Imagine for a second that you had an enormous early mover advantage in the world’s most popular sport. Through buying a data company that had better data and better people than all of your competitors, you could suddenly see with clarity into a market worth billions every year. It would now be possible to find the best young gems for discount prices and turn them into superstars. It would also be possible to find +EV ways of playing football, which in turn should bring more success than ever before.

Now imagine that for whatever reason, you did basically nothing with this advantage, allowing your rich competitors to catch up to you – and potentially surpass you – because they actually execute on the information.

Welcome to Arsenal!

Catching Up
When last we left our intrepid rebuilding project, we had identified a number of useful-though-expensive center forwards, and we also suggested a few young midfielders, an area where Arsenal still have needs in spite of recent investment.

That was before the rumour came about that Naby Keita wanted to leave RB Leipzig.

The rule is simple: If you can get Naby Keita, you get Naby Keita.

Period.

And especially if he costs considerably less than Paul Pogba. Ignore what I said earlier and focus on Naby. If that falls through, as our hopes and dreams always do, then go back to the aforementioned list of midfielders and make it happen, but not until!

And now… on with the adventure.

Wide Forwards
As noted in the earlier piece, if Alexis leaves, Arsenal have Alex Iwobi as a starting left forward and Theo Walcott on the right. Meanwhile, Liverpool will now have Mane and Salah meep meeping all over the place. This would be… suboptimal.

As a result, I started squinting at this, which is either a modern art exhibit about circles and bubbles, or it’s the entire data set of players last season on a scoring scatterplot.

ooo_pretty

Wide forwards on a team with league title aspirations need to do three things

  • They need to be able to score goals
  • They need to create for their teammates
  • Some meep is required.

meepmeep_roadrunner

Because it’s Arsenal, they also need to be good passers.  This is a huge ask, and in reality there are few players in the world who fit the requirements exactly.

The first name that comes up on the list is Memphis Depay.

*audible groans from the audience*

Look guys, I’m just analysing the data and it says Memphis is very good and has a very rare skill set.

*more shaking of heads. someone throws a tomato*

AHEM! Given the inevitable complaints on this line of analysis from people who think he was bad at Manchester United despite the fact that as a team, they only took as many shots per game as Big Sam’s Sunderland, we’ll fast forward to other candidates.

Salah? Taken. Marcos Asensio? Ha! Emil Forsberg? Not happenin’. Kingsley Coman? Just arrested on a domestic assault charge so maaaybe not.

Bertrand Traore!

Just moved to Lyon for a price that was scarcely believable when reported.

Unsurprisingly, this is hard. How about this guy?

Keita - Italian Serie A - 2016-2017

Can play left forward and center forward. Physically awesome. Ran hotter than his expected goals numbers last season, but the underlying numbers were still quite good. Plenty of meep and an absolute handful physically. Also only has one year left on his contract, so won’t be as expensive as other targets.

Ángel Correa - Spanish La Liga - 2016-2017

I feel like this kid gets zero headlines, but his stats are amazing. Plays everywhere behind the striker and almost fully two-footed. Excellent dribbler, and good strength for a smaller guy. Only has two years left on his deal at Atletico, so maybe now is the time to turn his head for bigger money. Atletico are a great team, but the Premier League can certainly pay him far more.

The Dortmund Crew
So Dortmund actually have three young players that would interest Arsenal. They probably won’t sell any of them, but Ousmane Dembele, Christian Pulisic, and Emre Mor all look like they are right on the cusp of being world class wide men (although Mor kind of plays everywhere).

dortmund_kids

Dembele is one of those players where I don’t fully agree with the passing model. His high risk-high reward style is hard to credit properly, but he is lightning in a bottle on the pitch and already one of the best creative wide men in the world at age 20.

Mor gets less hype, but his style feels inherently more Arsenal. Small sample in Bundesliga last year – he turns 20 in July – but he also completed nearly 6 dribbles a 90 last year in Denmark and passing ability is top notch.

Finally you get The Great American Hope.  Like with Dembele, Pulisic spoofs the passing model a bit by being another high risk-high reward player. By signing Pulisic, Arsenal would not only get a great young player that fills a need for the club, they would also dramatically increase American media attention for the club.

