Maddison, Odegaard or Aouar: Who should Arsenal go all out for in the remaining month of the window?
By Alfie Cairns Culshaw (Chief Editor)
For over 12 months now, Arsenal's search for a long-term successor to Mesut Ozil has dominated the narrative of the club's transfer windows. In the summer of 2020, moves for Emi Buendia and Houssem Aouar broke down after extended sagas, whilst in January 2021 the club secured a 6-month loan deal for Real Madrid prospect Martin Odegaard. In the current market, the James Maddison saga has taken the spotlight, as conflicting reports from major transfer gurus such as The AFC Bell, Chris Wheatley and Fabrizio Romano have circulated around the internet.
With just under a month left until the window slams shut on the 31st August, Arsenal's hunt for their marquee summer signing and top priority must begin to gather pace. Reports suggest Maddison tops Arsenal's list, but should Leicester price the Gunners out of a move, Mikel Arteta and Edu will turn their attentions to Odegaard. Aouar remains the cheapest option available to Arsenal, and despite more concrete links to the aforementioned two, the Frenchman is still firmly on the club's radar.
Last season, Arsenal's biggest issue was chance creation. Despite a significant improvement on this front in the second half of the campaign, Arteta's side still finished the season 9th in the expected goals for table and 11th for shots taken. Creating both frequent and high quality shooting opportunities was clearly a big problem and although this issue is multi-faceted, it's largely down to the lack of an individual who operates in central forward areas who specialises in shot creation. Progressing the ball into the final third was not a stumbling block for Arsenal, but getting the ball from there into threatening areas inside the penalty box was.
On this evidence, the most important attribute Arsenal's new signing must possess is the ability to make chances- and a lot of them. Many will point to Emile Smith Rowe to solve this, but our new number ten's best asset is his off the ball movement and link play, not shot creation. Someone who can compliment Smith Rowe's qualities would be ideal.
However, the creator has to be more than merely a creator. Arsenal desperately lack goals from midfield, so adding someone who will provide a decent goal output is also an imperative trait. They'd also ideally be able to contribute to ball progression and build-up play, possess considerable defensive output and hopefully some level of pressing ability.
Asking for elite level production in all these areas is somewhat unrealistic when utilising Arsenal's budget and pulling power, but someone who has a well rounded skillset with an emphasis on creativity is what Arsenal should be looking at when identifying an attacking midfielder. So, which of James Maddison, Houssem Aouar and Martin Odegaard best meets this criteria? Let's have a look at the data.
When assessing a player's ability to create shooting opportunities, two different metrics in particular are very useful, whilst two more compliment them in assessing overall creativity. Shot-creating actions and expected assists help gauge an understanding of how a player directly contributes to creating shooting chances, whilst throughballs and passes into the opposition penalty area demonstrate their general creativity and ingenuity levels in the build-up.
James Maddison, 2020/21
As shown in Maddison's statistical radar above, Leicester's number ten thrives in the final third. His expected assists per 90 value of 0.27 places him in the 86th percentile for all midfielder's in Europe's top five leagues, whilst his 4.8 shot-creating actions places him in the 94th percentile. For context, for players who managed over 15 90's in the Premier League last season, only Kevin De Bruyne, Jack Grealish, Mason Mount and Bruno Fernandes managed more shot-creating actions per game. Maddison's creative numbers are already elite, and with potentially better players with superior movement at Arsenal in front of him, they could well be elevated to another level.
The former-Norwich man operates superbly in the half-spaces. Often picking up pockets of space in between the lines, he combines well with his wide players and often finds intricate passes into the penalty area on the half-turn. His low centre of gravity and immaculate balance enables him to find small amounts of space against packed defences. As Arsenal regularly find themselves up against low compact blocks, Maddison's ability to unlock these defences would bring much needed penetration to an often futile Arsenal attack.
However, despite Maddison's ability to create through precise passing, he doesn't create regularly through ball carrying or dribbling. This is where Houssem Aouar could bring another dimension to Arsenal's attack.
