Tag Archives: Gonalons


Why personal stats don’t matter as much as you think and why I would still have Schneiderlin

This summer I did an extensive “search” for the perfect Arsenal Defensive Midfielder. Using the stats databases available to me (Whoscored, Squawka, etc) I searched through thousands of players looking for specific qualities like “tackles often” and “completes a high percentage of passes”. Of all the players I compared (Pogba, Vidal, both Benders, Gonalons, Gueye, Gustavo, and even Jedinak) my study found that Morgan Schneiderlin was the best fit for Arsenal football club. But along the way, I also found that using player stats to make this kind of argument is difficult at best and downright arrogant at worst.

My logic was simple: Wenger, since selling Vieira, has opted for a center mid who passes first and tackles second, a much distant second. A center mid in the Arsenal “defensive midfield” role, should be able to pass the ball with great accuracy anywhere on the pitch. A more forward midfielder, someone who has a breadth of experience playing crosses, through balls, long passes, short passes, back passes, and square passes who is then converted into a deeper lying player (note, not “playmaker”) is the optimum Arsenal “defensive midfielder” — not the midfielder most of you would choose, but the one that Wenger wants in his team. Mikel Arteta is the perfect Arsènal center mid.

But right away, I noticed problems with comparing player’s passing stats. For example, Pogba this season is only passing the ball at an 82% rate. Even Matthieu Flamini passes the ball at a 92% rate! Flamini must be a better passer.


A pass is completed when player A kicks the ball and nearly any other teammate gains possession. How many times have you seen Gibbs make a cross that misses the three intended targets in the box but is collected by another Arsenal fullback on the other side of the pitch? That, sirs and madams, is a completed pass.

Now, obviously, a 92% passer isn’t getting lucky 10% of the time. But the point is that a team’s shape, the team’s workrate, the league’s proclivities, and the team’s playing style all contribute to a player’s passing percentage. If there were an NFL style combine and players were asked to pass the ball through a truck tire hanging 15 feet off the ground and to do so from various distances, we might be able to say “X player is a better passer than Y”. But using a player’s raw passing %, abstracted from the context of their team and their league, is not telling us much about that player’s ability.

Teams like Atletico Madrid and Arsenal play a completely different style of football. Atletico focuses more on quick transitions and Arsenal more on ball retention. Gabi, the defensive midfielder for Atleti, is a fantastic footballer. His pass completion rate is only 79%. It’s a team that completes 77% of their passes on average so he’s slightly better than the team average but I’m not even sure what that really tells us about him.

My feeling when it comes to passing percentages is that if we see a player whose percentages are significantly lower than the team average, then he is either trying too hard to create, is being asked to create, or is just not very good. Conversely, if we see a player whose numbers are significantly higher than the team average, we are probably looking at a player who is being asked to play it safe. Other than those two generalizations it’s difficult to make many more assumptions about a player.

And even if we drill down into the data it’s the same story. Arteta has a fantastic long ball percentage, 86%. That’s actually pretty stunning, all over the world very few players reach above 80% in terms of long ball completion rate. Meanwhile, Gustavo was an 80% long ball passer and two seasons ago Bender completed just 55% of his long attempts. This season Lars Bender is hitting just 31% of his long passes! He’s gotten worse!

But just like with regular passes, long balls require a player on the other end of the pass who can win the header or trap the pass. It also helps if your team shape, like Arsenal’s, has three outlets up front. If you’re a defensive midfielder on a team playing a 4-5-1 and you’re lumping balls up to a single target covered by three or four defenders, my guess is your long ball percent is going to suffer.

And what about tackles? Surely a player who makes a lot of tackles is a better defender than one who doesn’t make a lot of tackles, right? Wrong.

Again the number of tackles a player makes is often down to his team’s shape, the league that player is playing in, the player’s ability, and whether or not the opposition manager’s are targeting that player for a perceived weakness.

West Ham are a great example. This is a team which you would assume tackles a lot. They only have 46% of the possession, so one would imagine that they are trying to win the ball back a lot. Nope. Neither do Burnley and neither does Aston Villa. Those teams are all low possession, low tackle, and low interceptions teams. Why? They don’t want the ball.

