Arsenal FC – what a ride it has been for this football club this season.
Last season was one that promised so much and delivered so little. Arsenal were knocked out of Champions League and the FA Cup within a week, and losing in spectacular fashion to Birmingham in the Carling Cup final ended their hopes of doing the “quadruple”. To top it all, they had a disastrous summer where, instead of strengthening the team, they lost captain Cesc Fabregas and star player Samir Nasri to Barcelona and Manchester City respectively.
The fans were screaming for replacements, but were left insulted by the famous 8-2 loss at Old Trafford, and disappointed by the panic buying that saw Mikel Arteta, Andre Santos, Yossi Benayoun, Per Mertesacker and Ju Young Park join on deadline day. These weren’t the stars that they expected to replace their heroes (although by this point, Nasri’s status as one was in some doubt, to say the least). With Jack Wilshere out until at least March 2012, Arsenal’s central midfield had taken a big hit. If losing Fabregas, arguably one of the best midfielders in the world, wasn’t enough, they had to cope with the supremely talented Jack Wilshere being out for much of the season.
Since then, things have taken a turn for the good. The new look team took some time to gel, but after riding on their captain’s amazing run of form for a while, they have found their feet. A run of seven unbeaten games in the league (with only one draw), has seen them gradually climb up the table, where they currently sit in fifth place.
It should be interesting, then, to analyze how exactly the central midfield has changed this season – Cesc and Jack have been replaced Ramsey and Arteta. Arsenal now play a very fluid 4-3-3, where Alex Song makes occasional forays forward, while Mikel Arteta covers for him. This is only slightly different from the 4-2-3-1 Arsenal played last season, with Wilshere and Song taking turns attacking in a double pivot, with Fabregas playing in the central attacking midfielder (CAM) role. Ramsey’s role is somewhat similar, although his positioning is a little further back than his former captain’s. Also, his late runs into the box, the eye of the needle passes, and occasional driving runs are reminiscent of a young Cesc.
So how does this midfield fare when compared to last year, where Arsenal were a lot more about indirect, and arguably more naturally talented, and did not rely on their wingers as much as they do this season (which, by the way, is a direct consequence of this change in midfield)?
Let’s start by comparing Arteta to Wilshere.
First up – defensive ability. Both these players have extremely similar figures when you take into account that we are currently done with only around 40% of the season. There is one thing, however, that glares at you, and that is the tackle success percent, which is so essential while defending for obvious reasons. Arteta’s tackle success percent (92%) is a whole 20% better than Wilshere’s (72%). That is where experience comes in. Arteta is 29; Wilshere was 18 at this point last season. Arteta is much more accomplished at defending and knows when to go into tackles, while Wilshere still needs to learn. In this way, Arteta adds balance and composure to the central midfield, while still maintaining, for the most part, Arsenal’s much lauded creativity (as we will see).
The statistics for attacking are very similar too, but it is Wilshere who comes out on top for me. Why? Because of his superior dribbling ability. Wilshere is amazing on the ball. He has the ability to beat defenders almost effortlessly, and his runs frequently remind me of one Andres Iniesta. In fact, he averages 1.74 successful dribbles per game, compared to the modest 0.73 a game by Arteta. By comparison, Walcott averaged 1.18 successful dribbles per game last season, and was played as winger, where you must beat a man more often. Gervinho averages 1.84 a game this season, and is cited as a guy who loves taking on players. Wilshere’s dribbling ability is what gives him that x-factor, and that is what makes him unpredictable too – defenders don’t know whether he will pass to another player, or dribble past them. Arteta can’t do that as effectively, but his contribution goal-wise is better, having scored 3 goals already this season.
Their numbers are very close though, and Arteta makes up in defense what he loses in attack. One can also argue that Arteta took a couple of games to fit in and thus his statistics don’t do him full justice, but Wilshere was effectively new to the team last season, so those effects cancel out! So, although not a “star” player, Arteta has been an almost like for like replacement, and has assured fans (through statistics, no less!) that he is a brilliant player. Most amazingly, however, has been how he has settled into his role. The transition has been seamless, and credit to the man himself, and of course Arsene Wenger, the guy who brought him to the Arsenal in the first place!
Comparing Arteta and Wilshere is good enough, but both their roles and performances depended a lot on one man, who has to be taken into account. That man is Alex Song. So how does the Alex Song of this season compare to the Alex Song of last season?
Defensively, there is almost nothing that separates the Alex Song from this year to last. This season, though, has seen him keep possession much better (88 minutes per loss of possession, as compared to 63 last season), but that isn’t a great surprise considering his deeper role this season.
