Up the Arsenal? EPL 2015-16 Preview
Two years ago, well before the transfer deadline, I thought Arsenal might finish 5th. They bought Brother Mesut and came 4th.
Last season, again well before the transfer deadline, I thought Arsenal would be 4th. They came 3rd.
Numero de lo Habitual
Shots Taken Rank: 2nd
Shots Conceded Rank: 4th
Shot Dif Rank: 2nd
xGDif Rank: 3rd
My worry from the 13-14 season was that Arsenal’s shot differential had been creeping down for a while. They still created superior chances, but their points output seemed a lucky compared to the underlying numbers. The big issue was that Shots For was now in Europa League range, which was slightly embarrassing for a perennial Champions League team.
Enter Alexis Sanchez, Danny Welbeck, and an upgrade at right back, and the shot numbers improved. Not enough to overtake Manchester City, but better now than Liverpool, Chelsea, and United at the very least. Last season was progress.
Everyone knows that Alexis was fantastic last season, but to casual observation Danny Welbeck was pretty bad. 4 measly goals is unimpressive for any Arsenal forward, and especially for one that reportedly cost £16m. (Though with Benteke going for twice that, Welbeck looks like a positive bargain nowadays.)
However, dig below the surface and you see a different story. Welbeck was 9th in the league in expected goals per 90 at nearly half a goal per game (players had to play at least 9 full 90s to qualify). Add in some quality passing in the final third, and you get one of the best all-around forwards in the Premier League.
Who unfortunately performed more like Frazier Campbell.
If I were running Arsenal, I’d keep the faith with Welbz. Tell the lad to buck up, keep doing what he’s doing, and the goals will eventually come.
Then again, the numbers thought Balotelli was pretty damned good last season too, so what the hell do they know?
Petr Cech – GK – £10m
It has been soooooooooooooo long since Arsenal had a reliable, competent goalkeeper between the posts. I suppose the era before Jens became Mad Jens is the last time I felt as a fan that the ball was in safe hands. For this reason, I am strangely excited about Cech. It doesn't make up for Cesc being in blue or for the Cashley for William Gallas swap, but viewed by itself, it's a great piece of business.
While on the topic of goalkeepers, David Ospina was underrated and over-abused last year. Cech is an upgrade, but Arsenal also have a backup good enough to start for most of the clubs in the league*.
*This was not a sarcastic evaluation.
Absolutely no one important. (Yes, this includes Poldi-bear and Chezzer.)
This truly is a different Arsenal era.
Coquelin is a rich man’s Flamini, while Flamini at this point in his career is a bum’s garbage fire. Therefore a defensive midfielder than can destroy, ping long passes, and stay healthy is a necessity. Preferably one with excellent pace, since counterattacks against Arsenal's center backs are a perennial Achilles heel. Unfortunately, this has been a clear need for the last 3-4 seasons, and I have no idea if Wenger will fill the role.
I also thought they could use a player like Memphis Depay or Raheem Sterling to add depth at wide forward, and extreme pace on both sides of the pitch. Both players instead went to league rivals. However, at this point I am quibbling - the squad as a whole is the strongest it has been in ages.
Can Arsenal win the league?
I will answer a question with a question: Can they stay healthy?
If yes – if Theo, and Sanchez, and Ramsey, and Arteta, and Ozil, and OX can all stay generally healthy – then Arsenal should definitely be in the mix for a title. Nearly every player on the squad is in their prime, the young guys look amazing, and Wenger’s tactical setup has transitioned from possession purist to surprisingly practical over the last couple of seasons.
The other big question is Welbeck. If Welbeck produces goals like the numbers expect, a title is certainly possible for Arsenal this season. Or I guess if Theo plays through the center and scores like he did at the tail end of last season, you could expect the same. That said, I prefer Arsenal set up with Sanchez left, Welbeck central, Theo right and Mesut as a 10 for maximum threat and destruction.
How often that setup will happen is anyone’s guess.
Normally, this is where I summarize how all the other top teams are expected to do and give you where I expect each team to finish. However, that’s James’s job now, so I will leave that to him. For me, the underlying numbers from last season, combined with transfers so far indicate the title could be a true 4-team race between last season’s CL finishers.
I have not been optimistic about Arsenal in a long, long time. The following lines should be viewed in that light.
I absolutely expect Arsenal to make the Champions League this season.
With a little luck and some Shad Forsythe magic, I think we could see Wenger hoist his first league title since 2003-04.
Predicted finish for Arsenal: 2nd
Bonus Section – Q&A with Knutson
Who the hell are you?
Wait. That’s not right. The byline says Ted Knutson. We’ll go with that.
For those who are recent fans of StatsBomb (recent here meaning in the last year), I co-founded the site and I still pay all the bills. Oh, and I am the designer of those silly radar charts you still see from time to time.
Why don’t you write here any more?
Because a year ago I got a spiffy job working in football. While I technically could continue writing about leagues our teams are not involved in, I decided it would be very difficult not to let my current work seep into what I write about.