All good, all slightly different, none very likely to move. Sigh.

Now we hit the squiffy bits. This is the problem with transfer shopping in a busy market without the buying power that Manchester United or Real Madrid have. Many years you actually need to take risks. Perfect players for your squad/system/needs are not available. Thus you end up making calculated gambles – often with younger players that have good baselines – that they may develop into something special.

This is exactly what Dortmund are doing right now and it is absolutely the right strategy. It’s also what Arsenal should have been doing since the moment they bought StatsDNA, but they have not.

And the thing is, so many of these risks are easy to justify. Mane, Sabitzer, Timo Werner, de Bruyne, Depay, Eriksen, Dybala… all young players who had clear stats profiles that they were likely to be good to great in the future. Yes, some don’t work out – that’s why they are risks – but if you can’t afford to buy elite players any other way, then you need to take some gambles just to continue competing.

The following guys have more risk involved and might be less obvious targets, but they do have interesting output.

Two from Brugge
brugge_duo

One big man, one small. Wesley is a CF who used to be at Overheul-favorite Trencin, but posted big numbers in a half season at Brugge. Izquierdo is a tiny Colombian whose game scouts a bit like a discount Alexis. He’s been on the “Interesting” list for a few years now. Shooting locations could use some work, but the rest of his game is probably good enough for a move to the Premier League.

(Yes, they are both South American so there may be some work permit struggles, but grease the wheels already!)

Eredivisie
The most divisive talent league in world football. When the average age is this low, players at full maturity have an easier time. Defending isn’t great overall. The quality of the top of the league is very different from the bottom, and that also causes issues when evaluating talent who is effectively beating up on League One players instead of Europa League finalist players.

THAT SAID… there is talent in the league and it is undeniable.

There are four guys that Arsenal should take a long, hard look at right now and hope that they turn into something special for the future.

The first three are from Ajax. Dolberg isn’t ready to lead a Premier League line, but he is already special. Teammates David Neres and Justin Kluivert also look very interesting, despite their best games coming against teams that were… uh… (BE POLITE)… not great, Bob?

I usually hate big fees paid for Brazilians, but Neres – like countryman Gabriel Jesus – looks like he could end up being an astute purchase.

[Small sample and weak competition caveats ALL over this one, and yet when you trip the rarely-if-ever-tripped Messi Warning Bell, you definitely get a closer look.]

David Neres - Dutch Eredivisie - 2016-2017

I’m not saying definitely try to buy him. What I am saying is do a whole lot more scouting and research and THEN make a decision.

The last guy I find super intriguing is Steven Bergwijn at PSV. Some of the same caveats as above apply, but his output is interesting enough that once again, you should take a very long look and see if everything else adds up.

Steven Bergwijn - Dutch Eredivisie - 2016-2017

Thomas Lemar
In lieu of boring right back recommendations, I wanted to just take a quick moment to give my feedback on Thomas Lemar from Monaco.

He’s excellent, and I’ve been interested in him since his Caen days.

Passing ability matches up with what we’ve come to expect from Arsenal, he’s good in space, and he’s fast. The problem – if you want to call it that – is the bulk of his assists last season either came via set pieces or on crosses to the far post on the break. I’m not sure I would let that stop me from signing him. He’s a lovely player. But I’m just not sure Arsenal’s style of play or general indifference on set pieces really maximises his skills.

Conclusion
The reason I started writing this was general frustration. I wanted to map out what was possible this year in terms of Arsenal upgrading the squad enough to contend for a title. To me, Arsenal feel a bit like Manchester United as we entered the end of the Fergie era, except without the Fergie bit (or the Pulis-like set piece execution from Fergie’s last two seasons).

The squad has aged in a number of key positions. The academy no longer provides talented replacements. More money has been spent from time to time, but overall quality seems weaker than a number of competitors, including (and unusually) Spurs and Liverpool.

Manchester United spent something close to £500M in the last three years to try and rebuild that old Fergie squad to a title-contending standard, and while they probably paid too much and had some notable misses, the fact remains that the investment in new players was necessary.

