch keeper and getting him for that fee is smart.
 

Morgan's Magic Snowplow

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I understand why Arsenal would do it but why Onana? Couldn’t he find a near guaranteed starting job for when he is allowed to return?
Maybe at a smaller club. But I think its tricky for a bigger club as Onana isn't eligible until November and might need to be worked in pretty slowly after that (he hasn't been allowed to train with Ajax since early February so he'll go like 7 months without training and 9 months minimum without playing). He will also play in AFCON in January so you might be talking February before he is really capable of being a team's regular #1. No bigger club is going to want to go until then without a decent keeper so Onana is inevitably going to have to fight that keeper for the job when he returns. So the best case scenario for him is probably a club planning to move on from the other keeper after 2021-22, which is assumedly what Arsenal would do with Leno (who is heavily rumored to be going this year or next). Other clubs (Spurs?) might fit that situation as well so I don't think its a sure thing at all. But Arsenal might be one of the best fits for him.
 
I'm so glad the Euros are taking place this summer, and that nearly all of my football-related energy will be directed towards actual matches and not transfer gossip. (I look forward to seeing who Arsenal buys and sells, but I have no interest in getting my hopes raised or lowered by every half-baked transfer rumor someone reports or makes up out of whole cloth.)
 

Mighty Joe Young

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I'm so glad the Euros are taking place this summer, and that nearly all of my football-related energy will be directed towards actual matches and not transfer gossip. (I look forward to seeing who Arsenal buys and sells, but I have no interest in getting my hopes raised or lowered by every half-baked transfer rumor someone reports or makes up out of whole cloth.)
This is is true for every fan base in soccer. Although there’s a certain technique when separating the wheat from the chaff of rumours.

Only pay attention to trusted sources.
The accuracy of rumours is inversely proportional to the attached hype.
Only pay attention to trusted sources.