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June 7, 2016

Breaking Down Vardy to Arsenal and the Alternatives

By Ted Knutson

The Jamie Vardy news came as a surprise. You knew there would be rumors of a move this summer, but normally sensible Arsenal? Really?!? That’s an unexpected source, but the details of a £20-30M bid and potential buyout clause were confirmed by a number of reliable sources over the weekend.

Today I wanted to investigate what Arsenal might see in the 29-year-old striker, currently of the English National Team, but playing non-league football as few as five years ago. On the surface, Arsenal are thinking of buying an aging striker who is at max possible value, which is anything but standard operating procedure.

Note: I am going to ignore the cultural issues here, but you are welcome to your own opinion. If I were doing this professionally, they would certainly factor into my evaluation and recommendation.

The Context
Before we get to the meaty analysis bit, we need to examine the current context of the Arsenal squad, since it’s going to give us some pointers on what the thinking might be behind the scenes.

  • Welbeck is injured and his career as an elite forward could be over before it truly got started.
  • Because of this, and also because Walcott had a sub-par post-ACL season, Arsenal’s attack lacked pace both centrally and wide. This was a problem and the attack suffered because of it.
  • Arsenal probably needed another center forward this summer anyway. Giroud turns 30 in September, Yaya Sanogo is a bust, and Chupa Akpom is nowhere near good enough for Arsenal’s first team right now.

Add in uncertainty about Walcott in a central role and Arsenal are definitely buying a center forward now. It’s not optional like it was last year – it’s a mandatory purchase in order to be able to compete next season.

Vardy 15-16
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Obviously this is good. Good enough to help Leicester City’s cinderella squad win the Premier League. Vardy’s shot map might just be the best in the Premier League this past year, and the number of throughballs in the box is ridiculous. Esteemed Managing Editor James Yorke offered up the following alternative as his visualization of Vardy’s shot map

pyramids_vardy

17 shots off throughballs, 16 after completed dribbles – Vardy was getting a huge chance more than once a game. This by itself would be enough to bring scrutiny by a club in need of an elite striker, even with the age and personality concerns. Vardy’s expected goals per shot were exceptional, and he posted similar numbers in that respect in 14-15, though he played more of a hybrid role that season.

However, there’s another element of Vardy’s game that is massive for Arsenal.

Vardy creates goals for teammates.

If you can’t set up teammates for shots, you can’t play center forward for Arsenal under Arsene Wenger. Only an average passer across the rest of the pitch, Vardy keeps his head up in the box and as a result he has produced assists consistently for teammates at the Premier League level (.23 per90 in 14-15, .13 in 15-16).

A final factor that deserves note: Vardy drew 7 penalties this season, which was more than 18 of the 20 Premier League teams. Convert those into assists at a .78 rate, and his scoring contribution numbers look even better. He likely won’t generate as many penalties in the future, but it’s a valuable skill and one that is shared by another center forward whose release clause Arsenal tried to activate a couple of summers ago.

It also further highlights how miserable Vardy and Mahrez were to deal with in and around the penalty box.

 

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But It’s Just One Good Season
Well actually… *puts on his statsplaining cap*

It’s just one elite season. (Though I agree with the general point here.)

This season Vardy was 21st in expected scoring contribution (expected goals + expected assists) across Europe, and the six players around him were: Marco Reus, Alexis Sanchez, Aguero, , Mkhitaryan, Cavani, Ozil.

That’s undeniably good. However, last season was still decent. In a bad team playing a couple of different positions, Vardy’s expected scoring contribution was still .48. A selection of the cohort around him yields Immobile, Mario Gomez, Keita Balde, , Haris Seferovic, Danny Ings and Jesus Navas. We are still camping in the realm of mostly good players.

Oh, and amusingly, Riyad Mahrez was right there at .46.

But He Doesn’t Fit the Style!
Funny thing about that – almost no one does. There are very few elite possession teams in Europe these days, and even fewer that play anything like Arsenal. Fitting the style is always going to be an issue.

One thing that Vardy does do is fit the league, which is always at least a minor concern when bringing players from abroad. He’s been pretty healthy too, though obviously he will end up horribly broken the moment he signs an Arsenal contract.

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Please, please please, tell me there are other options beyond Jamie Vardy!

