Let’s just put this out there to start: last season I identified Luis Suarez as one of the most active and simultaneously wasteful forwards in the top 5 European Leagues. Suarez took a lot of shots but failed to convert. Suarez dribbled a lot but his dribble success rate was very low. So on. And because of those numbers I mistook his profligacy as something that wouldn’t fit into Arsene Wenger’s system.* In fact, I would go so far as to say that Liverpool’s success or failure the last two seasons is directly an outcome of Suarez’ play: last season they were 7th because he failed to convert his chances and this season they were 2nd because he did convert.
But Wenger gave us some insight into why he went after Suarez last summer when he said:
He has a strong, provocative personality. From the information I gathered on him it appears that on a day-to-day level he is really easy to work with. Also that he’s respectful; he loves training; he’s an angel. He turns into a demon when he’s on the pitch. We all dream about having players like that.
Reading Philippe Auclair’s biography of Theirry Henry, Lonely at the Top, reveals that the famous Arsenal forward shared similar traits to Suarez: a perfect gentleman in all his public dealings, trained like a maniac (despite a self-professed laziness), and terrified defenders on the pitch with a tremendous work rate.
With this idea of work-rate in mind, I wanted to take a look at the relative offensive output numbers for several players who have been linked with a move to Arsenal or who I get asked all the time “would so and so fit at Arsenal?” Those players are Vela, A. Sanchez, Firmino, Remy, Lukaku, and Super Duper Mario Balotelli (why always him? You’ll see in a minute).
First, let’s deal with Vela. Since leaving Arsenal for Real Sociedad three years ago, Carlos Vela’s career has taken a turn for the better. He went from a bit part player at Arsenal, best known for his rather exquisite chip butties, to an integral starting forward on a rather decent Primera Liga side.
In each of his three seasons at Real Sociedad, Vela has added 2 goals and 2+ assists per season; starting with 12 goals and 7 assists in 2011-2012 and finishing last season with 16 goals and 12 assists. Along the way his finishing percentages have fluctuated as we might expect to see with a forward finding his feet and adapting to different positions.
This season has been his most productive and it has almost all come from the right side of the pitch. Naturally left footed (almost painfully so) Vela has been deployed in the Robben role on the right where he can cut in on his favored left foot.
It’s hard to underestimate how much losing Vela for €4m would hurt Real Sociedad. Between his goals and assists, Vela contributed 28 and the rest of his teammates just 34.
Vela led his team in goals (tied with Griezmann), assists (t.4th in la Liga), key passes (78 total, t. 4th in la Liga), dribbles (74, 7th in la Liga), fouls drawn (135, led la Liga), and was second on his team in shots taken (86).
Added together, Vela’s goals and assists accounted for an amazing 45% of Real Sociedad’s total goals haul. In comparison, Luis Suarez was 43% of Liverpool’s total goal output.
And if we look at how many shots he created or took for his team, Vela’s shots, assists, and key passes (shots he created for others) added together accounted for 35% of Real Sociedad’s total shots. That’s a decent number though not nearly up at the rarefied air of Luis Suarez who took or created an insane 43% of Liverpool’s shots.**
If you take the sum of Vela’s goals, assists, key passes, dribbles, and shots, and prorate it on a per 90 basis (in other words, how much he averages per game) Carlos Vela gives Real Sociedad 10.50 positive offensive actions per 90. Vela’s biggest number was his 170 attempted dribbles but he also took 86 shots and created 78 key passes. Forwards who get 100+ shots are pretty rare and forwards who get 100+ shots and create 80+ shots for their teammates are named Luis Suarez. So, in that regard, Vela is in good company, though he has a long way to go to reach Suarez’ level of activity.
Interestingly, Vela’s combined 10.50 is almost the same number that Walcott put up for Arsenal last season. Walcott’s offensive per 90 was 10.13. Walcott’s overall numbers were lower than Vela’s but it’s important to remember that even in a relatively injury free season last year, Walcott played 820 fewer minutes than Vela this season (3104 v. 2284) — the equivalent of 9 full games fewer. Even despite those lower minutes, Walcott put in a great shift last season, taking 87 shots, attempting 108 dribbles, and scoring or creating 24 of Arsenal’s 72 goals.
