Post Manchester United there is a noticeable mood of cautious optimism among Arsenal fans as we all digest the significance of victory over the old enemy and their wretched manager. Many now realize there is a feasible route to achieving top-4 if Arsenal can win their next two games and come within one point of Liverpool before the Scousers next game this weekend.
This optimism may explain why some of the most negative nellies in the fanbase now have something positive to say. Out of the blue came a tweet on Sunday disclosing that, unlike the media hype that this was Wenger’s first PL victory over Mourinho, there is the little known fact that the Portuguese has never won a game at the Emirates after 10 years of trying.
To be honest the only “fans’ who remain glum and disappointed about club’s three wins out of four are a handful bloggers and WOBs who have invested heavily in the narrative that this was a disastrous season which should lead to Wenger being relieved of management. As I have repeatedly stressed most of the uber-bloggers, podcasters and tweeters have no interest in facts and unbiased data which conflict with their pet narrative. To the contrary they engage in mental gymnastics to promote sensationalism and fear. Hence for them a disappointing season is due entirely to Wenger. How can a manager with 3 league titles, 6 FA cups and 20 straight years in the top-4 go from hero to zero after one bad year?
Apparently anything justifies a WEXIT, failing that go for a GAXIT or KROXIT.
But readers of PA are not fooled by this simplistic, puerile, febrile analysis by “Arsenal’ bloggers and the football media. For my part I have done the research to demonstrate that the prolonged absence of Santi Cazorla over the past two seasons has correlated with a huge decline in results. Many of you have argued there is more in the mortar than the pestle. So I decided to revisit the data.
It struck me that over the past year there was a significant turnover in the Arsenal midfield. Arteta, Rosicky and Flamini were let go and Jack Wilshere was loaned out. The only new midfielder brought in was Granit Xhaka. How significant is/was this turnover?
The historical data provides the clearest of answers. The turnover in midfield in the summer of 2016 has left the Arsenal midfield the lightest in numbers, the most inexperienced and the least potent in goals in six seasons. The following table provides key data on the state of the Arsenal midfield at the beginning of each of the last six seasons.
I chose 2011/12 as the base year for this analysis because it marked the end of the Fabregas era and ushered the reign of Mikel Arteta who arrived late in the 2011 transfer window. Just to remind those of short memories, the worst of the Fabregas-Nasri divorce from Arsenal was the 8-2 shellacking at the hands of United at Old Trafford when the club could barely find a decent XI to play, having to rely on rookies such as Francis Coquelin, Armand Traore and Carl Jenkinson and to give the 18 year old Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain a painful debut. The long drawn-out transfer saga of that year led to the infamous last minute “trolley dash” for players such as Arteta, Mertsacker, Andre Santos, Park Chi Sung and Yossi Benayoun.
It is noticeable that both midfielders from the trolley dash were grizzled veterans; Arteta at 30 years-old had already played 162 times for Everton and Benayoun at 32 and had made 170+ appearances for both Liverpool, West Ham and Chelsea. Despite the doom and gloom at the start of the season, they, together with their colleagues steered Arsenal to 3rd in the league. Below is a table giving a flavor of the contribution of all 10 midfielders that year.
|Andrey Arshavin [L]||8+11||1|
Note: Players out on loan are excluded
By 2015-16, the midfield had matured into a qualitatively stronger animal with the addition of world-class, experienced technicians such as Santi Cazorla in 2013 and Mesut Ozil in 2014. Pre-season this was a group with 282 years of experience, 1424 appearances and 156 goals between them. Is it any surprise that there was sufficient quality and quantity in midfield to steer the club to 2nd despite losing Santi Cazorla for half the season and slipping from 1st in the table early December 2015.
The reality, however, is that father time and injuries had decimated Arteta, Rosicky, Flamini and Wilshere as evident in the following data on their playing time in 2015-16.
|Mikel Arteta||0 (9)||0|
|Jack Wilshere||1 (2)||0|
|Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain||9 (13)||1|
|Aaron Ramsey||29 (2)||5|
|Mathieu Flamini||12 (4)||0|
|Francis Coquelin||21 (5)||0|
|Mohamed Elneny||9 (2)||0|
No wonder in the summer of 2016 Wenger and Arsenal decided to part company with the four (4) mentioned above. It should be emphasized these players were critical to stabilizing and revitalizing the club in the post-Fabregas era and winning two FA cups in the process (something Fabregas, Nasri, Van Persie et al were never able to achieve). The reality is, their departure left a massive hole in the Arsenal midfield. The following is their individual and combined contribution to Arsenal up to 2015-16:
Compared to the current midfield, the four represented 57% more years experience, 92% more appearances and 63% more goals. Granted, except for Flamini, none of them made a contribution to the 2015-16 campaign but in any football club that is a significant loss of experience.
To fill the breach, the sole midfield signing was 24 year-old Granit Xhaka. This is a player with six years experience in top clubs in Switzerland and Germany (FC Basel and Borussia Moechen Gladbach) with 136 total club appearances and 8 goals, but hardly a patch on the experience of Rosicky, Arteta, Wilshere and Flamini. Moreover, instead of having no less than nine (9) midfielders at the beginning of a season, the group was reduced to seven (7).
It seems Arsene Wenger must have felt a midfield complement of Ozil, Cazorla, Ramsey, Coquelin, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Elneny and the newly signed Xhaka could see the club through. To be honest, that was more or less the same number available to play in 2015-16.
That was a gamble which didn’t payoff especially after Santi succumbed to injury. I don’t expect Wenger, who in my considered opinion will be the manager next year, to again take that risk. He must have already identified his targets and put out feelers to his prospects. I expect another high quality midfielder to be signed next summer, someone in the mould of our little Spanish magician who can act as a deep-lying playmaker. (I am assuming the top, top priority will be re-signing Ozil and Oxlade-Chamberlain.)
In closing, for those who still doubt the value of technically gifted players like Mikel Arteta, I leave you with what to me is an amazing statistic; he made only 9 substitute appearances in the 2015-16 season, weighed down by his dodgy calves, but still managed an 87% passing percentage, the lowest ever in his Arsenal career.
Never forget what your Momma said: “You never know what you have until it is gone.”