Following the heartbreaking loss to Blackburn, this statistical breakdown of the Arsenal squad of today compared to that of last year shows that the numbers just don't add up for Arsene Wenger...
Let’s spare a thought for Josh Surtees, Sabotage Times’ Arsenal correspondent. A man driven to such distraction by the travails of the club he loves that his biog page shows him pictured resplendent in some unnamed, leafy location wearing nothing bar his beachwear and the rictus smile of a man who has clearly flown too close to the sun.
But are things really so bad in balmy N5 Josh?
At The Secret Betting Club we take our care in the community responsibilities seriously and in order to make Josh feel better, we’ve crunched a few numbers, courtesy of the soccer boffins at Form Lab Black, in order to evaluate Arsene Wenger’s likely side this season.
Now that the transfer window has slammed shut we can at least be sure of calmer waters and for Arsenal that means stabilising an ailing ship and in the medium term and then restoring the credibility that has slowly ebbed away during six trophy-less years.
After The Massacre of Old Trafford (an 8-2 defeat in case you need reminding), The Gunners were bolstered by no fewer than five signings in the final hours of the transfer window. Having lost Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri, limped through a Champions League Qualifier against Udinese and suffered that remarkable reversal in Manchester clearly a swift reaction is called for.
At this stage, what we can’t say is whether the five new men carry the whiff of reactionary panic buys or whether they were sourced in Arsene Wenger’s trademark meticulous fashion. Nonetheless, speculation is already rife as to whether this latest Arsenal side, created out of necessity, are capable of stopping the rot at The Emirates.
At this stage, what we can’t say is whether the five new men carry the whiff of reactionary panic buys or whether they were sourced in Arsene Wenger’s trademark meticulous fashion
Arsenal's Best XI – 2010-11
With the squad men so cruelly exposed at Old Trafford and with the likes of Gael Clichy, Samir Nasri and captain Cesc Fabregas departed the case for a minimum five new faces is obvious.
Arsenal won just 35% of the 26 games Fabregas missed in the last 50 Arsenal games he might have played in. That equates to a winning strike rate of 64% when he was on the park. The average Points Per Game (PPG) dropped to 1.38, in Fabregas’ absence, compared to 2.14 with the diminutive skipper in the side. And without the Barca man’s creative influence, Arsenal’s Goals For Per Game (GFPG) slumped to just 1.5 last season. No doubt about it Fabregas was a key player and will be missed.
The Frenchman Samir Nasri missed just 15 games in the last 50 for Arsenal but, as Josh Surtees suggests when he humorously dubbed him "The best player of the first half of last season" he appears to have been no great loss when absent. Indeed, stats-wise Arsenal performed better without him, winning 1.9 points per game without him compared to just 1.62 points with him playing. Perhaps we can consider Nasri to be a decent reduction off the wage bill then? In the crudest terms his stats just don’t justify the hype or the gnashing of teeth that accompanied his exit.
By most measures, Gael Clichy would be most fans’ idea of Arsenal’s steadiest defender last term – not least because of the season-long absence of the injured Thomas Vermaelen. Fabregas and Nasri (perhaps falsely in the case of Nasri) were often ranked most important within Wenger’s midfield.
It is hard to take a view of the numbers relating to Clichy, precisely because he has been a near ever-present in the Arsenal side, contributing to the best (and worst) of their efforts last season.
In the seven games Clichy missed within the last 50 he might have played in, Arsenal won just two averaging a PPG ratio of 1.14 as opposed to 1.85 points per game whenever he played. The numbers, allied to his obvious qualities, suggest he was a key man and will be sorely missed. However, stats-wise the sample of just seven games missed is just too small to be viewed as significant.
However, whenever Arsenal had even one or two key absentees last season, the issue of poor squad depth consistently came hoving into view.
Clichy’s understudy Kieran Gibbs, was another who endured an injury hit season. And those bumps and scrapes accompanied the perennial question marks over the defender’s concentration levels and mental strength that first emerged after a Champions League howler gifted Man Utd another goal in 2009.
The obvious existing replacement for Fabregas to feature last season was Tomas Rosicky, though the little Czech has never come close to the Spaniard's standards as an Arsenal player. With Nasri occupying a position on the left for much of last season, Andrey Arshavin was the next best left-sided midfielder. But, being marginally the best of an inconsistent bunch really isn’t saying much.
Along with those outgoings, four of Arsenal's weakest links from last term remain. The centre-back pairing of Djourou and Koscielny seldom impressed, conveying the impression that either was an accident waiting to happen.
