Arsenal Squad Analysis 2020/21: What Do We Have, and What Do We Need?
Updated: May 29, 2021
By Mac Johnson (Senior Writer)
With the 2020/21 season officially over with, I thought it was time to rehash Vinay and Alfie’s piece from last year, reviewing this past season and looking ahead to what will be a crucial summer in Mikel Arteta’s tenure. It’s been an even more turbulent season than the last, and with turmoil between the club and its supporters at an all-time high, it will take a cohesive, coordinated, and uncompromising effort to steady the ship.
But before we talk about the future—It’ll happen, don’t worry—we must unpack the past. My goal here is to analyze player performances in each position throughout the season, highlighting what we do best and what we need to improve upon. Let’s get into it.
This is the first season since his signing where Bernd Leno will not be on the three-man shortlist for Arsenal Player of the Season, which is telling. He’s got an excellent Post-Shot xG, and is in the 75th percentile for goalkeepers in Post-Shot xG minus Goals Allowed, which are the two most telling statistics in terms of goalkeeper success, but he’s nowhere near the top of the charts in save percentage. Why? Because he didn’t have to be.
Over 2017-2019, Bernd Leno faced the most shots of any single keeper in the Premier League. That statistic did not hold this year, as Leno faced a mere 117 shots on target, down from 147 the season before, and 139 the season before that. And despite recording 12 losses, compared to the 8 he recorded in his first two seasons, his clean sheet percentage went up by nearly 10%, keeping 11, instead of the 7 he recorded in both of his first two seasons.
To be fair, Leno has been criticized a fair bit for his shot-stopping this season, due to occasionally loose hands and wide-open legs in key moments, not to mention his first ever Arsenal own goal. But the reason he isn’t off the charts in terms of stopping shots is because he isn’t facing as many. Goalkeepers, like every other player on the pitch, are rhythm players, and can either launch themselves to the top of a category by making the most saves in their position—like Nick Pope at Burnley—or by making the least saves, but retaining more clean sheets due to a low volume of shots faced—like Ederson, at Manchester City.
Leno’s biggest question mark historically has been his ability to claim balls in the box. He’s not the tallest keeper in the world, and though his quickness off the line is instrumental every year in denying breakaway goals, he has often looked unsteady in the air. This season though, the German has improved greatly, nearly doubling his output of crosses claimed, and upping his percentage by a few key points. And it’s showed in games. Leno has looked more secure and more in command of his area this season, and his decision making in particular has been lauded.
And while his claiming has improved, and should come under question less next season, his distribution certainly should be examined. It’s a hard metric for me to fully wrap my head around, given his role in possession is one that combines short, structured passes and often hopeless clearances. Leno attempts a decent 26.96 Passes per 90, and he completes around 80% of his total passes, which doesn’t look great until you realize that he only completes 3.03 Launched Passes per 90, with a 32.2% completion percentage. His average pass length is 28.7 yards, which is one of the shortest in the top flights of Europe, and yet he launches 55% of his goal kicks. It’s an odd mix. He’s calm and collected on the ball, always, and is a great asset in the buildup to possession, but if asked to pass the ball any further than thirty yards, his accuracy vanishes. Part of the problem is that our midfielders tend to hide behind the first line of pressure too often, meaning if he cant find a centre-back or fullback, he launches a long ball, most often to the other team, but even when a player is open, his distribution is suspect. What is necessary to note, though, is that he completed 100% of his passes between 5 and 15 yards, and 99.3% between 15 and 30. He’s a talented passer. Just don’t expect him to go long.
Luckily, we have a longer turnaround before next season, which will allow for the silly season of summer transfers to get hashed out by our inexperienced board. Because yes, even though I did start this subsection with the header “Goalkeepers,” we only really have one. Ryan wasn’t able to compete for a starting spot, Runarsson is unfortunately shite, and our two academy prospects haven’t really given us much to look at. Sorry Karl Hein. And I believe that Leno could be usurped by a better keeper, if one came along with the right profile. If we can find somebody taller, with better long-range distribution and better handling, and the same levels of composure, it could behoove us greatly.