Houssem Aouar, 2020/21
Despite Aouar not quite possessing the elite creative numbers Maddison manages- a symptom of his slightly deeper role in a midfield three in Lyon's system- he does bring superior dynamism and mobility. The French-Algerian's small build enables his nimble footwork in tight spaces and thus his ability to glide past players and move the ball up the pitch. This ball carrying ability is reflected in the data- he sits in the 84th percentile for progressive carries per 90 and the 88th percentile for successful dribbles per 90.
Being deployed in a a number ten role rather than a flat three would liberate him to utilise this dribbling ability to hopefully lead to greater shot creation output. This shift in his role could see him surpass Maddison's creative abilities, and with Arsenal already possessing several passers but few good dribblers, a contrasting style of attacking player to fill this void could provide more variety to Arsenal's often predictable attacking patterns of play.
This could be caveated in that perhaps the Premier League does not provide the space for this dribbling and that technical security in passing rather than agility in dribbling is better suited to the English game. Regardless, it's an element Arsenal should consider in their recruitment.
There have been concerns raised over Aouar's ability to adapt to playing as a ten rather than a free eight. Well, if this analysis of the Lyon man from Football analysts on The Double Pivot Podcast is anything to go by, this shouldn't be an issue...
"He's never really shown anything defensively, so he's clearly an attacking midfielder, perhaps even a forward. There's a big range of possible levels, i.e maybe he's already like a mini KDB, maybe he's merely a solid young AM. At his price, you take the risk."
As for Odegaard, the jury is just about out on the creative front.
Martin Odegaard, 2020/21
Despite clearly possessing reasonable creative numbers, it's not exactly his speciality. Odegaard likes to receive the ball in the right-half space, and whilst he's capable of producing moments of penetration, his main asset is linking the midfield with attack and recycling possession in forward areas. Maintaining relentless pressure and dominating territorially is possible with the Norwegian, but actually making in roads into the opponents box is harder.
Aouar would likely over take Odegaard's creative numbers in a more advanced role, and Maddison is already well clear of them. If Arteta's obsession with retaining the 22-year-old succeeds, we could potentially develop his ability to create, but for immediate short-term solutions to our most glaring problem, the other two look like better investments.
As I alluded to earlier, goals from midfield are at a premium at Arsenal. Forward players dominated the goal-scoring charts for us last season, with Nicolas Pepe, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Alex Lacazette, Eddie Nketiah and Bukayo Saka the only members of the squad managing more than 5 in all competitions. Whilst you'd expect Smith Rowe to improve on his tally of 4 in the upcoming campaign, there is still a blatant shortage.
It's more than a matter of merely addressing the on the surface issue of not enough players scoring enough goals; not enough players take enough shots or get into goal-scoring positions frequently enough as a result of good movement.
As shown in Maddison's radar earlier, the Leicester man would go some way to alleviating this problem. The Coventry-born man ranks in the 84th percentile for non-penalty goals per 90, managing 11 in all competitions last season. Arsenal's infamous reluctance to shoot would be negated with Maddison's involvement in the side, as the playmaker takes 3.24 shots per 90, ranking him in the 94th percentile for this metric.
Although he's clearly extremely eager to let off pot-shots at a rapid rate, evidenced in his npxG/shot being in the 15th percentile, this is often justified by the success rate of his shooting. He may frustrate at times by taking on shots when better passing options are available to him, but when you're outperforming your xG like he does (8 goals from 4.4 xG in the league in 20/21), who can blame him?
Aouar also provides a serious goal threat, but in a completely different way to Maddison. His off the ball movement and timing of runs into the box is superb, and leads to him being provided with frequent presentable shooting opportunities. Whilst managing the same number of shots per 90 as Maddison, his xG/90 is significantly higher- 0.46 compared to 0.23. This resembles a player who makes much more of an impact in the opposition box than his English counterpart- reflected in their touches in the box metric (see radars).
Whilst you'll see Maddison letting off consistent long-shots, you'll see Aouar consistently getting on the end of flowing moves inside the box. There are certainly question marks over Aouar's finishing (7 goals from 10.3 xG in Ligue 1 20/21), but with some polishing up in front of goal he could become an elite midfield bagsman in European football. Maddison's goal threat is perhaps currently far less sustainable.