With Arsene Wenger finally having dispensed with the unlovable Spanish keeper Almunia, the Pole Wojciech Szczesny was pretty much thrown to the lions. Time and experience can be a great healer for him but the promising stopper would look less exposed with a solid back four in front of him and the confidence of playing in a side going places. Neither Almunia nor Fabianski can be relied upon as anything other than stopgaps between the sticks.
With Wenger finally having dispensed with the unlovable Spanish keeper Almunia, the Pole Wojciech Szczesny was pretty much thrown to the lions.
Theo Walcott was the only other player remaining within the best XI of last season to consistently deliver. At just 22, time is on his side, and like Szczesny, he will be improved by experience – as long as he remains on the right side of injuries (which is always a problem for players so reliant on pace).
Numbers-wise could we make a case that Walcott’s impact on the team overrated?
I am really not sure. The fleet-footed youngster played 27 and missed 23 in Arsenal’s last 50 games. In that sample Arsenal enjoyed a 44% win rate with the win percentage slumping to just 28% without him in the side. With Walcott on the park Arsenal’s PPG is 1.59, but it rises to 1.74 without his presence. However, Arsenal are a marginally more potent force when Walcott plays, scoring 1.78 GFPG with him in the ranks and 1.74 GFPG without him. Is it the case that Walcott’s attacking contribution can turn games significantly but that Arsenal are also greatly weakened defensively when the England man is accommodated in the side? Having played just over half of Arsenal’s last fifty games it would be hard to offer anything akin to a definitive verdict on Walcott – as much as he is clearly an exciting talent in flashes.
Similar comments must also apply to Robin Van Persie. If fit he is a fine, fine player but he isn’t fit often enough. His missed penalty at Old Trafford (and the meek reaction that followed it) also underlined the sense that the Dutchman isn’t the steeliest of characters, lacking the winners’ mentality of a top Champions League striker. RVP has scored 11, 9 and 18 Premiership goals in his last three seasons at Arsenal. However the relevant seasonal appearances stats are 28, 16 and 25 – numbers that merely reflect his ongoing battles with injuries in London.
Unsurprisingly RVP has missed more than half of Arsenal’s ‘recent’ games, a fact that will surprise few fans. Of the 24 games he played for Arsenal out of the last 50 potential starts, 38% resulted in an Arsenal win, but that win rate goes up to 54% in the 26 games Robin Van Persie didn’t play in, within our 50 game sample. Average PPG of 1.81 without Van Persie compares to just 1.75 points per game with him in the side. Perhaps more telling though is the Goals For Per Game stats which are pretty much 1.75 with or without him available. You might, of course, expect skewed results from a small sample of games relating to an injury-prone striker, but it is worth noting that if you extend the analysis back to all the games RVP could possibly have played for The Gunners, you get similar results. The Secret Betting Club's numbers guy Dan Jones concludes that despite all the hype surrounding the striker signed from Feyenoord in 2004: “Arsenal miss him less than everyone makes out.”
So let’s recap before looking at the new additions. The plusses include the return of Vermaelen and Van Persie from injury and the form of Walcott, albeit the numbers don’t necessarily show their contribution in a positive light.
The keeper Szcezesny remains a work in progress.
The likes of Arshavin and Rosicky still have it all to do and probably neither can be relied upon to dig deep whenever the going gets tough.
However, the negatives column is massive: Clichy and Fabregas are significant losses while the jury is out or has already condemned the defenders Djourou, Gibbs and Koscielny and the keepers Almunia and Fabianski.
The one bright spark, consistently under-estimated by the Arsenal faithful, appears to be Alex Song.
The Cameroonian midfielder certainly splits the crowd but Form Lab Black’s research shows that in the 17 games Alex Song missed in the last 50, Arsenal won just 24% of the time, picking up just 1.40 points per game as opposed to the 1.91 they win on average whenever he plays. It may not be the biggest sample statistically but my hunch is that it is significant.
Underrated or not, Song is probably a key man within the current context of the Arsenal squad. Perhaps the ditching of the statistically ineffectual Nasri can be seen as a positive too, although I’d be keen to know if the French midfielder found himself consistently absent on occasions when Arsenal played weaker opponents, before condemning his contribution out of hand.
The one bright spark, consistently under-estimated by the Arsenal faithful, appears to be Alex Song
Arsenal's New Signings
Mikel Arteta, a seemingly long-ish term target for Arsenal was perhaps been the most discussed addition after Arsenal forked out £10m, on deadline day, for the Spaniard.
On paper he is a like-for-like replacement for his compatriot Fabregas. An undoubtedly cultured midfielder with the likes of Barcelona B, PSG, Rangers and Real Sociedad as well as Everton on his CV, the 29-year-old fits the bill in many ways.