How impressive are his figures in attack? Particularly, number of assists. He has assisted an incredible 4 goals this season (incredible because he is a defensive midfielder), and has already doubled his tally from last season. Why this change, one might ask? Well there can be two explanations, and both are valid to some degree. First, he has improved himself. He is more experienced, and knows when to run forward, while last season this role was new to him and he was still learning. He is only 24 years of age, and so him improving is a natural process and should come as no surprise. The second reason might lie with the presence of that man again, Mikel Arteta. As we have seen, he is a little more solid than Wilshere defensively, and that gives Song a little more confidence while making that “killer” pass. He knows that if he is tackled or the ball is intercepted, Arteta will be there to cover.
All in all, this makes him a more dangerous player than he was last season, and a more able midfielder. Also, his assisting will help cover up what the Gunners lost with Fabregas’ departure. So in that particular position, Arsenal have actually got themselves a slight “upgrade”!
So far, so good. But what about further up? Aaron Ramsey improves with every game, it seems, but has he really filled the big boots of Cesc Fabregas so far this season? Here are the statistics:
The answer to the earlier question, in a word, is no. This isn’t to be harsh on Ramsey or say that we need someone better. In fact, Ramsey is a great player already, has immense potential, and improves with every game. Also, he is very mature for his age, and works his socks off for the team. His pass completion rate (86.5%), is better than that of Fabregas (78.5%) too!
That, however, can be explained by another statistic further down in the table – OPP (Open Play Passes) Forward percent. While Ramsey played 44% of his passes down the field, Cesc made 60%. This makes perfect sense since Cesc played in a much more defined role and further up the pitch, almost as a support striker to van Persie at times. He was the chief playmaker in the team and everything went through him. But other statistics favor Fabregas too – he was in forward crossing positions a lot more (explained by the number of crosses he put in), and created a chance every 26 minutes (Iniesta created a chance every 29 minutes last season, for comparison), while Ramsey thus far creates a chance only once every 45 minutes.
If that was not enough, Cesc had 25 shots out of 50 on target (50%), while Ramsey has just 5 out of 19 (about 25%) on target. And this in spite of the fact that Fabregas was in and out of the team through the season, and barely had a single sustained run. Clearly, Arsenal have missed him this season, and whoever thought that they wouldn’t? He was the center-piece of Arsene Wenger’s project, and a supremely gifted footballer. Ramsey is almost as gifted, some would say more so, but he is barely 21. Give him time to develop, and he will produce the goods. However, arguing with cold, hard statistics, Ramsey is at the moment not as good as Fabregas, and to be honest, nobody expected him to be as good immediately, especially when he was coming back from that horrible leg break following a Ryan Shawcross tackle in February 2010.
Arsene Wenger, however, seemed to foresee this problem, and Arsenal have clearly altered their tactic. There is no chief creator in central midfield. Ramsey does not play as further forward as Cesc did (this also is a factor that explains Ramsey’s inferior numbers in attack, but doesn’t, by any chance, account fully for the difference). Instead, the wingers, Theo Walcott and Gervinho, are relied upon to add creativity and pace to the attack. Van Persie’s form, positional sense and ability to adjust to the new system has only helped this transition from a team that plays through the center, to a team that is more direct down the wings.
Arsenal are a different team that they were from last season, and it is incredible how one man – Cesc Fabregas – has effected this change. The midfield has become more fluid, and the focus has been shifted to the wings – a smart move, all things considered. I doubt Arsenal would have survived with last season’s more defined 4-2-3-1. They took a little while to adjust, but are now back, looking less of a pass-pass-pass team and more of a zippy, fast paced one.
The technical quality of Fabregas and Wilshere has been replaced by Arteta’s experience and a change in the way they play their football, and the numbers reflect that. I would go on and analyse Gervinho’s and Walcott’s influence too, but I fear that with every extra word, I am losing readers!
A final point, though – statistics cannot explain everything by themselves. There is the unpredictable – like whether a team will bond or not, or how quickly new players will settle in, or how the team fights adversity. That is what makes football so interesting. However, statistics do go a long way in our attempt to answer those very questions! For example, Mikel Arteta looks like he’s been in that midfield all his life, and the numbers are there to prove that! He has been quick in making Arsenal his home.
How this side progresses will be very interesting to watch. If one looks at the team as a whole, there is not much difference in their performances from last season. The way they play has changed, but numbers wise they are similar – at this point last season they had the same number of points, scored 2 goals fewer, but conceded 8 goals fewer (I am looking at you, 8-2).
There seems to be only one way if they continue to grow and progress naturally – Forward!
All of the stats in this article are from the EPLIndex Stats Centre. You can subscribe now for access to the stats and for a chance for your article to be published here like mine!