EPL Season Preview 2014-15: Arsenal
For my Arsenal preview last year, I pretended Arsenal hired Jerry Maguire to help their difficult summer signings along. At the time I wrote the piece, the only Arsenal signing the entire summer was Yaya Sanogo, and they clearly needed help. The preview was an enjoyable diversion, because I was not optimistic about the season ahead.
It helped my mood when they signed one of my favorite players in Mesut Ozil right before the deadline closed, but let’s be honest – Arsenal’s summer and January transfers last season were a disaster.
In 2013-14, Arsenal got lucky.
What? How can a club that had approximately a million injuries over the course of the season be considered lucky?
Because they finished 4th.
But they always finish 4th! In fact, for half the season they were leading the league.
Yeah, but they usually don’t finish 4th like this. And that whole leading the league thing was a fluke of the schedule – they had the bulk of their hard games in the 2nd half of the year. Bear with me, and I’ll explain where I’m coming from and why it matters. I just want to make something really clear before we carry on with ye olde season preview:
If Arsenal perform like last season, they won’t finish 4th again.
The Scary Trend
This is the shot differential trend for Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester City, and Manchester United. These are the teams that traditionally finish in the top 4 in recent times, and their trending makes for damned interesting reading.
Two of those teams have had fairly precipitous declines in the last five seasons. Analysts were baffled when United won their Premier League in 12-13 with shot numbers that looked more like a midtable side. They were far less baffled when Manchester United plunged to 7th the following season. The loss of Fergie hurt, but unless Man United acted completely differently last summer, another title chase with that stats profile was going to be impossible.
Notice Arsenal’s line intersects the Manchester United line last season? The one where they finished 7th in the league? Yeah... that’s not good.
If you want further worry material, I can tell you there were 40 clubs over the last five seasons in the big 5 leagues in Europe to finish with a shot differential of +1.5 to +2.5 (Arsenal’s was +1.9).
The average finishing position of those teams was 7.65.
In only 25% of those seasons did the club manage to make the Champions League.
In only one of those cases did they win the league (Man United had a shot differential of +2 in 12-13).
Shots For: 13.78 (9th!)
SOT For: 5.6 (4th)
Shots Conceded: 11.9 (5th)
SOT Conceded: 4.16 (9th!)
Goal Difference: +27 (4th)
I’m sticking to my guns here. There was a lot of good luck in how results played out last season, but Arsenal were rarely dominant and would be in serious danger of regressing out of 4th place this season without major improvements.
Alexis Sanchez (FWD)
Joel Campbell (FWD)
Matthiu Debuchy (RB)
Callum Chambers (RB/CB)
David Ospina (GK)
Arsenal have finally bought another forward in Alexis Sanchez, and they did it at a price that represents a big value versus what other clubs have paid for players with similar scoring rates.
Back in early June, I pegged Sanchez as the player who was potentially available that I would most like Arsenal to buy (last year I had Higuain... SO CLOSE). Incredibly, Wenger went out and did just that. Sanchez is a huge talent both as a wide forward and in a deeper playmaking role, and one of the things that makes him so difficult for defenses to mark is that he transitions between the two roles seamlessly. The question is whether Sanchez is big enough to play as a center forward in the Premier League. He's very muscular, but at only 1.69m tall, most of the league will tower over him.
It remains to be seen whether Wenger will play him regularly through the middle, and despite preseason tinkering, it might require Theo Walcott to be fully recovered before it happens. Regardless, Sanchez is a massive upgrade up front and something Arsenal fans have been crying out for for years.
Debuchy’s signing I am indifferent toward – age and performance in the Premier League suggest he’s barely more than adequate, but Arsenal jettisoned both of their right backs this summer, so they needed reinforcements and Debuchy isn’t bad. Random stat: Of all the fullbacks in the sample I used for the fullback radar, Debuchy had 3 of the top 10 seasons in aerial wins. Sagna was good, but no fullback in Europe is better than Debuchy in the air.
The Calum Chambers signing I loved. Chambers doesn’t turn 20 until January, but he’s already performing above the Premier League average as a fullback. Further progression in that role or as a center back would see him rapidly grow into one of the best defenders in the league, and for a very reasonable £12Mish plus add-ons.
Joel Campbell technically isn’t a new signing, but this seems likely to be his first season on the Arsenal roster after tooling around Europe for the past couple of seasons waiting for a work permit. As we saw at the World Cup and also against Manchester United in the Champions League, Campbell can be a handful. He’s fast, has surprisingly good hold-up play for a smaller man, and shares the usual Arsenal flair for creative passing. After being a big question mark for making the squad, it looks as though he’s more likely to still be in London than someone like Podolski come the end of the transfer window.
