SEASON 2021/2022: WHICH PLAYERS ARSENAL SHOULD RETAIN, SELL AND RECRUIT TO FIT A 4-2-3-1 FORMATION

With Arsenal’s 2020/2021 Premier League campaign over, the team again finishing a disappointing 8th in the Premier League, not qualifying for Europe next season and the transfer window shortly to open, it’s an opportune time to examine the on-field production of each player in Arsenal’s senior squad, and the player market, in order to identify:

  • which players Arsenal should retain
  • which players Arsenal should sell
  • which players Arsenal should recruit.

Methodology

In assessing the on-field production and the comparative ranking of each player which comprise Arsenal’s senior squad, each player is allocated into eight positional categories (with some players allocated to multiple positional categories due to their perceived versatility).

Those positional categories consist of:

  • Goalkeeper
  • Right Wingback
  • Central Defenders
  • Left Wingback
  • Central Midfielders
  • Attacking Midfielders
  • Centre Forward

Once categorised, each player’s output in defined key performance indicators (KPIs) for their respective positional category has then been considered, using data sourced from Whoscored.com.

To provide a realistic picture of each individual player’s on-field production, only data from those seasons, throughout the player’s professional career, where the player has started at least 15 league games in at least two seasons (consecutive or non-consecutive) in Europe’s top 5 leagues or the Championship, was considered. Where a player has not met that criteria, their productivity data was not assessed.

The KPI data considered for each positional group is based on the assumption that Arsenal adopt a 4-3-2-1 formation and the cornerstones of Arsenal’s tactical approach is as follows:

  • Defending in a low block, with the centre forward and attacking midfielders also dropping back to ensure the side is vertically compact. This compactness is maintained by a position-focus defensive approach, that sees the team prioritise retention of shape, and shifting from side to side to deny the opposition space and block passes into midfield and the box.
  • Counter attacking, with the central midfielders distributing the ball forward to the wingbacks, attacking midfielders and centre forward to enable those those 6 attacking players to dribble the ball upfield . In the final third:
    • the wingback attempt to get to dribble the ball to the byline and cut the ball back
    • the wider attacking midfielders can similarly dribble the ball to the byline (in the half-space) and cut the ball back, shoot to the back post, make diagonal runs into the box or attempt the pass into the centre forward
    • the central attacking midfielder can either shoot to either corner of the goal from outside the box, or attempt passes into the centre forward of wider attacking midfielders as they make diagonal runs into the box
    • the centre forward takes up a central position in the box to shoot from cut back and passes to and around him.
  • The goalkeeper’s primary aims are to stop shots and claim crosses.
  • The wingbacks’ primary aims are to tackle their opponent to recover the ball (2+ per match), and contribute to the team’s offensive play by producing multiple dribbles and key passes (2+) per match.
  • The central defenders’ primary aims are to shield the goalkeeper by positioning themselves to intercept passes into the box (2+ per game), win aerial duels (3+ per game), and execute multiple long passes (3+) per game.
  • The central midfielders’ primary aims are to tackle their opponent (2+ per match) and make interceptions (2+ per match) to recover the ball , and contribute to the team’s transitional play through making multiple long passes forward to the wingbacks, attacking midfielders and centre forward as they counter attack.
  • The attacking midfielders’ primary aims are to contribute to the team’s transitional play and offensive play in the final third through multiple dribbles (2+ per game) and key passes (2+ per game), making runs into the opposition box, and contributing to the team’s goal scoring (10+ goals per season).
  • The centre forwards’ primary aims are to contribute to the team’s transitional play and offensive play in the final third through multiple dribbles (2+ per match), making runs in the opposition’s box , and significantly contributing to the team’s goal scoring (15+ goals per season).

Once the relative on field productivity of Arsenal’s current senior squad was assessed, the comparative KPI data (from Whoscored.com) of the players competing in the following leagues was then reviewed:

  • English Premier League
  • Championship
  • Serie A
  • Ligue 1
  • La Liga
  • Bundesliga

When considering players competing in the aforementioned leagues, those players in clubs who are competing in the 2021/22 Champions League, Europa League and Europa Conference League were not considered. This included Inter Milan, AC Milan, Atalanta, Juventus, Napoli, Roma, Manchester City, Manchester United, Liverpool, Chelsea, Leicester City, West Ham, Tottenham, Bayern Munich, RB Leipzig, Dortmund, Wolfsburg, Eintracht Frankfurt, Bayer Leverkusen, Union Berlin, Atletico Madrid, Real Madrid, Barcelona, Sevilla, Real Sociedad, Real Betis, Villarreal, Lille, PSG, Monaco, Lyon, Marseille, Rennes. This was designed to realistically account for Arsenal’s attractiveness as a prospective employer, based on the club’s current standing in European football (as a mid table Premier League club).