I’m not suggesting we sign Gianluigi Donnarumma. Although he is a fantastic player, his statistical profile is almost identical to Leno’s, with the exception of an additional 3 inches in height. Furthermore, he’s a free agent this summer, but the agent in question is Mino Raiola, who has an awful relationship with Arsenal, and who will demand wages and signing fees that we just don’t have available. It would be a good move, but the Milan wonderkid isn’t a comprehensive upgrade on our beloved Leno.
A year ago, this was one of our problem spots. Now, we’re looking very strong. We conceded 39 league goals this year—the fourth best in the top flight—down from 48 last year, and 51 both of the seasons before. We also has a positive differential of both Goals and Expected Goals, and conceded fewer goals than we were expected to, with an Expected Goals Against score of 44.3. What does that mean? It means our defense has improved, plain and simple.
Rob Holding started the most games of any centre-back in the squad, and really came into his own this season, having never played more than 15 Premier League games over a single season beforehand. Playing more minutes (2,558) than his previous three Premier League seasons combined (2,210), he showed tenacity, grit, and was named Captain on multiple occasions. Not to mention, he’s got some of the best soundclips on the internet. Never afraid to get vocal, that’s our No. 16. It’s been a good season for Holding, and he’ll likely look to build on that next campaign.
David Luiz, who has recently departed the club, was a mainstay from most of our high-profile games this season. He slipped into the veteran role quite easily this season, spending much of his time in the ear of Gabriel, helping his countryman adapt to the English game. His distribution proved key to balancing out Arsenal’s inability to break down low blocks, and his switched of play will be sorely missed. Replacement isn’t necessary though, if William Saliba can live up the the hype, and we sign an adequate No. 6 with a good passing range. Apart from one catastrophic red card against Wolves (deemed such because it shouldn’t have been given), he was remarkably error free as well.
The same cannot be said of Gabriel. His season was an overwhelming mix of raw, untapped potential and talent and over-reliance on physicality, which sometimes got him into trouble. A lack of concentration led to some loose back-passes, and he often earned cheap yellow cards needlessly. But his forward distribution improved prettily over the course of the campaign, and he takes more risks than our other defenders. If they can start paying off, he’ll be a lock to start week-in, week-out. And when it comes to the actual business of defending, he’s got the goods. I’m excited for what next season might bring.
Pablo Marí was certainly an adequate backup, and I believe he can serve in that capacity, especially as this team continues to evolve and grow. Though he does lack top-end pace and acceleration, and occasionally gets trapped on the ball, he is a collected head and a precise passer, and in two seasons’ time, £7m could end up looking like a bargain. 10 starts from 10 appearances and 900 minutes played is a decent return.
Gabriel is the future of the left side of our defense, that much is certain. But what he does need is to find an established partner. If he can figure out how to work with Holding and Saliba, that’s for the best, because that’s where Arsenal has invested much of their time and effort. While our defense was stout this season, they must improve upon speed of play and decision making, and for the love of God, stop underselling their back-passes. But the good news is, this isn’t an area of the team where we need massive upgrades, which I haven’t been able to say going into a summer window for quite a while.
Again, a switch-up from last year. We had a lot of confidence in our fullbacks heading into the 2020/21 campaign, and that confidence hasn’t always been vindicated. Well, one side of the pitch is alright, but the other flank needs an intervention, and fast.
Kieran Tierney is outstanding, and there are no other words I have to say. Even when not fully fit, he’s one of the better players in the squad, and is so important to our progression of play, tactics, attacking output, press-breaking… the list goes on and on. Statistically, he’s one of the biggest goal threats, best assisters, and prolific crossers in Europe’s elite divisions, and it’s clear to see why. The kid is just class.