Bacary Sagna (RB)
Lukasz Fabianski (GK)
Thomas Vermalaen (CB)
Nicklas Bendtner (FWD)
Carl Jenkinson (RB, Loan)
Five years ago, Sagna might have been the best right back in the league. By last year, age had clearly taken its toll, and he just didn’t have the legs to be the dynamic player Arsenal need these days.
The artist formerly known as Flappyhandski had grown into a capable goalkeeper over the last two seasons, but you can hardly blame him for wanting a regular starting job now.
Vermalaen spent most of his last two seasons injured or watching more consistent, less criminally-out-of-position center backs from the bench. Model professional? Yes. Champions League caliber center back? Not so much.
Carl Jenkinson gets to spend a year tutoring under Big Sam, which is a form of punishment, but he needs the playing time or he will never improve.
Nicklas Bendtner turned into The Lost Samurai for his final season at Arsenal, and posted a jawdropping goalscoring rate of 1.15 non-penalty goals per 90. Let this be a lesson in the dangers of small samples sizes and sub effects. Big Nick only played 160 league minutes, and he looked fatter and lazier than ever when he did play. Just go away already, ya giant waste of talent.
I’ll address the big question in a minute, but Arsenal likely need one more player for depth at center back, and they certainly need a physical defensive midfielder. After being excellent in his first two seasons, Arteta started to show some age last year and Flamini, though useful, was far from great. At this point in their careers, neither are the long-term solution Arsenal need in that role.
William Carvalho has been the hottest name on the rumor mill to fill this role, but Wenger might just wait until late in the window to see if there are bargains (like Lyon captain Maxime Gonalons) that pop up. One thing is certain: Sami Khedira is not a defensive midfielder. I said it. Wenger said it. The stats said it. Just let it go and move along.
Center back depth will definitely get addressed before the window closes (Wenger isn’t THAT crazy and couldn’t possibly justify it with the amount of money Arsenal still have in the bank).
Whether that center back will be any good is another question entirely.
The Big Question
Will health and the additions of Sanchez and Campbell improve Arsenal’s shot numbers? And in a similar vein – do Arsenal still need to sign another forward?
A lot of this comes down to what you (and more importantly, what Wenger) think of Yaya Sanogo. Physically, Sanogo is ready. His first step isn’t quick, but he runs fast, and is big enough that non-elite defenders just bounce off of him. He’s also 6’4 – that type height and athleticism can cause a ton of problems for defenders in the air.
We don’t know. I lean toward yes – he’s had a number of games where he has not looked out of place against good competition, and is so young that there’s still plenty of time for him to get better. I particularly like him to wreak havoc as a super sub throughout the course of this season. It’s a classic case where you have to trust Wenger’s evaluation because we have no other choices anyway.
This is the same Wenger whose transfer purchases have put Arsenal into this situation in the first place. I’m not sayin’... I’m just sayin’.
What we do know is that Walcott and Sanchez can both be awesome scorers when healthy, usually from wide positions. That’s damned hard to do. We also know that Olivier Giroud is painfully average at scoring and converting goals (even with awesome attacking passers around him), and his key pass numbers aren’t nearly impressive enough to make up for this.
And finally we know that unless Theo is healthy, Arsenal still have a weird hole on the left wing where they either need to play Santi Cazorla (who profiles more like a midfielder now than a wide forward, especially at age 29), hope that Ox is ready to start turning brilliant athleticism into regular scoring output, or fill it with Lukas Podolski, who has the remarkable ability to barely be involved throughout entire games and yet somehow wind up on the score sheet.
The problem with Arsenal’s shots trend is that usually by this point a manager gets fired. I’ve never seen what happens when you see a gradual decline in performance over the course of years, and because of that, I have no idea if Arsenal can recover to elite heights under the same manager.
Part of this is certainly down to available talent. Injuries plus the exodus of star players year after year drained last season’s Arsenal talent to possibly the lowest point it’s been under Arsene Wenger. Mesut Ozil was a star addition, but adding a single star back to the mix wasn’t enough to stem the tide. This summer has seen a much more comprehensive set of purchases that will definitely make Arsenal better.
Good enough to get 4th? Probably. 3rd? Maybe?
To challenge for the title? Even with the improvements that can be expected from Arsenal’s young core of players, they are a star forward and boss defensive midfielder short of that.
Then again, the transfer window is still open and there’s plenty of money in the bank, maybe...
Nah. It’s still Arsene Wenger.
Prediction: Assuming Wenger fixes the shot trends, 4th. If their stats look like last season... Uh oh.