Well, there are… they are just a lot more expensive. The reason Arsenal have likely landed at Jamie Vardy is a basic disconnect between price and value. Vardy at £25M is mispriced in the current HOLY SHIT EVERYONE IN THE PREMIER LEAGUE HAS CRAZY MONEY market. Remember, Arsenal are definitely buying a forward, and everyone knows that, so teams will try to extract max value because of it.

There’s an argument that if Wenger were truly thinking ahead, he probably would have addressed this issue a number of times over the previous 3 summers, taking small gambles on 20-22 year old players with big potential and hoping that one of them would grow into his center forward of the future. He kind of did that with Welbeck, but injuries wrecked the plan. Three summers ago he could have bought Aubameyang for 13m. Two summers ago it was Morata and Michy as standouts. Last year it might have been Santi Mina, Vietto, Borja Baston, or Sebastien Haller.

Arsenal have a good recruitment department and resources that dwarf almost every other football club out there. At some point you’d think they’d let them gamble a little on the future, especially when Wenger has been destroyed by poor market reads again and again (FFP never really mattered, and the EPL TV deals meant that money spent in 2013 and 2014 was way more valuable than current dollars).

ANYWAY, we are where we are, and unless he’s going to Looper into his past to fix things, Big Weng has to deal with the now, which means buying a forward.

Assume Vardy turns Arsenal down for whatever reason – where do you go next?

The obvious one that Arsenal were allegedly in contact about (both now and in 2014) is Alvaro Morata. The problem there is that Arsenal find themselves competing not only with Real Madrid for the player, but also with PSG and potentially Chelsea. It’s great to identify the player and all, but you still have to convince him to come play for you. Arsenal are rich, but they have never paid as much in wages as any of those clubs.

Aubameyang? Great, but probably not available and if he is, it’s for £60M+.

Higuain? He’s awesome, but same age issues as Vardy for twice the price.

Ibrahimovic? This would have been a fascinating move, but he’d take Arsenal’s wage structure and break it in half.

Lacazette? This would make sense and Lyon might be willing to sell at this point. There are questions about how well he would fit into Arsenal’s style, but he has pace and his expected scoring contribution was right there with Giroud this season. He also just turned 25, so the age doesn’t make me wince.

As you go further and further down the list, it gets harder to get excited.

Lukaku? 60m and style concerns.

Harry Kane?

Hahahahaha…

No.

If Arsenal strike out on the top targets, I wouldn’t be completely surprised to see them try to convert a wide man like Julian Draxler, or to take a punt on a mostly unknown from France (speaking of… they should have bought Ousmane Dembele to play wide, but whatever).

Anyway, it’s a complicated problem and one that is compounded by past mistakes. However, these facts should guide future decision making.

  • Elite center forwards are rare and a luxury good, meaning prices will always be absurd.
  • Unless the well of football money dries up in a black swan event (and the new PL deal technically hasn’t even started), elite CFs are unlikely to get cheaper in the near or medium terms.
  • Unlike Chelsea, Arsenal do not have a pipeline of good CF candidates coming through the academy, so they can’t rely on that method for the future either.

Am I delighted by the thought of Jamie Vardy up front for Arsenal? Not really, but I can see the logic and he certainly fits a need. Basically, he’s the most cost-effective option on the market, and he leaves Arsenal a lot of flexibility for additional moves this summer.

My bigger concern is how Arsenal are going to source that future CF. The academy isn’t producing them and Arsenal aren’t dabbling nearly enough in potential future superstars in the transfer market to overcome the issue.

A Quick Note About Romelu Lukaku
I read someone say Lukaku was overrated the other day, and people are “misguided about his goalscoring figures.” Needless to say, I disagree with this.

xGxA in the Premier League
2012 (West Brom loan): .84
2013 (Everton loan): .53
2014 (Everton): .47
2015 (Everton): .65

He just turned 23, can be physically unplayable, and has spent the last 3 seasons playing for an Everton team that is tactically dysfunctional.

Rom’s production last season was basically the same as Olivier Giroud, Daniel Sturridge, and Harry Kane while playing for a much worse team. (Talk about your mixed bag of over and under-rated Premier League forwards!)

Verdict: Lukaku is very good and he’s just entering his prime. The only question is whether moving to a better team will continue his development, or whether last year is the best we’ll get.

Article by Ted Knutson