With Arsenal… who knows?

A couple of scenarios to ponder

Max Money(£)
Mbappe – 110M
Naby Keita – 70M
Memphis – 55M
Ousmane Dembele – 70M
Right Back – 40M

More Sensible But Good (£)
Lacazette – 50M
Keita Balde Diao – 35M
Angel Correa – 45M
Jorginho – 45M
Right Back 25M

Please God, No (Hauntingly Likely)
Alexis Leaves +60M
Ox Leaves +35M
Ozil sees out contract – 0
Joel Campbell Comes Back – 0
Theo – 0
Welbz + Giroud – 0
The Interminable Contract of Mathieu Debuchy – 0
Thomas Lemar! – 25M (release clause)

Regardless of how it works out, Arsenal’s summer is wildly complex. Two of their best players are pushing for new, big-money deals toward the end of their careers and with one year left on their contracts. The outcomes there have knock-on effects for every other piece of business Arsenal will do this summer.

As a long-time fan, I have been conditioned to hope for the best but to expect the worst. As someone who does transfer evaluations professionally, I have to say that the possible outcomes are certainly better than I feared.

I doubt we’ll see any of the high end deals happen at either North London club, but Arsenal could still do a lot of good business despite seemingly being quite late to the party.

Or… they could sit on their hands, penny pinch on prices and wages, and end up with pretty much nothing, just like the olden days.

Thanks for listening!
Ted Knutson
@mixedknuts
ted@statsbombservices.com

  • Froyo

    The best we’ll get is Lacazette and a few Danny Welbeck-class signings (kill me now, please). We’ll definitely lose Alexis and probably keep Ozil. Don’t forget that we have a manager who gets tactically outclassed by a potato.

  • Steve

    I think you misunderstand the consensus re: Memphis at United a bit. A decrease in shots under LvG would be forgivable if that’s all that it was, but he also showed no acumen whatsoever for team play at a top level, which is why I wasn’t sorry to see him gone. Holding the ball one beat too long every possession, for example: a harmful tendency that scales into disastrous as teammates get better, and that I doubt current metrics can adequately account for.

    Basketball is an interesting comparison, because reasonably advanced multiyear on-off metrics exist as checks against the validity of “production” stats. There’s a clear trend of ball-stoppers (DeMar DeRozan, Kyrie Irving), even ones that are talented passers overall, contributing far less to team success than players who provide similar production while moving the ball quickly (and making intelligent cuts, and hustling on defense, etc.) I don’t know what the state of metrics within clubs to track any of this is (the idea of sports IQ is obviously not new), but there was so much more depth to Memphis being bad than his numbers.

    His success at Lyon isn’t surprising; even at United, he absolutely destroyed some of the Europa League games in a way that made clear his talent. But league and team contexts affect value, and I would be shocked if he were capable of the kind of fluid passing, movement, and generalized situational intelligence that an Arsenal requires.

    • NunyaBusiness

      Memphis to me is a good example of a player that thrives in lower leagues where he can live off his athletic ability but got found out when faced with players that could match him for pace and quickness. You have to be very, very special to score from outside the box at any kind of useful clip in the Premier League. He scored *15* of his 34 PSV Eredivisie goals from outside the box, some of them thanks to comical goalkeeping. That was just never, ever going to repeat itself in the PL. Not even Luis Suarez scored from outside the box *that* often. And what maybe wasn’t as obvious then as now is that Gini Wijnaldum is pretty good at linking defense into attack, and had a lot to do with how good that PSV attack was and the number of “gimmies” that Depay got.

      Nothing about his failure in the PL was a surprise if you looked at how he got the goals he did in the Netherlands.

  • NunyaBusiness

    It’s rough not having Champions League. Liverpool was fortunate that everyone was asleep on Sadio Mane last summer (and also good on them for being awake, of course). IMO Walcott was quite good this year when he got the chance.

    I’m a little surprised that Francois Kamano didn’t come up when Ted started digging deeper. I’d probably go for him before Memphis, especially given how much the money difference would be.

    Onyekuru would have been another could have been that I would have thought warranted mention. Everton stacking in some young pacey attackers now.