There’s a constant refrain that we make here at WeLoveYouArsenal Productions (shoutout to the Arsenal Cannon Podcast and Extra Cannon Podcast) that Kieran Tierney just plays “left,” and it rings truer every time I put it in writing. He defends, transitions, attacks, tracks back, and pressures harder than every player in the squad bar Emile Smith Rowe, and he is a future captain of the side. Full stop.
Unfortunately, he needs a backup, desperately. I’d love to sign somebody like Hibernian’s Josh Doig, who can grow into his own skillset watching Tierney play, and hopefully emulating the excellent bits of his game, but injuries dictate that Arsenal must sign a left-back, in order to prevent the outbound Granit Xhaka and Alfie Cairns Culshaw’s favorite “loser,” Cedric Soares from occupying the role.
Speaking of Cedric, we need so much help at right-back. We came into the season with a clear hierarchy: Hector Bellerin as the No. 1 choice, Cedric as a capable backup, and Ainsley Maitland-Niles as a good rotation option, off of both flanks. It hasn’t transpired as such.
We love Hector Bellerin on this site, but he had a relatively abysmal season for the Gunners. The 25-year-old did play the seventh most games in the squad, and had some good moments, but overall, he was very anonymous on the right side. His tendencies to tuck into the midfield and backline left acres of available space for opposing attacks to expose, and he just doesn’t trust his body in one-on-one duels. He lacks his former top-end speed, and just isn’t effective at breaking the press. In fact, he fits more into the Nicolas Pepe mold than anything else—he tends to do his best work in and around the penalty area, and receives the third-most progressive passes of anybody in the squad while he’s on the pitch. Tally up his 7 foul throws this season—more than every other Premier League club combined this season—and it’s struggletown for Hec. It’ll be a pity, and a necessity to see him go, and let’s hope he can raise some decent funds.
Cedric is quite good at being mediocre, if I’m honest. He’ll put in a shift, and run the touchline like you wouldn’t believe, but at the end of the day, he is an excellent rotation option, and a valuable squad member in that regard. I’d be happy to see him play third fiddle next season. Which means that the man carrying the reigns into our next campaign, assuming we don’t freshen up the position, is the newly resurgent Calum Chambers. It seems odd to say that, given he’s only started 8 matches from 10 appearances this season, but it’s true.
Is it due to the limited sample size? Oh absolutely. But Chambers had an absolutely barnstorming return to the squad. He currently boasts numbers of 0.26 Assists per 90 minutes, 80th percentile xG statistics, stellar passing numbers, both in terms of completion percentage and passing distance, and one hell of a record of creating goals off the dribble. But most importantly, he has an incomprehensible level of success on the ball in the defensive third. He makes 10.42 ball recoveries per 90 minutes, and has some of the best numbers in terms of successful touches, passes, and successful dribbles across the defensive third and penalty area. He’s secure, capable, self-assured, and tactically astute. Effectively, he came into the squad and made himself indispensable, much as he did at Fulham two years ago, when he won their Player of the Season award while on loan.
I think he’d make an excellent right-sided centre-back, an excellent right-back, and an excellent No. 6. He’s versatile, strong, technically brilliant, and he has no problems making the runs that most people don’t want to make. His ability to recover the ball in and around the touchline, and make darting runs in behind opposing backlines, has been especially crucial to our recent successes. He’s in with a shout for a more permanent starting berth, especially if he can maintain his short-term numbers across a full campaign.
But the best solution to our tight-back woes is to ain’t no lie baby, buy buy buy. Whether Max Aarons, Tariq Lamptey, Nordi Mukiele, Emerson, or one of the dozens of other touted signings, we need fresh inspiration at right-back. Someone who knows either the English game or is familiar with European football would be preferable, but we need an injection of talent to truly match Tierney’s brilliance on the left, which is no mean feat.
Below are the respective stat maps for Dani Ceballos, Emile Smith Rowe, Thomas Partey, and Granit Xhaka, from left to right.
