Arsenal verge on signing Paulista but will he work?

We have confirmation from Arsène Wenger that Arsenal are well down the road toward buying center back Gabriel Paulista from Villareal. With Mertesacker and Koscielny the only two first choice center backs and with both players looking like they are carrying injuries, Arsenal desperately need another center half and Paulista fits the bill. But as usual with Arsenal transfers, the Gunners look like they are trying to get him on the cheap and he might not even qualify for a work permit. If I didn’t know any better I would say Arsène Wenger is just trolling you all with this signing.

It’s unusual for Arsène to speak about a transfer deal until it is done. On the verge of signing Mesut Özil from Real Madrid, Wenger once tittered “maybe we will have a little surprise for you”. I would have a hard time keeping my mouth shut if I was about to sign Mesut Özil for my fantasy football team, only Wenger knows how he kept himself in check while working on signing Özil in real life.

And yet Wenger was very open that he is trying to sign Paulista:

“The talks are progressing quite well, to be serious,” the Arsenal manager said. “[It’s] 50-50 at this moment, yes. We are talking at the moment; can we find an agreement or not? I don’t know. We are slowly progressing but there’s a chance. We are ready to pay the price we think is right for a good player, no matter what the price is. If we think it’s the right price we will pay.”

From what I’ve read, Paulista has a £16m release clause. The snag from Villareal’s point of view is that Arsenal aren’t meeting that valuation and Villareal have absolutely no need to sell.

Meanwhile, Arsenal aren’t meeting that valuation for good reason: the kid doesn’t qualify for a work permit in the UK because he doesn’t even come close to fulfilling the rather arbitrary requirement that he play 75% of his country’s international matches. In fact, Paulista hasn’t played a single match for Brazil. So, do you just stump up the money for a player you can’t play? No, of course not.

This is exactly the kind of transfer saga that drives a certain portion of the Arsenal fanbase nuts: Wenger is clearly looking to get a good deal, to fill a position where there is an absolute need, and the transfer has turned into a saga.

It’s all a little too much for some fans and I get it. On the day that Arsenal are announced as the 8th richest club in the universe the manager is bargaining to get a player he might not even be allowed to play because he can’t get a work permit.

This signing also excites a large portion of the fanbase and I get that too: this signing has all the hallmarks of Wenger uncovering another gem for cheap. Let’s not forget that when Arsène signed Koscielny it drove a certain portion of the fanbase nuts. “Who is this guy from League 2?” and “Why can’t we just go sign Gary Cahill? He’s mates with Wiltshere!”¹

Paulista is already being compared favorably to Koscielny by writers in the know like Sid Lowe. Apparently, he’s strong and quick, he reads the game well, and he likes to attack the ball. All the best qualities of Koscielny.

Villareal play counter-attacking football with Paulista an important part of both the defending and getting the counters started. As we detailed in yesterday’s post, Arsenal look like they are switching to a counter-attacking style and in that case Paulista could possibly slot right in.

But the sticking point is the work permit. Arsenal have tried to get around the work permit rules in the past and have failed every time. In fact, the Gunners still have Wellington Silva on loan, a player they signed in 2010 and who the FA originally awarded a special talent visa to, which they later rescinded. There were others before that, Petr Cech most notably. Arsenal couldn’t get Cech a visa despite the fact that he had played at every level for the Czech Republic since he was 15 years old. Chelsea managed to get him that permit two years later.

Wenger is known for being stubborn and only signing the Goldilocks players, players who are “just right” for what he wants at Arsenal. But this one seems like a hell of a gamble on not only the player but the rather capricious UK and FA work permit rules. Wenger seemed confident in his interview that they could get a visa and they seem to be putting in the work to sign the player so perhaps this saga is much ado about nothing and the player will step right into the Arsenal first team before the close of the window.

I sure hope so. I’d hate to see the state of some blogs if Wenger fails to sign this guy or worse, signs him and has to loan him back out for another 4 years to get him a visa.


¹I know his name is Wilshere but for some reason Brits seem to call him Wiltshere.


This season Arsenal sacrificing possession, but with a purpose

49, 49 Undefeated, 49, 49, I say! 49, 49, Undefeated, playing football the Arsenal way!

What is the Arsenal way to play football? Thierry Henry’s run-and-gun Invincibles were not the same as Cesc Fabregas’ Barcelona-lite. And the team we are seeing today, the Alexis press team, is one which looks like an entirely new beast on the pitch.

