Arsenal 2016-17 Season Preview: Wenger's Gamble?
Tottenham’s mentally drained and empty defeat at Newcastle not only meant Arsenal finished above them but also broke a long run for the Gunners as they vaulted into second place for the first time since 2004-05. That made little difference in the prize stakes and the way the season panned out, they won’t have been the only team to rue a title chance missed. It meant we had the usual tired chorus of “Wenger Out” from the kneejerkers, when in fact looking a little closer at the process showed the team in a more positive light. Were Arsenal the best team in 2015-16? They were comfortably among the top four once more and stylistic refinement towards the maximisation of shooting locations at both ends of the pitch heavily implied that they eventually underachieved. Could that remedy itself this season?
Squad and Transfers
Arsene Wenger showed his hand early with the signing of Granit Xhaka and the attempt to bring in Jamie Vardy. In doing so he solved a simple problem--giving Flamini over 1000 league minutes last year was criminal-- but failed to solve another, a striker upgrade. Now the summer has moved on and a new problem has presented itself with the injury to Per Mertesacker, which means the general consensus is that both a striker and a centre back are desirable. Wenger has been typically enigmatic regarding signing either with a slight nod towards the necessity to strengthen defence; Mertesacker might be entering his dotage, but his organisation skills will be missed while Gabriel now joins him in the injury room and Calum Chambers remains not quite there.
Moving forward, as ever there’s a ton of good. Perennially underrated, Mesut Ozil had one of the great Premier League creative seasons last year with 146 key passes for 19 assists landing just shy of Thierry Henry’s league record of 20. There was some ill-informed analysis about late last season that did a quick bit of maths and decided that finding only 13% of his key passes turning into assists should somehow be held against him, and typically anti-Ozil narratives seem to take hold far too easily. Of course they miss the point, Ozil is a special player, should be regarded as such and creating chances at a better rate than anyone in the league? That’s a really good thing. Here's a chart of all the non-corner derived shots he created, the locations are excellent and even if his teammates struggled to finish the chances, the 19 overall assists is still a phenomenal return:
red = goals
Alexis Sanchez, who has played football in every summer since forever, unsurprisingly looked a little jaded at times, but found a little more form when finally moved out to a right sided role. His overall expected goal output (goals and assists) lead the team at around 0.8 per 90, even if his actual output lagged somewhat at 0.57. Santi Cazorla grabbed the role of “most missed player” when injured as he and Francis Coquelin had combined effectively to do the job of one all round midfielder through the early months of the season. The signings of Mohamed Elneny and now Xhaka at least offer genuine options in those central roles, maybe freeing Aaron Ramsey to move forward again.
Elsewhere Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlade Chamberlain appear to be in the last chance saloon having made fitful contributions in recent seasons while Danny Welbeck and Jack Wilshere once more start the year injured. And that's the recurring problem: with any kind of squad fitness, Arsenal could have fought for the title far more frequently that they have in recent years.
What of Olivier Giroud? As a focal point for a team full of talented ball players, he’s surely an ideal fit. Good in the air and reliable positionally, he can continue as first choice. It just seems that a succession beyond Giroud has not been planned. As we see here, Arsenal regularly find Giroud in good positions and he gets his share of goals:
Talk of replacing him recurs every year, but when you pick apart his contribution, it's actually quite difficult to see how Arsenal could improve on him without landing right at the top of the market, something that post-Suarez and now Vardy, they have failed to do. One option that seems not to have been explored in recent years is something other larger clubs have repeatedly tried: to stockpile young talented players, with a view to hoping they break out. Manchester City appear to have based their entire summer on this philosophy and the two German giants, Bayern and Dortmund have recently shown great skill in recruiting elite young players. Wenger, again seems reticent to compete in this market, at least to the level he may have in the past.
Would Wenger in his earlier years have persisted for so long with Flamini, Mikael Arteta or Tomas Rosicky? Or even Oxlade-Chamberlain, Jack Wilshere and Theo Walcott? These are tricky questions to answer when often the solutions are new players, and at least to some degree, Wenger seems to value continuity and loyalty. Overall, when fit, the first team is very strong and there is some degree of depth, primarily in midfield.