Possibly the biggest conundrums about Arsenal’s disappointing 2020/21 campaign took place in the midfield. I don’t have very many players to talk about, because we loaned out every spare central midfielder we could, but those who stayed all played rather integral roles to the team, in varying capacities. Fortunately, the 4-2-3-1 was Arteta’s favored formation, and the midfield will be relatively easy to break down as a result, despite the ever-shifting combinations of personnel at the double pivot and No. 10 positions.
New boy Thomas Partey is the obvious place to start for me. Injuries beset what would otherwise be considered quite a good first campaign in the English top flight. Though he didn’t always show it, his progressive passing and defensive contributions were second to none this season, and he’ll provide a true anchor point for years to come. I don’t think there’s too much to say about him, though I would love if he didn’t feel the need to do everything himself. Partey did establish an unfortunate habit of tacking sloppy passes onto the end of promising moves, and his concentration will have to improve as he looks to cement himself within the ranks of the Premier League’s elite.
Dani Ceballos, in contrast, had a season to forget. The Real Madrid loanee thankfully will not be making his Emirates return in the future, which is a welcome relief. Just as Partey showed us the wide range of things he could do—a dynamic midfielder with ball-winning capabilities and a wicked eye for a long ball—Ceballos showed us an overwhelming incapability to cope with the physicality and tempo of the English game. Thanks for that one goal against Sheffield United, Dani, now jog on.
Granit Xhaka had his best ever campaign in the red-and-white. Our No. 34, formerly No. 29 (seriously, Granit, what’s with the wonky numbers?) demonstrated stability, maturity, a cool head, and some genuinely lovely moments in pressure that left us asking… how soon can he leave? But on a serious note, the fact that Xhaka has begun to show his true colors (read: he’s actually rather talented) trends more towards a sad fact as we look to garner a meager transfer fee, rather than a building point for the future. Xhaka may not have a future in this Arsenal team, but this season will render his departure heavy in our hearts. An increased tactical role in the squad has proven especially helpful, as Xhaka has played central-midfield-cum-left-back, in order to balance out the marauding runs of Kieran Tierney and Emile Smith Rowe. We’re just not that good without him.
Mo Elneny did his Mo Elneny best, running his legs off and scoring a few worldies to seal the deal. He’s an excellent backup, and does quite well as a No. 6 and No. 8, especially in the Europa League. While we may not have any European competition next season, keeping the Egyptian around could prove beneficial for rotation options, especially if keeping Thomas Partey healthy is in the balance. And thankfully, we won’t have to see him play alongside Dani Ceballos ever again.
And now for our two wonderful No. 10’s. Emile Smith Rowe had a breakout season, his first in real contention for a starting role for the Gunners. Alternating between a brilliant role out wide, some sterling performances in the center of the park after the turn of the year, and even some appearances as a second striker, and even as the sole striker at some points. His versatility was useful, but his low-socked running style gave us so much more than that.
Serving as a frequent goalscorer and provider, he scored 6 and assisted 4 across all competitions. He’s been one of our most consistent standout performers, and is the only Arsenal player who can really drive and move with the ball at his feet. Smith Rowe really hasn’t put a foot wrong this season. Of course, he lacks a bit of cutting edge, and he makes mistakes, but his first touch, ability on the half-turn, and ability to shake defenders and face up opponents has him rubber-stamped as a future world-class star, assuming he can stay healthy. Hopefully he signs a new contract too.
And speaking of players truly yet to sign, let’s talk about our other Real Madrid loanee, Martin Ødegaard. He collected 2 goals and 2 assists over his 20 appearances for Arsenal, which isn’t an awful showing, and he injected excellent energy and vigor into the side, along with a cutting final ball and some serious wizardry with a pass, all of which has been sorely lacking since the disappearance of Mesut Özil, which happened about two years before the German left the club.