How do Walcott and Vela compare to some other players Arsenal fans would love to see at the club?
Some notes on this chart:
Reus is just a beast, 141 dribbles, 110 shots, 77 key passes. Easily one of the most active offensive players in the world right now and probably worth £60m.
Below him is Hoffenheim’s Brazilian wunderkind Firmino. He’s being linked with Chelsea and for good reason, he attempted 235 dribbles (completing 63%!), took 93 shots, and made 70 key passes for his team. If Arsenal truly have the financial muscle to go toe-to-toe with Chelsea then they should challenge for this kid. I say “kid” and I mean it, he’s just 22 years old.
Balotelli’s offensive numbers were crazy as well. Almost exclusively buoyed by the fact that he took 152 shots for AC Milan last season and much like Suarez at Liverpool, I suspect that AC Milan live or die by Balotelli’s boot. That said, Balotelli ticks a lot of boxes for Arsenal. Arsenal’s shots per game rate has been on the decline for the last four seasons and getting a guy like Balotelli in the team would certainly pump that number up. Between City and Milan last season he took 111 shots in 27 appearances and the season before he took 82 shots in 23 League games. He’s a chucker. Maybe Arsenal need a chucker?
If you’re more inclined to go with a finisher then Alexis Sanchez is the clinical finisher that people want Podolski to be. He scored on 29% of his overall shots. Not shots on goal. Shots. He’s done that pretty much every season at Barcelona: 25% last season, 26% the season before. The one worry is that he was a 16% shooter at Udinese. His high finishing percent is a testament to Barcelona’s passing game but he also has a penchant for scoring outrageous goals from crazy angles and from set plays. Would he score similarly at Arsenal? Arsenal do try to get the ball in the box where the higher percent scoring chances are. Barcelona turned down a £12m offer. I suspect they would let him go for £18-20m. Sanchez doesn’t do much else, he attempted 103 dribbles (completing just 36%), but his overall offensive contributions are limited because, well, because he’s on Barcelona. What is he, the third or fourth offensive option on that team? Personally, I think this is one case where my model lets me down. I think Sanchez would be a great addition at Arsenal.
Lukaku is a strange one. Lukaku’s goals and assists accounted for nearly 50% of Everton’s offense. That’s just a crazy number if you think about it. But his overall offensive contributions were low which jibes with what I’ve seen of his game. He seems like a laid back player some times.
And Remy’s numbers seemed perfect. I’ve seen him play a lot and despite the fleeting moments where he reminds me of Thierry Henry he seemed to disappear a lot. His offensive production on a poor team like Newcastle supports my theory. All of which means that we will probably sign him and he’ll score 30 goals.
Take off your accountant’s hat for a second. Forget about how much it would cost in terms of “the Arsenal wage structure” or whether Arsenal “have the money to spend”***. Personally, I think Arsenal couldn’t go wrong spending almost all the money to bring in Reus. Like I said, he’s a beast. Since that probably won’t happen for various reasons, I could see a case for every player on my list but I would rank them in the following order: Reus, Firmino, Sanchez, Lukaku, Balotelli, and Remy.
Where is Vela? I would take him AND buy another forward. Vela would provide much needed depth on the left, options to rotate Podolski (or even sell him), and at €4m is a steal. If the buy back clause is real and Vela wants to join Arsenal I feel Arsenal should jump at the chance to get Vela. You just aren’t going to find any forwards who scored 16 goals and created 78 chances for his teammates for that price. Real Sociedad will have a Real Problem replacing all of that production for just €4m.
What’s Remy going to cost? £15m? Vela is a stone cold steal.
*I don’t want to launch into a huge explanation but when I was looking at the trends I noticed that Wenger’s title winning teams were always hugely efficient.
**Liverpool is such a one-man team. They scored 101 goals and just 58 were not either scored by or created by Suarez. He took 181 shots, the rest of the team took 470! Dribbles were the same, he attempted 237 of Liverpool’s 908 dribbles. The list goes on.
***Arsenal absolutely have the money, £100m+. That’s more than any other team at a time when FFP is supposed to be taking a bite out of spending by teams like PSG, Man City, and Chelsea.