Arsenal’s team metrics have taken an interesting journey since the “star signing” era that was ushered in by the purchase of Ozil. Arsenal's general shot volumes were by their own standards low in 2013-14 and came forward for 2014-15 before a slight drop off in 2015-16. All these are enough to rate among the better teams in the league but in no way dominant. Expected goal analysis reveals a slightly different story: over these three seasons, Arsenal have progressively created chances from closer locations and their rate has increased year on year with 2015-16 being a starkly better season.
Arsenal’s average shot distance for 2015-16 was a shade over 16 metres and that is the shortest Premier League average recorded in the period from 2010-11 onwards; that's right, first of 120 teams. (Though it is perfectly feasible that they will drop back somewhat here, it is still a positive trend). The centrality of their shots ranked third for 2015/16, so Arsenal created shots from close in and central. Ideal really. So why didn’t they do better last year? The primary reason seemed to be a finishing slump that affected the majority of the team. That it was so widespread does provoke the question as to why, and that's tough to answer beyond the obvious dodge to cite variance. That could still hold as true as the overall team rate was notable but not as woeful as say Liverpool's 2011-12 or 2012-13 seasons. Olivier Giroud was the only attacking player that exceeded his expected rate, and even then he suffered a huge drought in scoring in going 15 league games without a goal from January onwards. There's a mild worry that their shot volumes did not approach truly elite levels and that may have been a side effect of the focus on location, but no matter: the team created more defined big chances than any other team in the league.
Defence is good too. There’s a school of thought that Arsenal are weak at conceding shots from range, and it’s another faulty analysis that misses something crucial. In 2015-16, Arsenal limited their opponents to the longest shots in the league (over 19.5 metres on average). They were very good at fending off teams and this has fed into an above average save percentage that has now run across four seasons. That they may have conceded the odd goal from range or a high percentage of shots from such locations is actually more of a reflection of sound practice than a fundamental flaw. In 2015-16 Arsenal effectively repelled the opposition from shooting from close in. Again this is a hugely positive trend and is backed up by the fact that the team also conceded fewer big chances than any other team in the league.
Same old, same old?
The fan base will never be content until they see a genuine title challenge. While the league appears to be trickier to navigate than ever before, the underlying metrics that point out Arsenal’s strengths suggest that even in a competitive league, they could well be progressing towards once more competing for the title. If the strategy to focus on a higher grade of chance and limit the opposition continues at a similar level to last season, it is entirely reasonable to expect them to bounce forward and get right into the mix. Though their general form slowed for a period after Christmas to some degree it coincided with a run of injuries, the malaise which they seem doomed to endure year in year out.
And fixing that is something that is well overdue. We know Arsenal have a shrewd team of people looking at issues from a data led perspective in StatDNA, so it’s not as if the club is loath to invest in smart practices in order to look for edges. Why the continued retention of both injury prone players and seemingly little progress in developing practices to reduce injury rates?
This gradual change in style over recent seasons may become frustrating when the results fail to create a solid title challenge. Ideas about maximising shot locations might seem a folly, but it's possible that this subtle shift in focus in recent years is an attempt to bridge the gap. It is twenty seasons since Arsenal finished outside the top four and at least through this century they haven't projected to finish outside those positions once, and that's the longest run in the league and a huge credit. They haven't had to transition like Manchester United, they haven't been forced to repeatedly rehire like Chelsea. It is only the glory of the early Wenger years that cast a shadow on his subsequent exploits and the stability he has brought the club should be well appreciated. Indeed it is hard to envisage them outside the four, even in a more competitive league.
The main way to build upon 2015-16 would be to max out the squad and offer genuine options in a variety of positions. The responsibility that Ozil carries is huge, and a similar type of player as an alternative could bring great dividends. Too many times during December and January Arsenal fielded a solid first eleven but when looking to the bench for game changers found kids, aging defensive midfielders or centre backs. More striker options or young talent could bear great fruit. None of this would undermine the enviable stability the squad possesses but with three senior players and Wenger lieutenants in Rosicky, Flamini and Arteta all gone, the squad's dynamic will have changed. It is the perfect time to add sufficient depth and 2016-17 could be that much more. But it's a familiar refrain, to be close but frustratingly held to Wenger's stoicism. He has three weeks to commit to only slight change and two transfers might do it.
Whether he does so could well define Arsenal's season once more.
If you enjoyed check out our other season previews here