Oh, and we had another kid, so any and all free time went right out the window anyway.
What do you actually do?
That one is complicated. Since the restructuring in February, I’ve mostly been focused on player recruitment, as well as building statistical visualizations and metrics to help our teams better understand football. Prior to that was less work in recruitment and more stuff I can’t talk about.
The quick answer that most people seem to understand is that I pretty much get to play Football Manager with real life.
How did you get that job?
People read my work on this here site here. They apparently liked it. We had lunch. They did not hate me. Then we had dinner. Despite spending hours of time with me, Matthew Benham hired me anyway.
That was a year ago this week.
Do you have previous experience in football?
Nope. Just my work here on the site. My prior job experience was working for most of a decade at Pinnaclesports.com, where I did all sorts of stuff including acting as lead trader for the English Premier League.
How do I get a job like yours?
Like, a metric fuckton amount. (Check my StatsBomb archives for proof.)
Constantly ask and examine new questions about football and data. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes, and don't let perfection be the enemy of progress. Also listen to criticism about your work and improve it.
Understand that visualizations are really, really important to help your work be interesting to a broader audience, but also to help it be understood by everyone. To help with this, read the important books by Tufte, Few, and Alberto Cairo at least.
That’s pretty much all I know how to do to get you noticed: think hard, work hard, write in public, and be positive and social interacting with people about your work.
THEN, once you have a job, work harder.
There are probably quite a number of you who would love to have a job just like mine, right? And yet I would like to keep my job! Some of you are probably smarter than I am. Many of you probably know more about stats, or programming, or possibly football.
I can’t control any of that.
The only thing I can control is how hard I work to try and make everything successful.
Be smarter. Work harder.
Tragically boring career advice from someone on the inside.
Do you really have such a big influence on transfer business?
This came out of a quote on a Brentford forum, which in turn was an interpretation made from Michiel de Hoog’s piece on the new Brentford head coach Marinus Dijkhuizen.
“If the enlightening Dutch article about Marinus (forget the magazine but Beesotted widely re tweeted it) is anything to go by, Ted Knutson has a very (and possibly overly) significant input on in-comings' and outgoings. MD even quoted alluding to such. “
So do I have overly significant input on transfer stuff? The short answer is: no.
The long answer is: tons of people are involved and give feedback in the recruitment process. All of the input is taken, analysed, and then choices are made. My work is part of that. However, I am usually sitting at my desk and able to give quick answers, which is useful for busy head coaches and narrative devices.
Why don’t you talk to the media? Or speak at conferences? Or use your Twitter account more than like twice a month?
Because talking about what you actually do for work to try and give football teams an edge is a Bad Idea ™.
Think of it this way – Billy Beane has been the General Manager of the Oakland A’s since 1998. That’s SEVENTEEN YEARS. If he found an edge early and never talked about it, it could potentially be valid the entire time.
How long do I want to work in football? I don’t know, but seventeen years sounds like a good start.
Maybe I’ll be on a panel at a conference next year. Or the year after. Or in a generation.
What kind of stats do you use to scout players?
The usual ones. Some unusual ones as well. And an awful lot of actually watching players play football.
But hey, yeah, carry on with this assumption that the stats guys hate football and never watch games.
Is Brentford going to be good this season?
Man, I fucking hope so.
I love the guys I work with, I love the job, and Matthew, Phil, and Rasmus are three of the best people I could imagine working for. I’d certainly like us to succeed so that all this hard work pays off and I can hopefully stick around for a while.
That said, it’s football. There are no guarantees.
I was lucky enough to get to hold the trophy in Midtjylland this June. Our Danish team has an amazing culture and is filled with good people and players. I’d like to have that chance many more times in my career, which means helping both clubs succeed as often as possible.
Are Brentford going to sign any more players?
Now that would be telling…
What about Midtjylland?
In your opinion what’s the best transfer signing in the Premier League this season?
That one is easy. So easy, in fact, that I wrote about it last summer before I got hired. I like to work ahead.
Finally… Why was Konstantin Kerschbaumer’s scouting nickname “Chris Palmer”?
I mentioned this on Twitter about a month ago. Philipp Hofmann’s scouting nickname was Sturm Tank (which - AHEM BRENTFORD FANS - is far superior to The Hoff, but has thus far failed to catch on). I also mentioned KK’s scouting nickname, but it needed more than 140 characters to explain.
Back when we were reviewing Kerschbaumer, I asked Ricardo Larrandart, Master of Agents to get the agent information on Kerschbaumer, so that we could add it to the dossier.
The next morning, I sat down at my desk and Ricky told me that he got what I needed for “Palmer.”
“Chris Palmer. The guy you told me to get information for.”
*I think really hard. Nothing.*
“Chris. Palmer. You told me to get his agent info last night before you left.”
*light goes on for me*
“I asked for Kersch. Baumer. First name Konstantin.”
“Then who is Chris Palmer?”
“… I do have to say, I am impressed at your ability to get agent info for guys I assume might be fictional players.”