As for Odegaard, once again, the jury is out with regards to his ability to provide goals. The Real Madrid man likes to drop deep and help the midfielders progress the ball, which means he rarely finds himself inside or even near the penalty box. 2 goals on loan at Arsenal in 1,286 minutes is not a good return, and it wasn't even a result of an unlucky finishing patch. He managed 0.1 xG per 90 (8th percentile) and just 1.42 shots per 90 (18th percentile). Martin Odegaard doesn't take many shots, and he certainly doesn't score enough goals.
Whilst progressing the ball up the pitch is largely the job of the deeper central midfielders and central defenders, having a number ten who can contribute to this and potentially increase the speed at which we get the ball to our forwards is only going to make the team more threatening.
Martin Odegaard, 2020/21
This is where the case for Martin Odegaard can be made. In possession, the Norway captain likes to drop into deeper areas in midfield and take the ball off the central midfielders to find line-breaking, incisive passes or drive forward with the ball to break the lines. Sitting in the 89th percentile for passes into the final third and the 91st percentile for progressive carries, Odegaard's ball progression is certainly his strongest asset. Adding to this his technical security in possession, completing 86% of his passes, Odegaard is perhaps the most comfortable and suited of the trio of options to sitting in a midfield three as a free eight. It's also likely that if he were to make this adaptation, these progressive numbers would only improve.
Despite Houssem Aouar already operating in a three for Lyon, his potential creative abilities and goal-scoring threat makes him more suited to a number ten role to truly unlock his potential. If used as a number ten, it's likely his impressive progressive numbers would decline to an extent, as he's less inclined to drop deep and look for the ball than Odegaard.
Regardless, Aouar has shown at Lyon that if asked to do so, he can seamlessly slot into a midfield three and provide the ball progression required in that role.
Contrastingly, Maddison's all round skillset doesn't quite match the other two options.
Despite effectively providing ball progression through passing, similarly to his creative work, Maddison rarely drives the team forward through ball carrying. As aforementioned, Arsenal already possess pass-y ball progression players at the base of their midfield, but lack penetrative ball carriers. This is an area of Maddison's game that would require some work if he was to come to North London and Arteta switched to a 4-3-3. Additionally, working under a manger who demands security in possession, Maddison's ball retention skills would perhaps have to improve (see his passing % and turnovers per 90).
As is the case in all modern teams, number tens must play their role defensively. Whether that involves being a key component of a cohesive press or just making frequent defensive actions to help the other central midfielders protect the back four, it's an imperative area of their game.
Arteta has thus far at Arsenal not really established a coherent press, but there have been signs in pre-season that he is beginning to implement such a system. Acquiring a ten who excels at pressing would inadvertently aid our ability to create chances.
As shown in the data, of the three targets, none of them stand out in their pressing metrics. Whilst Odegaard presses the most (16.28 pressures per 90), the gap between him and the other two is not drastic enough to make a definitive judgement as to whether that is purely a result of the system he's been deployed in. However, when Aouar does press, he's significantly more successful at it than both Maddison and Odegaard, possibly suggesting that if he's slotted into a pressing system, he has the potential to excel in it.
As for defensive actions, Maddison leads the way with 1.99 tackles and interceptions per 90, compared to Aouar's 1.84 and Odegaard's 1.36. Maddison's visual efforts to work hard for Leicester and his evident ability to use his body effectively to make tackles suggests he is the best on the defensive front, but ultimately it's a bit of a toss up, and this element of their game will largely depend on coaching and their tactical instructions.
Well, they're all good. But who's the best fit?
Evidence would suggest either Maddison or Aouar would be a better piece of recruitment than Odegaard. Despite the latter's qualities in progressing the ball, Arsenal are in desperate need of an out and out creator, and both Aouar and Maddison fit that criteria, whilst also possessing significantly more goal threat. All three could be coached to fit a pressing system, so prioritising their offensive attributes is advisable when making a decision.
With Maddison's homegrown status and not needing to adapt to a new country and league, he's the obvious choice. Having said that, with the respective price tags, you'd lean towards Aouar for value for money. Potentially just a £21 million outlay on a player of Aouar's quality and potential is very hard to ignore. That said, as fans we don't really care about the money, as at the end of the day, it isn't ours.
To answer the article's question, I would personally just about go for Maddison. If I was the club and had the responsibility of safeguarding the club's finances and making sure other areas of the squad were also improved, I'd go for Aouar immediately.