His experience will add composure to an always youthful Arsenal side. However he is not the conventional attacking midfielder, the fans probably crave. Mikel Arteta is a similar type to Jack Wilshere, which in turn could lead to a change of system. Having started out as a Guardiola-type defensive pivot, Arteta is certainly not a box to box attacker, being seen at his best as an explosive dribbler over relatively short distances. Arteta, as a result, is one of the most consistently fouled players in the Premiership, topping that particular stat’s list in 2006/7 with Everton.
Indeed, numbers-wise, the chances are that Arteta is something of a hidden gem. Since 2009/10 the versatile midfielder has played exactly half Everton’s games. No question, with the Toffees winning 46% with him versus 33% without he clearly made a positive contribution at Goodison. At 29 he should also be at the peak of his powers and on a big stage that could well suit him.
Mikel Arteta is a similar type to Jack Wilshere, which in turn could lead to a change of system.
Jack Wilshere was used to playing in a double-pivot alongside Song last season, serving the role of a holding midfielder rather than creator. Arteta's arrival could see Song play as the sole defensive midfielder, allowing Arteta, and importantly Wilshere, to dynamically support attacks. It will be interesting to note if Arsenal switch to a 4-1-2-3 as opposed to their prevalent 4-2-3-1.
Lille’s Gervinho is definitely an out-and-out wide attacker rather than a conventional winger, with a preference for cutting inside from a wide-ish starting position. The latest French import will likely frustrate as much as delight as Sabotage Times has already suggested but he would create a less lopsided looking attack with Walcott offering the same threat on the right. The Ivorian and Englishman are likely to play in what is effectively a front three, which could suit Robin van Persie as a Dutchman no doubt schooled in a 4-3-3 at youth level and with Feyenoord. The wide attackers instructions will place an onus on Wilshere and Arteta to plug the gaps, and both are capable defensively even if Arsenal might be better served with some physical presence to assist Song. That said, Everton scored more goals from midfield than any Premiership side bar Man United last season so perhaps Arteta could prove to be a very shrewd signing indeed, offering a bit of everything, if Arsenal do indeed reconfigure their midfield shape in a 4-1-2-3.
Brazil international left-back Andre Santos looks like a straightforward replacement for Clichy. Kieran Gibbs will again provide back-up cover.
The German international centre-back Per Mertesacker has been signed from Werder Bremen to partner the returning Thomas Vermaelen. An, experienced and physically imposing defender, who is surprisingly just 26-year-old, he looks to have a lot of miles left in the tank. With 75 international caps for Germany the former Bundesliga stalwart clearly boasts the requisite quality and a presence absent in Arsenal backline since the waning and subsequent transfer of Sol Campbell.
However, the lanky German is more likely to rely on his reading of the game more than his grit to repel attackers. Expect Mertesacker to be dominant aerially with Vermaelen typically to be seen throwing his weight around in the tackle.
Park Chu-Young is a natural back-up for the physically frail Van Persie. Potentially a snip at around £3m following Monaco’s relegation from Ligue One, the South Korean could ultimately have a bigger part to play than first anticipated with Arsenal short of credible depth in the goalscoring department.
Yossi Benayoun has arrived on loan from London rivals Chelsea but again, he looks like a squad man at this juncture.
Arsenal's Likely XI This Season
Having played in Turkey last season Santos remains a gamble of sorts. There are no stats available to endorse (or contest) his claims either way.
Arteta’s success will stand or fall by the extent to which he adapts to a role that requires tactical awareness and a sound positional sense. His pedigree and experience, in spite of his slight physique, suggests that this will not be beyond his capabilities.
Gervinho like so many Wenger signings could delight and frustrate in equal measure.
Per Mertesacker has the complete package on paper but a poor season in The Bundesliga with Werder Bremen sets the alarm bells ringing. He may not be all he seems.
That said, there is one key stat that should give the Gunners faithful hope that the German is more than a reactive panic buy.
Mertesacker missed just five Werder games since 2009/10. When absent, those games resulted in 11 goals conceded and just one victory. Whatever the merits of Werder Bremen, Mertesacker is clearly a key man and German boss Joachim Low clearly thinks so too.
No doubt, Arsenal are clearly a side in transition then with a series of not insignificant snakes and some favourable-looking ladders lying in their path this season.
Probably though, the key sub-plots this season will revolve around the manager Arsene Wenger and, more specifically, whether he can rely on the indulgence of his board and fans long enough to see this latest crop of signings take root.
Click here for more Arsenal stories
Click here for more Football and Sport stories
Click here to follow Sabotage Times on Twitter
Click here to follow Sabotage Times on Facebook