But more than that, he’s given us a lot to think about in terms of what we need to add to this team. Consummate creators, at least two, maybe three, are all necessary, but we also need players with a serious cutting edge, along with a dose physicality and some serious pace. We need players who are athletic, creative, and above all, who progress the ball quickly and efficiently. Speed of play has been our midfield’s biggest problem over the past few years, especially this season, where we often looked timid, and scared to take the risks necessary to break down the low block. Whether the 4-2-3-1 or the 4-3-3 is the formation of the future, the midfield is the area of the team where we need the most improvement. A No. 6—Yves Bissouma, I truly hope—at least one No. 8, and if we don’t sign two of those, at least one dedicated No, 10. Not like it’s a difficult shopping list or anything.
The wings are an area of contention within this Arsenal squad, because we have three players who can’t really figure out their best position, supported by two players (soon to be one) who know where their best position is, but likely shouldn't touch the first team anytime soon.
Nicolas Pepe is quite possibly the best example of that. He’s earned seven goals and two assists starting at right wing, six goals and two assists starting at left wing, and two goals and one assist off the bench… which makes for quite a headache when it comes to team selection. Of course, that record looked quite different before Pepe scored a pair of braces in his last two Premier League games, both off the right. He’s a talented player, no mistake, but he’s really starting to mesh with this Arsenal squad, and adjust to the English game. He still needs to work on his weaker foot, and must be quicker and more efficient at driving towards the byline in order to cut the ball back, so defenders cannot adjust themselves to his blatant one-footedness. But generally, his best place within the squad is still not totally clear. It’s a difficult situation, one made more difficult by Bukayo Saka.
Our Starboy’s goal contributions have come entirely from the right flank, with six of his seven goals and four of his six assists coming from the right wing. However, his versatility means he’s been played at seven different positions throughout the season, with rare constants across all positions. He’s press-resistant, draws numerous fouls, and works best in between the lines, drawing players in then spinning behind. The funny thing is, he’s not a terrifically creative player, or an excellent defender, or even a stellar passer, but he tends to frustrate the mess out of opponents nonetheless. It’s an intriguing conversation to have.
The third of those wingers, funnily enough, is Emile Smith Rowe, yet again. When he’s not a central midfielder or No. 10, he features prominently on the left wing. In terms of ball progression, he’s probably the best player in the squad, and his dribbling is second to none. Unlike Saka and Pepe, he’s remarkably skilled at cutting inside or driving the byline, regardless of where he’s asked to play. It makes him a handful for defenders, and bodes well for the future.
The two wingers truly cast to the side have been Reiss Nelson and Willian, both for good reason. Willian isn’t good, and I’ll leave it there. That’s enough said and I can’t wait to see the back of him. But Nelson hasn’t been given a chance, and I have a theory as to why. While at Hoffenheim on loan a season ago, he had some reported disciplinary and attitude issues that led to his benching even after he returned to full fitness. Now, he can’t even make the squad, with Hale End prospects and fourth tier goalkeeper often named ahead of him in the smallest of competitions. Arteta isn’t the type to stick someone on the naughty step without a genuine reason to subject them to such a treatment.
This Arsenal squad had serious issues both creating chances this season, and finishing them. The wingers in the squad have a lot to do with that. We struggle to penetrate the penalty area, and disturb defenses with vertical runs. It’s a genuine problem that only recruitment can solve. We need an out-and-out left winger. Limiting Pepe and Saka to primarily right-sided roles, allowing Smith Rowe to alternate between the No. 10 and backup roles for a hopefully high-profile winger that we bring in for the left side could be the most efficient way to balance the squad and the checkbook.
You’ll note that I have included neither Gabriel Martinelli nor Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang in this consideration, and there’s a relatively simple answer for why that is. Despite their positional versatility, they are both centre-forwards, and will both be discussed later on in this section. Ability and talent in cameos aside, neither can be considered for the winger position because frankly, they shouldn’t play there, unless they can play as an inside forward with another midfielder outside of them, a role that would usually fall to one of the aforementioned players. And speaking of centre-forwards: on to them.
Below are the stats for Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette, from left to right.