Also, only players from the aforementioned leagues who have, during their professional career, started at least 15 league games in at least two seasons (consecutive or non-consecutive) were considered. Where a player has not met that criteria, their productivity data was not assessed. Again, this was designed to provide a realistic picture of each individual player’s on-field production.

The KPI data of the reviewed players was then contrasted against the KPI data of the players who currently comprise Arsenal’s senior squad.

Player rankings

Goalkeepers

Starting with the goalkeeping position, and while it’s unfair to judge Okonkwo or Runarsson’s suitability, as neither player has sufficient professional experience in the reviewed leagues to appropriately assess their performances, it is fair to say that Bernd Leno, has delivered less impressive performances throughout his career to date, in contrast to the likes of Emiliano Martinez of Aston Villa.

In light of that, it would be logical for Arsenal to sell Leno, and try and recruit Martinez, to serve as one of the club’s two senior goalkeepers.

In terms of the second of those two senior goalkeepers, given the critical nature of the goalkeeper as the last line of defence, there is a strong argument that Arsenal should aim to recruit the most productive goalkeepers available to fill those senior goalkeeping roles. Given that, and both Runarsson and Okonkwo unproven, it would be logical for the club to sell Runarsson and Okonkwo, and recruit Alessio Cragno from Cagliari, as the club’s second senior goalkeeper.

Right Wingback

As for the club’s contracted right wingback options:

  • Maitland-Niles is homegrown, and while not comparatively poor in terms of tackles, dribbles and key passes per match, his numbers are comparatively underwhelming
  • Soares is strong in terms of tackles per game, but is comparatively poor in terms of dribbles per game and underwhelming in so far as key passes per game
  • Chambers is also homegrown and is strong in terms of tackles per game, but is comparatively poor in terms of dribbles and key passes per game
  • Bellerin is homegrown as well, and is strong in terms of dribbles per match, but is comparatively poor in so far as tackles and key passes per match.

In light of the comparative deficiencies of Arsenal’s currently contracted right wingback options, it would be logical for Arsenal to sell Bellerin and Soares, and recruit Daniel Caliguri of FC Augsburg to serve as one of Arsenal’s two senior right wingbacks.

In terms of the club’s second senior right wingback, while somewhat underwhelming in a number of KPIs to date, none of Maitland Niles’ metrics are particularly poor in contrast to certain KPIs for Soares, Chambers and Bellerin, nor are they substantially inferior to Leonardo Bittencourt of Werder Bremer. Given that, his homegrown status and the Premier League’s homegrown rules, it would be logical for Arsenal to retain Maitland Niles, to serve as the club’s second senior right wingback.

Central Defenders

As for the club’s contracted central defender options, Arsenal unfortunately do not have a player who can legitimately lay claim to having a sufficiently productive performance record to automatically warrant selection as one of the club’s four senior central defenders.

While it’s unfair to judge, Mari, Mavropanos or Saliba, as all three players have insufficient professional experience in any of the considered leagues, to appropriately assess their performances, as for the club’s other contracted central defender options:

  • Holding is strong in terms of interceptions and long pass per match, but is comparatively poor in so far as successful aerial duels per match
  • Chambers and White are both strong in terms of interceptions per game, but are comparatively poor in so far as long passes and successful aerial duels per game
  • Gabriel is comparatively underwhelming in terms of long pass per match and is comparatively poor in so far as interceptions and successful aerial duels per match.

In light of the above and the critical nature of defence, there is a strong argument that Arsenal should aim to recruit the most productive defenders available to fill those senior central defender roles. Accordingly, it would be logical to recruit the following three players to serve, as three of the the club’s four senior central defenders:

  • Liam Cooper of Leeds Utd
  • Marc Oliver Kempf of Stuttgart
  • Shaun Hutchinson of Millwall.

As for the remaining central defender spots, in light of Holding, Chambers and White’s comparative weaknesses, it would be logical for Arsenal to sell all three. In terms of Mari, Saliba, and Mavropanos, given his physical profile of the Greek player in contrast to Mari and Saliba, he would seem more suitable than either of those players to the Premier League. As such, it would be logical to retain the Greek defender as one of the club’s four senior central defenders.

Left Wingback

As for the club’s contracted left wingback options, it’s unfair to judge Tavares’ and Tierney’s suitability, as neither player has yet to accumulate sufficient professional experience in the considered leagues, to appropriately assess his performances.

Regarding Arsenal’s other current left wingback options, Kolasinac is comparatively underwhelming in terms of tackles per match, but is comparatively poor in terms of dribbles and key passes per match.

