The 2013 summer transfer deadline day certainly lived up to its Sky Sports billing, as Arsenal sent tongues wagging and eyebrows rising, with the capture of a genuine top class talent in Germany’s Mesut Özil. It was not just the quality of the acquisition that caught the attention of the world’s media but the price tag, with Wenger finally succumbing to supporters wishes by spending a whopping €50 million (or £42.5 million) to secure the services of the talented playmaker. Whilst this is certainly a massive boost for Arsenal, and a considerable step up in quality compared to recent purchases and current members of the squad, there are still murmurs of discontent amongst the fan-base and media. This is due to that fact that it would appear that Arsenal have strengthened their strongest area, they have an abundance of riches in the advanced playmaker role, whilst overlooking other key areas. Wenger did add competition to the Goalkeeping area, with Szczesny’s position in the side looking increasingly fragile, in the form of Fiorentina loanee Emiliano Viviano. Nonetheless, the purchase of Özil may conceal a significant squad depth issue, in both the defensive and offensive thirds of the pitch.
Arsenal Defensive Third: Quality over Quantity?
Last season, Arsenal had the second best defense in the league conceding just 37 goals; this was only bettered by Manchester City. This may surprise some people, as Arsenal were often considered to have a perceived weakness at the back. This may be due to the fact that Arsenal conceded 14 goals directly from defensive mistakes. This accounts for 38% of the goals conceded across the whole season, a figure that could have also been worsened had the opposition not spurned 11 further goal-scoring opportunities from direct mistakes from Arsenal players. If you put this in context and compare against direct rivals Tottenham, you will find that defensive errors only accounted for 18% of the total number of goals they conceded. What suggests that whilst Arsenal have he defensive structures in place to work as a high quality unit, they are often let down by individual errors. Whether this is due to the individuals involved or the style of play that Wenger insists upon is yet to be answered.
The main worry for Arsenal fans will not be the quality of their centre back pairings but rather the quantity of players available if injuries or suspensions strike. The number of senior centre backs that Wenger has at his disposal entering the 2013/14 season is just three: Thomas Vermaelen, Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny.
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As can be seen above, each of the three players brings their own attributes to the defence. Koscielny appears to be the best outright defender with a tackle success rate of 83%, from 42 tackles, and a ground duel win percentage of 74%. Mertesacker, on the other hand, appears to bring a more assured presence with only a singular defensive error all season and a high pass completion rate of 91%. Vermaelen, though, seemed to be bombed out of the team by the Arsenal management following a series of underwhelming performances and a series of high profiles mistakes.
The issue for Wenger is that Koscielny has had issues with injuries and suspensions in previous seasons, which led to him missing 13 Premier League games last year. If he suffers from similar troubles this season, then that leaves Wenger with only one possible back up solution, which is an out of form Thomas Vermaelen. Vermaelen himself is prone to injuries, he has had 8 stints on the sidelines since he joined the club – and is set to be out until the 20th of September this season. He is also woefully out of form following a disappointing 2012/13 season, that saw him dropped to the bench despite been club captain. This could leave Wenger in the unenviable position, albeit one he has created for himself, of having to field an out of form player, and someone that is lacking match fitness, if and when an injury crisis to the main centre back pairing arises. The best possible scenario is for all his defenders to stay fit, which is very unlikely to happen, and for Vermaelen to recapture his form that lead him to become the club’s captain and be named in the PFA team of the year for 2009/2010. Otherwise, they will simply have to either outscore their opponents or risk playing Sagna in a more central role.
Creativity Galore but Who Will Finish For Arsenal?
Last season, Arsenal were one of the most effective teams in the league at creating clear cut opportunities to score, especially when compared to their closest rivals for all the important top four spot: Chelsea and Tottenham.
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However, despite creating 18 more scoring opportunities and 14 more clear cut chances, Arsenal failed to match Chelsea’s scoring record of 75 goals in the 2012/13 season. Also despite creating 20 more clear-cut chances than Tottenham, Arsenal only managed to score 6 more goals during the season. Tottenham did, however, have a higher number (54) of regular scoring chances, which could attribute to their closer goal haul. This implies that Arsenal have the quality to create clear-cut chances, an aspect of their game, which will be greatly enhanced with the acquisition of Özil, but do not have the firepower to convert those chances into a significant goal return, or a quality individual to score the impossible goals ala Bale last year. The problem surrounding Arsenal’s goal return in the upcoming season is further hampered by their dealings in the transfer market; by not securing either a replacement/competition/back up for Giroud, depending on your view on the French Striker. As it stands, the players that Arsenal currently have at their disposal to fulfill the lone striker role are: Giroud, Podolski, Walcott, Bendtner and Sanogo.
