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Tale of the Talent – Arsenal vs. Spurs

By Ted Knutson | August 21, 2013 | Analytics

I am not Tor-Kristian Karlsen when it comes to talent evaluation, but I know a lil' bit. Part of my job involves objectively evaluating talent for football teams and then relating that to the betting lines we post week after week. Combine that with my research into player analytics and predictive modelling, and I’m a fairly qualified judge for figuring out overall squad strengths for the major leagues in Europe.

Today, I want to move past the transfer market and early season hype for a second and objectively break down and compare each position for Arsenal and Spurs. The goal is to figure out which team actually has the better side, and where the strengths and weaknesses lie. For those of you who missed our season previews on these clubs, Arsenal can be found here (link) and Spurs can be found here (link).

I'm grading the teams this way. A slight edge equals one point, a moderate edge equals three, and a large edge equals five. At the end of the article, we'll add them all up and see who wins.

Center Forward: Roberto Soldado vs. Olivier Giroud

I am writing this under the assumption that Gareth Bale is going to be sold, making Soldado their primary forward. He has a few gifts, but his best one is being in the right place at the right time to finish chances. I’m not particularly impressed by him, but he fills a need. I also assume that AVB is completely fed up with Adebayor, and that good Ade is not likely to come back.

Giroud is a complicated guy to analyse. His finishing simply isn’t good enough, which is one reason why Arsenal have humped the legs of a number of central strikers so far this summer, but have yet to be successful at actually buying one. On the other hand, Giroud feels quite talented when you watch him. He’s powerful, has good feet, and is able to see the passes he should make, even if he doesn’t always pull them off. If Giroud displays a little bit more composure in front of goal this season, then he’s better than Soldado (and younger). I’m unconvinced that will happen.

Verdict: Push

Left Forward: Lucas Podolski vs. Willian
One player on the outskirts of the German National Team squaring off against one on the outskirts of the Brazilian one. Both play on the left at the moment, but Willian is the only one who thrives there. Poldi prefers to play centrally, usually as a second striker.

Podolski quietly did well for Arsenal last season, but he’s not terribly creative, nor is he a great runner. His best asset is the ability to hit thunderbastards with a left boot kissed by the gods, and this is reflected by his high conversion rate.

Willian is extremely clever. A quick, decisive dribbler, he is also an excellent passer who creates a host of chances by himself each game. He’s not the goalscorer that Poldi is, but he can get on the board, and he makes up for it by creating great shots for others.

The kicker on this one is: Dude only has one name.

(Confession: I have not seen enough Willian to judge him properly so this could be wrong.)

Verdict: Moderate edge to Spurs

Right Forward: Theo Walcott vs. Aaron Lennon
theo_walcottAaron Lennon is a handy little player. On his day, he can make about half the defences in the league look silly, and he usually gives a decent contribution. I like Aaron Lennon and feel he’s pretty good, but his days don’t happen often enough to make me view him as better than that. At 26, I think we can now all admit he's never going to be world class.

Theo Walcott, on the other hand, has quietly matured into one of the most feared wide forwards in the league. Always gifted with pace, but lacking a “football brain,” Walcott has finally figured some things out. Perhaps the greatest thing he has done is learn to finish. Once he gets into the clear (which happens despite the fact that he’s fairly predictable), he’s now quite adept at finishing near post or far. Given his pace, goalies are forced into all sorts of low-probability guesses for what he might do, and if Walcott ever learns to chip well, the world will tremble. The other thing Theo does well now is hammer low crosses/cutbacks for his teammates to find. These crosses have a relatively low probability of completion, but when they do, they are lethal.

It took him years to do it, but Walcott figured out how to turn his gifts into a package of problems for defenders.

Verdict: Moderate edge to Arsenal

Midfield Battle: Santi Cazorla vs. Moussa Dembele,  Jack Wilshere vs. Paulinho, Mikel Arteta vs. Sandro

This one is a struggle to analyse because the managers want their midfields to do different things. Spurs have purchased powerful, destructive players across the board in midfield, all of whom can pass, but aren’t go to names when you think of “great offensive midfielders.” That said, every single one of them is an expert at mixing it up, and they cover space extremely well.

Wenger’s team, on the other hand, populate their midfield with smaller players who are universally excellent passers. Cazorla was one of the players of the season last year. Arteta was neck and neck with Michael Carrick for the best regista (deep-lying playmaker) in the Premier League, despite the fact that he spent his first decade as a professional playing as an attacker. When fully healthy, Wilshere once looked like one of the brightest two-way midfielders in the world. Sadly, he hasn’t been fully healthy for two years now, in part because opposing players hack the shit out of him when he’s on the pitch. Can he still be great? Maybe. Can he stay healthy? Data is starting to indicate otherwise.

On a talent level, Arsenal edge this. On a physical level, Spurs have a clear advantage. I’m going to rate it as a push.

Verdict: Push

Kieran Gibbs vs. Danny Rose
This battle is closer than it would have been last year, when the revolving door of Kyle Naughton and Bennie Assou-Ekotta made left back one of Spurs weaknesses. Now that Rose is there, they have a dynamic young player good on both sides of the ball. He’s young and still learning the game though, so you can expect a few painful mistakes this season.