It’s been a jumbled season for our forward line. We effectively have three forwards who are good at different aspects of the game, and two forwards who have yet to totally prove a certain skill at anything in particular. Whether that means they’re well-rounded or simply not high-quality enough, I don’t know, but I imagine we’ll soon find out.
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang has an incredibly interesting statistical output for this past season. In a season of low performance and unfortunate injuries and illnesses, Auba scored mostly chances with relatively high xG, while committing very few pressures, and taking even fewer touches in the box. The answer? Auba was not so much an opportunist as a goal poacher. He scored the easy chances, as one might expect him to, and did his usual "fox-in-the-box" routine, but also was particularly poor in the air, and in the press, not to mention on the ball. Whether it's a sign of his age or a factor within our tactical setup, we did not get the best of Aubameyang this season. The Gabon international, though, is here to stay.
Lacazette, on the other hand, had quite an efficient season. He managed a high proportion of shots on target—nearly 60%—and despite taking fewer touches in the box than his counterpart, he scored more goals, at a greater rate, and bagged more assists and a higher xGBuildup to boot—effectively, he was more effective in contributing to team chances that led to goals, whether or not he finished them. He pressed better with a greater rate of success, turned the ball over less, and due to his skill with his back to goal, was a better all-around teammate. It's also important to note he dribbled and passed into the final third at almost triple the rate of Auba, while receiving the more progressive passes per 90 to boot. And yet, he's slated to leave, though his value has never been higher since we signed him. The now-thirty-year old has a year left on his Arsenal deal, and the time to sell is now or never.
And while Aubameyang poaches, and Lacazette drops deeper and collects the ball, Martinelli does his best work as a pressing forward, driving in behind the lines and taking on defenders. Though we didn't see enough of him as a centre-forward, he did feature heavily as a substitute on the left wing, and showcased his finishing ability in a couple of key moments. We all know and appreciate Martinelli's talent, and next season could be the proving ground for his potential starting berth.
We also handed a new contract to Flo Balogun, in the hopes that he can cement his place in the side in the coming years. Effectively, the young Englishman has superseded his compatriot, Eddie Nketiah, in the pecking order for the next young forward to get his shot through Hale End. As a result, I'm relatively sure that Nketiah will be out of the club soon, which will free up a squad spot, if nothing else. However, it's clear that Arteta will only rely on Martinelli in dire situations—Emile Smith Rowe was preferred during a rather unfortunate Europa League tie against Villarreal—and he doesn't have any faith in our youngsters. Which means, with the departure of Lacazette, the aging of Aubameyang, and the insurgence of youth, we need a new, dedicated No. 9 to lead the line, and the rebuild, until our youngsters have hit maturity.
Ivan Toney is the name on most Arsenal fans' lips, as he's one of the best all-round forwards to come out of England in the past few years. He's quick, strong, and is a technical finisher who rarely squanders chances. From other nations come rumours connecting us to a few Portuguese wonderkid the everpresent link to Moussa Dembele, and a rather interesting rumor surrounding Dusan Vlahovic, Fiorentina's primary hitman. Regardless of who we do sign, we need experienced and talented signings. With the exception of right-back and central midfield, there is no area of recruitment more important than the striker position.
What we have:
A world-class left-back
One world-class central midfielder
Three potentially top-tier wingers
A good corps of youth
What we need, in priority order:
A Premier-League level No. 6
A 15-20 goal striker, with all-around ability, specifically with a combination of speed and aerial ability
A starting right back
A Premier-League level No. 8, whether or not Granit Xhaka leaves
A backup left back
A Premier-League level No. 10
One top-class dynamic attacker, preferably one who prefers featuring off the left flank
We've got a lot to do, with very little time and very little money. But the good news is, we do have a decent core and a secure backline to build upon. Unfortunately, we're now in the mass-recruitment stages of the rebuild process, where every player we purchase must be a lock-on for the future. And out shopping list is still very, very long. Let's get down to business.