When I first started writing about Arsenal in 2008 there was a definite way that Arsenal played football and my first two years were consumed with this notion of “playing football the Arsenal way.” I defended the Arsenal way and argued that beyond trophies, Wenger’s legacy in the English Premier League was going to be this: that he brought a new style of football to England, a style that teams like Swansea and even Chelsea¹ sought to emulate.

That Barcelona-lite side was special to watch at times, intricate ball movement and perfectly spaced players meant that the opposition were often left chasing shadows. But the down sides were obvious as well. If a team sat in the low block and hit Arsenal on the counter, they could get some joy. And if a team with players like Wayne Rooney or Didier Drogba, expensively assembled teams that could play football if they wanted, played the same tactic they could win repeatedly.

I’m not going to rehash the last three years and the aftermath of the 8-2 tonking Arsenal received at Old Trafford at the end of the Fabregas era. Suffice it to say that Wenger built that Barcelona-lite side around Fabregas and when the Spaniard forced a move away, Arsène spent years trying to find a new player to build his squad around.

When Arsenal signed Alexis Sanchez Wenger had finally landed his man. Sanchez is a tireless worker on the pitch, a player with blazing fast footspeed, and a player with a great fighting spirit. After striking his first goal for the Gunners against Besiktas, Wenger was asked if Alexis could lead the line for three or four months while starting center forward Olivier Giroud recovered from a broken ankle. The manager replied:

For three or four months? He can play there his whole life. I bought him to play as a striker, not to play only on the flanks. He had a good game. He was mobile, dangerous and has shown as well he has great fighting spirit, qualities that will be very important in the Premier League.

The idea that Alexis could lead the line was the first indication that Arsène was looking at trying out a new style. With Alexis’ acceleration and work rate, it looked like Wenger was finally going to get Arsenal to play some counter-attacking football. The kind of football that the Invincibles played.

Chris Gluck from Possession with Purpose has graciously provided me with slides from his database which show, fairly conclusively, that Arsène Wenger has been slowly introducing this new style of football to the club. In Chris’ first slide you can see clearly that Arsenal have been slowly conceding possession over the season:



Something to note about that slide: game day 2 was the 2-2 draw to Everton away, game day 4 was the 2-2 draw to Man City at home, 7 was the loss to Chelsea away, 11 was the loss to Swansea away, 17 was the draw away to Liverpool, 19 the away win over West Ham, and 22 was the away win over Man City.  All of those games were “low water marks” for possession.

Passing accuracy is another metric by which we can measure whether a team is playing a more counter-attacking style. Passing accuracy goes down the more you try to play long balls and the more isolated the strikers and wingers are in the system. At home, Arsenal’s passing accuracy is static:

passing-homeBut when they take their show on the road, Arsenal have been more and more defensive as the season has gone on:


As Chris’ slides clearly show, Arsenal are eschewing possession in away games more and more as the season goes on. If the Arsenal of 2010 tried this they probably would have been murdered, because they just didn’t have the defensive nous to play in that deep block and to counter-press the way that Arsenal are able to do this season.

Not only just the ability to play defense a certain way but to play counter-attacking football you also have to be more efficient when you have the ball. For Chris, this efficiency is one of his key indicators in his index. The next slide shows that at home, Arsenal show a slight upward trend in what Chris calls “shots taken per penetration”.²


In away matches, however, Arsenal are showing a much greater trend toward efficiency, with West Ham (match 17) the high water mark of Arsenal’s efficiency.


Drilling further into Chris’ data, Arsenal are also showing a trend upward in shots on goal per shot taken:


The flip side of the offensive efficiency is that Arsenal are also becoming more efficient defensively. They are allowing the opposition to have more of the ball and attempt more passes in Arsenal’s final third;



But the goals conceded trends slightly downward! (Or at least static)


Chris gave me a total of 39 slides and every single one of them shows basically the same thing: Arsenal have developed two styles of play. One for home games or against poor teams away and one for away games or against top four opponents.

Overall, Arsenal’s possession is down over the season but it’s equally clear that in those away games which tormented Arsenal last season, Wenger is taking a more pragmatic approach. Last season, against Everton, Man City, Liverpool, and Chelsea away, Arsenal conceded 20 goals and scored just 4. That’s a -16 goal difference and 0 points earned. This season in those same fixtures Arsenal have given away possession and as a result conceded just 6, scored 6, and earned 5 points with just one loss. I’d say that’s a pretty major reversal.


¹And if you look at Chelsea today you could say that they have achieved Abramovich’s goal of turning Chelsea into Arsenal. They bought Cesc Fabregas, the main man from that era and when you watch them play they look like a much more expensive version of Wenger’s 2008 Arsenal.
² This isn’t that scary, really. Penetration is simply passing in the final third and this is a ratio of shots per pass, sort of.