Their perfect games would be if the teams would meet at the center circle for 89 minutes and had a conversation about their families, probably while sipping tea. Then for 1 minute of furious action both teams would try to score.

Leagues are different too. The Bundesliga is very dribble-happy, meaning that they have more chances to make tackles (the two stats are intertwined). La Liga is very interception orientated. And the Premier League is full of teams who don’t want the ball. Looking at the number of tackles a player makes or how many he misses doesn’t really tell us much. And it’s especially ridiculous to “prorate tackles for possession” they literally have almost no correlation to one another.

Alex Song is a great illustration of all of this. In his best season at Arsenal he completed 85% of his passes, was a 67% long ball passer, made 2.9 of 4.3 attempted tackles (67%), and averaged 1.9 interceptions per game. He also had 10 assists that year, kicking the ball up to an on fire Robin van Persie.¹ When he moved to Barcelona, he completed 90% of his passes, was an 81% long ball passer, made 2.2 of 2.9 tackles per game (76%), and had 2.2 interceptions per game. Now at West Ham he’s a 79% passer, 61% long ball passer, makes 2.7 of 4.6 tackles (59%), and a career low 1.2 interceptions per game.

Song has played for three very different teams in two different leagues and his stats have varied based on the relative talent around him, the way the teams have been set up, and the leagues they play in. Not only that but Song’s stats are relatively (what does it matter if Song makes .3 tackles more than someone else?) the same as Paul Pogba. Which player would you prefer at Arsenal? I know my answer.

I still feel Schneiderlin would be a great purchase for Arsenal but not just because of his stats. Because I’ve watched him play. He’s very tidy with the ball, he’s very calm in defense, and he tends to make the right decisions in a crunch². He can tackle, as can any defensive midfielder, he reads the game well, and he can pass. You put him in the Arsenal set up and he will thrive.

But so too will a lot of players with numbers that don’t look so good at the moment and a lot of players whose numbers look great. Which is why I cast a jaundiced eye at all these stats being used to prove “X” is the perfect player for Arsenal. Arsenal just need a Pogba, Vidal, Schneiderlin, Gonalons, or Gueye to come in and take over for Arteta. My guess is that will happen this summer when Wenger can make a move for one of the big name, expensive center mids above.


¹I wish he had been actually on fire.
²Tackling Cesc from behind was the right decision. He was only a little bit late Had he been earlier, he might have taken Cesc out for the rest of the season and been a hero to every Arsenal fan everywhere.


Gone-alons, Fellaini needs a brow wax, and Dancing Queen (Higuain)

I will admit that I have secretly coveted Maxime Gonalons at Arsenal for several years now. That’s why I make a Google News alert for “Gonalons Arsenal” two years ago and have been monitoring his transfer situation since. I’ve even written a post Banging the Gong for Gonalons. I think he reads the game well from a defensive standpoint, he’s strong in the air, and has an impressive, almost Pirlo-esque, range of passes at his command.

But he’s not for sale and never has been. Olympique Lyonnais posted an official statement on their web site that read “(we) were surprised to learn, by reading L’Equipe, that a fee has been defined for the sale of Maxime Gonalons and that this would be more than €12m. The club has no intention to give up its captain. The club’s development strategy is clear – Gonalons is one of the most promising young players. No clubs have contacted us, especially Napoli, and the club is sorry about the fact that some say to the contrary.”

This is interesting because I have found that L’Equipe is a very reliable source for transfer news. For them to have gotten this story about Gonalons going to Napoli wrong there must have been some pretty strong subterfuge on the part of either Gonalons’ agent or someone inside Lyon. But it really does look like they got this wrong! And Gonalons is not for sale.

Which is ok, right? Because that lady on twitter says that Fellaini is coming to Arsenal. I don’t know who she is, because I’m not in the know about her, but I am in the know about 101 great goals and they reported that she reported on twitter that he told her “I really hope so” or something when she asked if he was coming to Arsenal. That seals the deal!

