A manager’s ability to sell a ‘project’ and a vision to fans of their club is fast becoming a key weapon in the armoury of any elite coach. Being able to demonstrate that players are adapting to a certain tactical style, or a recruitment strategy is putting the building blocks in place for success, is absolutely vital to keeping supporters on side – buying the manager in question time to deliver results on the pitch.
Optics matter, perhaps best demonstrated by the contrasting mood at Arsenal this summer compared with the previous year. While former head coach Unai Emery was unable to communicate any sense of progress – either through his press conferences or via the team’s performances – current boss Mikel Arteta laid out a clear plan of action right from the moment he arrived in North London.
“I want people to take responsibility for their jobs and I want people who deliver passion and energy in the football club,” Arteta said when facing the media for the first time.
“Anyone who doesn’t buy into this, or that has a negative effect or whatever, is not good enough for this environment or this culture,” he continued, setting out his stall for a new way of doing things at the Emirates.
Actions speak louder than words, but Arteta has backed up his public statements with his selection choices. Ainsley Maitland-Niles’ performances have dramatically improved in recent months after initially being dropped and told he needed to “put his head down and work hard” by his new boss.
Mattéo Guendouzi and Mesut Özil’s Arsenal careers have gone in the opposite direction too after failing to adapt to the current regime, proving that Arteta’s way is the only way at Arsenal going forward.
Winning helps, of course, as does lifting trophies. The Gunners’ FA Cup final victory over Chelsea at the tail end of last season was a huge statement of intent, while the vast improvement in players like Granit Xhaka and Shkodran Mustafi is testament to Arteta’s coaching and tactical nous.
Amidst all the positivity it’s easy to forget that Arsenal finished the 2019/20 Premier League season in 8th place and appear to have been hit particularly hard by the financial impact of the coronavirus pandemic.
That’s the power of clarity when it comes to a vision for the future – a sense of momentum that Emery could never really foster, despite the club actually finishing three places higher in the league going into the previous summer.
It also highlights that Arsenal can’t rest on their laurels and need to extract maximum value from their business in the transfer market ahead of the 2020/21 campaign.
They certainly seem to have got off to a good start, bringing in winger Willian (Chelsea, free transfer) and centre-back Gabriel Magalhães (Lille, £23.4m), while also concluding permanent deals for loanees Cédric Soares (Southampton, free transfer) and Pablo Marí (Flamengo, £7.2m).
Then there’s William Saliba to consider – the central defender is like a new signing, having spent last season on loan at Saint-Étienne after signing for £27m in 2019. Finally, midfielder Dani Ceballos has returned for a further season on loan from Real Madrid.
Willian’s move from Chelsea has drawn some criticism because it involves a three-year contract for the 32-year-old Brazilian. While it’s fair to question the value of such a long deal for a player in the autumn of his career, to focus exclusively on his contract length overlooks Willian’s qualities as a footballer. He may be ageing, but the stats from last season suggest that he’s still an excellent addition to Arsenal’s squad.
For starters he remains one of the best dribblers in the Premier League, with a record of 4.42 completed dribbles per 90 that’s inside the division’s top 20 players. If we work on the assumption that Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang will move into a more central striking role in 2020/21, that gives the Gunners great options when running at defences on either flank – fellow wide man Nicolas Pépé ranked 9th with an even more impressive 7.54 completed dribbles per 90.
Seven teams won more attacking duels than Arsenal last season, but Willian should help Arteta’s side win back loose balls more frequently in the final third after winning a commendable 6.41 attacking duels per 90 for Chelsea in 2019/20.
His impressive attributes don’t end there. Willian can drive play forward effectively and managed 3.56 progressive runs per 90 (14th among last season’s Premier League players) and he’s got an end product too – assisting 1.95 shots per 90, which was only bettered by seven of his peers.
At the opposite end of the pitch Arsenal’s other new signing Gabriel will be hoping to improve a defence that shipped 48 goals last season, the third most in the top half. His performances for Lille have certainly been impressive, offering hope that a Gabriel-Saliba pairing could finally be the combination that brings some stability to the Gunners’ backline.
Fans at the Emirates have been hoping that for some years now, but Gabriel’s displays for Lille indicate that there are reasons for optimism when it comes to his arrival.
While his most obvious strengths lie with the ball at his feet, Gabriel’s aerial ability is nothing to be sniffed at and he won a more than respectable 3.36 aerial duels per 90 in Ligue 1 during the 2019/20 season. He was also one of the division’s best players when it came to securing possession for his team, completing 11.94 ball recoveries per 90 – the 14th best record in France’s top tier.
Gabriel’s other defensive stats don’t necessarily catch the eye to the same extent, but his ability when in possession is certainly noteworthy. Only eight players attempted more passes into the final third than the Brazilian (10.12 per 90) and he was inside the league’s top 20 in terms of his completion rate, completing 6.84 of those passes into attacking areas.
This is a defender who is always on the front foot and consistently looking to make progress down the pitch. That’s born out in the numbers, with the 22-year-old completing 18.38 forward passes per 90 while also attempting an average of 7.98 long passes per match.
Attacking output isn’t something by which you typically judge a centre-back, but it is perhaps worth pointing out that Gabriel managed 0.49 headed attempts at goal per 90 (19th in Ligue 1) across last season. He may only have scored once in that time, but there is certainly potential for him to increase that number if Arsenal can improve their deliveries from corners and free kicks – something that Arteta will hope for after appointing Brentford’s set-piece coach Andreas Georgson.
So will these additions help Arsenal secure Champions League football this season? They’re certainly in a better position to do so compared with this time last year, but it is a big ask to expect the Gunners to make such a leap. Gabriel and the returning Saliba should make a huge difference to the team’s defensive solidity, but this is a side that may still need some surgery in the midfield area.
Willian will bring creativity and Ceballos should offer more of an attacking threat after having a season to acclimatise to the Premier League. But an additional playmaker would do wonders for this Arsenal side and they still need a new defensive midfielder to really shield their backline effectively too. Whether both of those additions are possible will likely depend on who leaves the Emirates over the coming weeks.
There are plenty of positives for the red and white half of North London at the moment, but it’s important not to lose sight of how far there is still to go in this rebuilding project. Willian and Gabriel have the potential to be excellent additions, but more needs to be done before you would safely predict a top-four finish for the Gunners.
All the graphics and visualisations in this article use Wyscout data and were produced in the Twenty3 Content Toolbox.
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