Whilst at first glance it may appear that Arsenal have a number of options, once you actually examine each individual closely then the problems come to the surface. Out of the five players available, it is unlikely that Wenger will want to call upon Bendtner or Sanogo any time soon, but for two separate reasons. Bendtner appears to be a player that Arsenal have attempted to move on many times but his unrealistic demands, both in terms of wages and the buying clubs’ reputation, has meant that they have been unable to find a willing recipient for his services. Sanogo is a different proposition as he was brought in this summer from French club Auxerre on a free transfer. The highly rated young Frenchman caught Wenger’s eye during the U19 World Cup, but is just coming back from a series of injuries, including a broken leg, and has been brought in as star of the future who could do with a couple of years of fine tuning in the Elite Development Squad or out on loan. This leaves Arsenal with three options for that central striker berth in Giroud, Podolski and Walcott.
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Out of the three options, it would appear that Podolski would be the most effective option for Wenger to employ, followed by Walcott and then Giroud. Again, on the surface this would appear simple enough, yet, Podolski and Walcott often fulfil the roles of the LW and RW in the 4-3-3 formation favoured by Wenger. This leaves Giroud as the only recognised striker, something that may worry Arsenal fans considering his form over last season. Giroud only converted 17% of his clear-cut chances, missing a total of 17, and despite having 107 shots on goal, only managed to convert 13% of them. It should be noted that Giroud has started this season in fine form converting his two clear cut chances to date and increasing his overall chance conversion rate to 33%. Whilst the transfer of Özil means that Carzola will more than likely to be included on the left wing, leaving Giroud and Podolski to fight out for the number 9 spot, this further decreases the goalscoring potency of the side, in favour of more creative flair. Whilst Giroud is not a individual who suffers with injuries on a regular basis, unlike Podolski who as it stands is set to be out till the beginning of November at the earliest due to a hamstring injury, any injury or suspension could seriously jeopardise the chance of good start to the season, and with top four rivals Liverpool starting strongly and Tottenham getting stronger and stronger with each passing week as their new squad gels, this is imperative for Arsenal, who on top of all that, have cut qualifying for the top 4 quite close on plenty of occasions in the past couple of years.
The capture of Özil will bring much joy to Arsenal and Premier League fans, but Arsene Wenger’s transfer market dealings have put the clubs top four aspirations in jeopardy like never before. Their defence is made up of three high quality individuals, but if injuries were to strike they will be enforced to employ sticking plasters over the gaping holes that these players will leave, such as playing Sagna or Monreal at centre back or calling up a youngster. Again, questions need to be asked of whether it was sensible to let Miguel leave on loan to Leicester or Djourou leave to Germany with no defensive reinforcements being brought in their place. Not only does this potentially affect their league season, but also their progress in the League and FA cup, because if their top four ambitions are under threat, will Arsene want to risk his key centre back pairing in the cups?
The same issue applies when considering Arsenals attacking options. As it stands, Arsene’s only fit and available striking options are either Giroud or Walcott, and if you employ Walcott as the central striker there is no experienced cover to play the right wing role, unless they move Özil across which would affect his influence on the game and be a waste of his considerable talents. What this leaves Arsenal with, is a Frenchman who has yet to really find his feet in the Premiership (even though this season does look promising) as their main goal source. If he were to be injured, their only option is to rely on either a player who is not rated by the club (or many other clubs), and a young inexperienced striker with a troubling injury history as well.
While Wenger has certainly strengthened the first team, he has failed to improve his squad; by shifting a lot of dead woo,d he has actually weakened it by not finding the adequate replacements. This means that something is bound to give this season whether it be a failed Champions League campaign, being unable to finish in the top four or being condemned to another season without silverware, the pressure will certainly be on Wenger and the Arsenal board to recruit heavily in the January window. The real worry for Arsenal fans will be the health and fitness of Özil, as an injury to him could lead to serious trouble…