In light of the comparative deficiencies of Arsenal’s currently contracted left wingback options, and the Premier League’s homegrown rule, it would be logical for Arsenal to sell Kolasinac, Tierney, and Tavares, and recruit Javier Galan of Huesca, to serve as one of Arsenal’s two senior left wingbacks.

In terms of the club’s second senior left wingback, given the critical nature of defence, there is a strong argument that Arsenal should aim to recruit the most productive left wingback available to fill the senior left wingback roles. Given that, would be logical for Arsenal to recruit Bastian Oczipka of Schalke to serve as the club’s second senior left wingback.

Central Midfielders

In terms of the club’s contracted central midfield options, it’s unfair to judge the suitability of Elneny, Lokonga and Willock, as none of those players have had sufficient professional experience in any of the examined leagues, to appropriately assess their performances.

Regarding Arsenal’s other central midfield options:

  • Xhaka is excellent in terms of long passes per game, but is comparatively underwhelming in terms of tackles per game and is comparatively poor in terms of interceptions per game
  • Partey and Torreira are both solid in terms of tackles per match, but are comparatively poor both in terms of interceptions and long passes per match
  • Maitland Niles is comparatively underwhelming in terms of tackles per game and is comparatively poor in terms of interceptions and long passes per game.

In light of the comparative deficiencies of Arsenal’s currently contracted central midfield options, and Maitland Niles’ allocation as a right wingback option, it would be logical for Arsenal to sell Torreira, Xhaka, and Partey and recruit Maxime Gonalons of Granada and Milan Badejl of Genoa to serve as two of Arsenal’s four senior central midfielders.

In terms of the club’s third and fourth central midfielders, there is a strong argument that Arsenal should aim to recruit the most productive central midfielders available to fill those senior central midfield roles. Accordingly, it would be logical for Arsenal to sell Elneny and Lokonga and recruit Ellyes Skhiri of FC Kohl and Sam Hutchinson of Sheffield Wednesday to fill Arsenal’s third and fourth senior central midfielder roles.

Attacking Midfielders

In terms of the club’s contracted attacking midfield options, while it’s unfair to judge the suitability of Martinelli, Nelson, Willock or Smith-Rowe as none of those players have had sufficient professional experience in any of the examined leagues, to appropriately assess their performances:

  • Pepe’s goals per season and dribbles per match records are excellent, and his key passes per match record is solid
  • Willian’s dribbles and key passes per game record is excellent , but his goals per season record is comparatively poor
  • Saka is homegrown and his dribbles and key passes per match record is solid, but his goals per season record is comparatively poor.

In light of Willian’s deficiencies from a goal scoring perspective, the lack of alternative attacking midfielder options in the considered leagues with the required KPI levels, and the Premier League’s homegrown rules, and the it would be logical for Arsenal to sell Willian and Willock, retain Pepe, Saka, Martinelli, Smith-Rowe and Nelson, to serve as 5 of Arsenal’s senior attacking midfielders and recruit Iago Aspas of Celta Vigo to fill the remaining senior attacking midfielder position.

Centre Forward

In terms of the club’s contracted forward options, it’s unfair to judge Martinelli or Nketiah, as neither player has sufficient professional experience in any of the considered leagues, to appropriately assess their performances.

Regarding Arsenal’s other current forward options:

  • Pepe is comparably solid in terms of goals per season and his dribbles per game record is excellent.
  • Lacazette is comparably solid both in terms of his goals per season and his dribbles per match record.
  • Aubameyang is excellent in term of goals per season but is comparatively poor in terms of dribbles per match.

In light of the comparative dribbling deficiencies of Aubameyang, and Pepe’s allocation as an attacking midfield option, it would be logical for Arsenal to sell Aubameyang, and retain Lacazette to serve as one of Arsenal’s senior centre forwards.

In terms of the club’s second senior centre forward, given the Premier League’s homegrown rule, and Martinelli allocation as right wing options, would be logical for Arsenal to sell Nketiah and recruit Ollie Watkins of Aston Villa to fill Arsenal’s second senior centre forward role.

Summary of proposed activity

While the above squad changes would be ideal, the club could afford to retain Maitland Niles (right wingback), Holding, Chambers, White, and Mavropanos (central defenders), Xhaka (central midfield), Willian, Pepe, Smith-Rowe, Nelson, Saka (attacking midfield) and Lacazette (centre forward), with the recruitment priorities being:

  • both goalkeeping positions in the squad (Martinez and Cragno)
  • one of the two right wingback positions in the squad (Caliguri)
  • both left wingback positions in the squad (Galan and Oczipka)
  • three of the central midfield roles in the squad (Gonalons, Badejl, Skhiri)
  • one of the attacking midfield positions in the squad (Aspas), and
  • one of the centre forward positions in the squad (Watkins).

Freddie08

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