Alternately, this could have been a case of the big Belgian simply mishearing her question. I can imagine a man, in a nightclub, with his hair covering his ears, could mis-hear a woman asking about coming to Arsenal. For example, maybe he thought she wanted him to store his bike in her trunk?

Also, I get the hair thing, Marouane, but the unibrow? That’s not how us Arsenal guys roll, mate. Sort your life out, seriously.

As for who I’d rather have at Arsenal, I’m going to let you in on a little secret: I want the one who Arsenal sign. That’s right, I would take any of Fellaini, Gonalons, whatever, just someone big, ugly, and man mountainish, with hair like a caveman, who will scare the daylights out of Scott Parker.


And finally, is Arsenal going to sign Higuain today? I don’t know, but apparently Arsenal are in Spain trying to make it happen. No, I’m not going to make a Spain/Plain/Rain/Higuain joke, mostly because East Lower already did, instead I’ll make a terrible suggestion that Arsenal fans sing this song for Higuain to the tune of Dancing Queen.

He can dance, he can jive having the time of his life.
see that goal, watch that pass, diggin the Higuain.

Wednesday night and the lights are low
Champions League against Bordeaux.
Wenger plays Theo on the right, get out wide on the wing
Whip that cross, in swing.

Not anyone could be that guy,
Theo’s cross is too high.
But with a bit of luck the ball, dribbles across the goal
You’re in the mood for a dance,
and when you get the chance…

You score like Higuain, swift and sweet, number seventeen!
Gonzo Higuain! Getting the rub of the green.
He can dance, he can jive – having the time of his life.
See that goal, watch that pass, diggin the Higuain.

Playing center, you turn on ‘em.
Leave ‘em burning, then you”re gone.
Looking out for another, any goal will do
You’re in the mood for a dance,
and when you get the chance…

You score like Higuain, swift and sweet, number eightteen!
Gonzo Higuain! Getting the rub of the green.
He can dance, he can jive – having the time of his life.
See that goal, watch that pass, diggin the Higuain.



Arsenal transfer roundup: Bendtner, Vermaelen, Gundogan, Bender, Higuain oh lie!

When my love swears that she is made of truth
I do believe her, though I know she lies,
That she might think me some untutor’d youth,
Unlearned in the world’s false subtleties.
Thus vainly thinking that she thinks me young,
Although she knows my days are past the best,
Simply I credit her false speaking tongue:
On both sides thus is simple truth suppress’d.
But wherefore says she not she is unjust?
And wherefore say not I that I am old?
O, love’s best habit is in seeming trust,
And age in love loves not to have years told:
Therefore I lie with her and she with me,
And in our faults by lies we flatter’d be.

Sonnet 138, William Shakespeare: The Complete Works

Let us start Sunday off with some truth, or at least a truth; the truth according to Nicklas Bendtner.

Bendtner is leaving Arsenal, soon… Within a few weeks. If I were to guess I would say probably July 1 when the actual transfer window opens, he will be registered with a new club and no longer be our concern. Blah blah blah, wasted talent, blah blaah blaah, name on the “Hat Trick Heroes Wall”, blah blah blah, TGSTEL, etc etc, cheers, here’s to you Nicklas… Bottoms up son.

Like many players of the post-Highbury Youth Brigade, Nicklas Bendtner was a divisive character. I was there when he spurned a hat-trick of easy chances against Burnley and the one thing that stood out in my mind was how the crowd cheered when he was subbed off: on one side of me was a man clapping ironically and saying that he hoped Bendtner would never play for Arsenal again and on the other side of me was a man who kept going on about what a terrific shift Bendtner put in and how he was just unlucky. Then, in mid-week, against Porto, when Arsenal needed a good win because the Portuguese side had beaten us in the away leg, Bendtner got a hat trick. And that was Nicklas Bendtner.

That was an incredible time at Arsenal. Walcott was being hosed by Chris Waddle, Nasri still liked playing for us, Andrei Arshavin sparked from the wings that night, and Vermaelen was at the top of his game stopping Hulk and Falcao from getting on the score sheet, with a little help from Almunia.