Cazorla lifts Arsenal to beat City but what next when Özil returns?

The last time Arsenal beat Man City in Manchester was October 24th, 2010. Samir Nasri scored the first goal and set up the third in a blow out 3-0 win. Before the final whistle had blown Nasri’s agent was shopping him around and his performances even had Rio Ferdinand publicly tapping him up saying that Nasri was candidate for player of the year. The next summer, Nasri left for Man City and Arsène was forced to shop for his replacement. And if Nasri was the architect of the last win at City his departure made room for the architect of this year’s win at City, Santi Cazorla.

When Fabregas and Nasri left Wenger’s first choice creative midfielder was Santi Cazorla but Arsenal fans would have to wait a year to see Cazorla at Arsenal because Arsenal were outbid by Malaga in 2011. Wenger bought Arteta instead and Arsenal made do for another year.

The wait was worth it as Cazorla’s first season at Arsenal was magical. His job was to set up teammates and despite his impish size he often bossed the opposition final third. He finished that season with 12 goals and 11 assists and was by far the Gunners best player.

But then Arsenal bought Özil, or really Özil fell in our lap. Real Madrid needed to recoup some money from their Gareth Bale splurge and offered up the planet’s most prolific goal creator. Özil arrived amid much fanfare and immediately took Cazorla’s central spot, pushing the Spaniard to the wings or even, at times, to the bench.

Cazorla was still good enough to get plenty of games, though his minutes took a dip as Arsène juggled time between Cazorla and Özil. And with Ramsey making a breakthrough in central midfield it looked like Cazorla was going to be relegated to play backup or out of position.

Cazorla gave an interview in April of 2014 and it was painted by some in the press as Cazorla wanting out of Arsenal. If you read the whole interview, Cazorla never complains about playing time, about the position he was being forced to play, or about the extra defensive duties he had to take on. His only complaint was that he felt Arsenal were a bit soft mentally and he wanted to win trophies. He wanted to win trophies or he would leave, at the end of his contract. There was nothing wrong with a single word he said in that interview.

And Cazorla put his foot where his mouth was. When the trophy was on the line, Cazorla stepped up and kicked the ball into the back of the net, literally. Down 2-0 in the FA Cup final it was Cazorla’s goal from a direct free kick which relit Arsenal’s guns. Cazorla had shown the mental strength he needed from his teammates. It wasn’t just talk, Cazorla was stepping up.

Then, this summer, Arsenal bought Alexis Sanchez. Sanchez further complicated Cazorla’s position at Arsenal. So much so that there were rumors of Arsenal selling Cazorla.

But amid all this one thing has remained: Cazorla’s class. He has simply done what has been asked of him to help the team. He has put in the hard work off the pitch so that when he got his chance on the pitch he could show that he still has what it takes to lead this team’s offense.

The result of al his professionalism is that Cazorla was the mastermind of yesterday’s victory, Arsenal’s first such away victory since 2010. Beyond the assist and the goal, Cazorla ran Arsenal’s counter attack to perfection and still had energy left over to play defense. His numbers were off the hook: 54/59 passes, 10/14 dribbles, 2/6 tackles, 3 interceptions, 3 blocked crosses, and 2 clearances. Cazorla is an attacking midfielder and he was making tackles and clearances. Form is temporary, class is permanent. And with yesterday’s performance against the reigning Premier League champs Cazorla has proven once again that he is head of the class.

But what next for Cazorla? Özil will be back sooner than many expect. Ramsey is returning to full fitness, though he looked knackered at the end of the game against City. The work rate of Sanchez plus his goal scoring and playmaking makes him undroppable. And so where do we put the man who has helped carry this Arsenal team through an injury crisis amid a serious challenge for our spot in the Champions League places?

If you keep him in midfield where he played box-to-box with Ramsey, that means Özil goes left and Sanchez goes right with either Welbeck or Giroud up top. If you put him out left, then Sanchez goes right and we lose a bit of box-to-box energy with Özil in the middle of the park.

Complicating all this is the fact that the partnership he has developed with Sanchez is as important to Arsenal as the partnership between Mertesacker and Koscielny at the back. The proof is that Sanchez and Cazorla have either scored or assisted on 10 of Arsenal’s last 11 goals. They are a dynamic 1-2 punch in Arsenal’s attack.

So what do we do when Özil is fit? I don’t know, except I think Arsène has to play him.


¹Key Passes are a funny stat but Cazorla was third best in that category and was the best in creating chances from through balls with 17.