Either of the Arsenal options at LB are better than Rose. Gibbs is probably the best of the lot, with a high work rate, excellent passing ability, and sound defensive stats as well. Unfortunately, he gets injured a lot, which is why Arsenal picked up the second choice LB of the Spanish National Team during the January break, Nacho Monreal. At this point I’m not sure even Arsene knows which one he would prefer. They are never healthy at the same time, so he’s never faced with that decision.

Verdict: Slight edge to Arsenal

Central Defenders: Mertesacker/Koscielny/Vermalaen vs. Vertonghen/Kaboul/Dawson
Interesting factoid – both of these teams were great at preventing opponent shots last season.  Spurs were first in the league, while Arsenal were a very narrow third. This was largely down to their tactical systems and not the fact that they had amazing players at center back.

Arsenal’s trio are adequate.  Mertesacker is a bit slow and despite his size, can get manhandled at times by powerful forwards. He reads the game well and obviously his height is helpful in the air. Koscielny is quicker and generally considered to be quite good, but has a habit of making dumb plays and getting unfortunate red cards. He plays a blinder half a season, every season. The other half he can be a liability. Vermalaen once looked like he had all the tools to be great, but his positional awareness can be dire at times. He can be considered barely adequate backup at this point.

Spurs central defense is upgraded on last season, mainly because Kaboul is back. The first-choice pairing is likely Vertonghen and Kaboul, which should make them one of the best in the league. Until Kaboul is back to full game shape, Michael Dawson is an able fill-in, though he’ll have problems when Spurs face teams with a host of fast, skillful attackers.

Verdict: Moderate edge to Spurs

Right Back: Bakary Sagna vs. Kyle Walker
Up until two years ago, Sagna might have been the best right back in the league. Pacey, with decent crossing ability, and a great level of fitness, Sagna never stopped running for Arsenal, and his ability to be involved on offense, but still get back and cover on defense was amazing. Then the injuries started to hit, and Sagna lost something. The last two seasons he has been shockingly error-prone. In a sense, this seemed normal – it was just what Arsenal did - but it was rarely Sanga that did it. However, last year he really stood out as a painful, unreliable weak spot. The stats are still good, but Sagna’s level of play has dropped considerably over the last two years, and I don't think he'll recover.

Walker, on the other hand, has turned into an excellent right back. He also has occasional problems with defensive lapses, but part of those are caused by the fact that AVB wants him to push forward into the offense so much (and his absence is supposed to be covered by one of the midfield 3 dropping in to defense). On the offensive end, Walker just keeps getting better. His release passes this past weekend against Palace were breathtaking, and his overlaps with Lennon and ability to cross give Spurs offense a dynamic they would lack with anyone else at his position.

He could be better… but he’s already very good.

Verdict: Slight edge to Spurs

Goalkeeper: Chezzer/Flappyhandski vs. Hugo Lloris

Um… let’s just say that the last convincing goalkeeper Arsenal owned was Jens Lehmann before he turned into Mad Jens. That was 2007ish.

Arsenal were interested in Hugo for ages! They should have bought Lloris when they had the chance.

Verdict: Large edge to Spurs

Potential Variations

If you put Cazorla on the left wing in place of Podolski, then Arsenal have a slight edge there, but they lose the midfield battle when you plug in Ramsey. If Spurs miraculously don’t sell him this year and Bale goes to CF in place of Soldado, then they get a moderate edge at CF (or whatever position Bale actually plays when he’s floating to and fro), on the assumption that Bale may regress a bit this season.

If Spurs buy Lamela as well and start him in place of Lennon, then the RW becomes a push as the Walcott advantage goes away. As it is currently, it no longer looks like Spurs are in for Lamela.

If Arsenal buy…

Bahahahaha, who am I kidding?

Manager: Arsene Wenger vs. Andre Villas-Boas
Old school versus new. The French economist versus Andre “I don’t believe in analytics” Boas. Both of these guys have proven themselves to be excellent managers over the course of the season. Ignore Wenger in his Director of Football role at Arsenal, and you see a guy who has a proven track record of strong finishes with occasionally sketchy talent. His teams play beautiful football, and he has a record for polishing potential into world class gems. He has also done reasonably well at overcoming most opposing managers in his time, and his teams are capable of winning big matches. (Except against Jose Mourinho. Who is back in the league. Oh boy.)

AVB is also impressive. The tactical system he has employed at Spurs posted the best shot dominance in the league last season. I grouse about him not believing in the value of analytics, but maybe he really doesn't need it. An upgrade in talent across the squad means they should do even better at keeping opponents from scoring while bombarding the opposing goalies with shots at the other end. I could wish for a little more cleverness in the passing, but overall Spurs style is one to be admired.

Verdict: Push

Final Scorecard

Margin Team

















Spurs win by a margin of +8. They are better than Arsenal at four of the eight areas evaluated, Arsenal are better at two, and two areas are judged a push.

Even as an Arsenal fan, I am impressed with what Spurs have done so far this summer. They have taken a strong system put in place by AVB, restructured their entire team based around strength in the center and quickness at the sides, and built a great team. They lose a bit of magic with Gareth Bale, but this squad is a lot deeper than last season’s and designed to grind out the touch matches week after week.

Arsenal meanwhile, have stood still on a squad that barely finished fourth last year. There is a lot of talent in that squad, but it’s a bit fragile and needed bolstering, something they simply haven’t done. Time is running out in the transfer window, Wenger is loathe to pay a penny over what he thinks is fair, and they need to get better in a number of areas.

It doesn’t look good right now, Arsenal fans. But, well, you already knew that.


Article by Ted Knutson