So, what’s the Truth? Walcott is still a divisive figure (though he looks like he’s on the verge of something special at Arsenal to me), Nasri, Arshavin, Bendtner, and Almunia are all gone and Thomas Vermaelen is not anywhere near the top of his game.

A fact which is not entirely the Truth. Vermaelen suffered a strange injury to the tendons in his legs, had surgery and spent much of the next two years recovering.

But there have always been half-truths about Thomas Vermaelen. He was considered one of the best “headers” of the ball in his best season (2009-2010) but again, the truth there does not bear that out as in that season he won just 58% of his aerial duels, a number which has only dipped slightly to 55% since his injury. 70% or better is good in the air and all the big players like Distin, Hangeland and Cahill manage more than 70%. Per Mertesacker has finally adjusted to the League (probably with help from Steve Bould) and jumped from 63% to 69% and is winning a lot more both offensively and defensively. But Vermaelen lost a lot and still loses a lot of headers.

Perhaps it was the fact that we willingly accept the deceit of love which had me plunk down $100 of my hard earned money for a shirt with his name on the back.

He came back and was made captain at Arsenal and in the first few weeks of the new season everything was going well as it was Koscielny who seemed to be the one making mistakes. But then some worrying form crept in to his game and TV5 started making high-profile errors. People started questioning if he should be captain because his form had gotten so bad that by the end of January people were openly asking for him to be dropped. After the error against Liverpool, he was reportedly injured but the fact remains that from Feb 1 to the end of the season, TV5 made just 3 starts and 4 subs.

People were so relieved by his replacement that Koscielny inexplicably was voted above Mikel Arteta in the player of the year race, despite Koscielny’s rather ignominious start to the season.

We talk about truth and about accepting the deceit of love and that brings me to my million dollar question: Barcelona are reportedly interested in Thomas Vermaelen, would you sell him? You can’t weasel out of the question by stating “if the price is right”. In their pomp I wouldn’t have sold Theirry Henry or Cesc Fabregas for any price. Haggling over price is yes by another name. So would you?

Like Shakespeare said, we know that we are surrounded with lies and that our love (Arsenal? The Press? Transfer stories in general? All of the above?) lies to us and yet we willingly embrace the half truths. Technically, the term is confirmation bias: we listen to what we want to hear. Thus, if you wish that Arsenal are going to spend a lot of money in the transfer market The Daily Mail may be your paper of record and so on. But this reaches odd new levels when I see one reporter (or worse, some guy on twitter) tipped as having more credibility than any other reporter.

Reporters report what they are told. If a BBC reporter says that Arsenal are not interested in Fellaini then that just means someone told that reporter that. If the Times reporter says that Arsenal are interested in Fellaini then that means someone told that reporter that. Both reporters will get things wrong and frankly you don’t have any objective proof that David Ornstein is more correct than any other reporter, he was notably wrong on van Persie and on Arteta.

And of course, it’s Sunday. We all want to big stories to be true and the Daily Mail has probably the most divisive story of all: the one where Arsenal are going to dump the warchest out and smear pirate booty all over the chests of some “up and coming players” like Higuain, Bender, and Gundogan. Perhaps they will? Perhaps Arsenal just told Rob Draper that so that they can get you all to renew your season tickets? Maybe the players agent told him that? Maybe the other club told the reporter, like Toulouse did with Capoue?

We don’t know. We do know, however, that there are a lot of competing stories and that people are happy to listen to the reporter that tells them the side of the story they want to hear. Whispering sweet nothings in your ear as you lay in the grass dreaming of the season ahead.


Comparison of Defensive Midfielders


Word to the wise, all of these midfielders I think are “good enough” for Arsenal but they all have slightly different playing styles. I’ve Banged the Gong for Gonalons since February because I think he’s the exact type of player Arsenal need: cultured passer, tackles well, reads the game well, and is good in the air (70%). You will no doubt disagree. Please, do so below. I will be back to answer questions this evening.