Why Houssem Aouar is not the solution to Arsenal’s creative issues
By Alfie Cairns Culshaw (Chief Editor)
As the transfer window continues to drag on, more and more rumours with little substance begin to circulate as many outlets desperately attempt to attract readers with false stories. However, within these hundreds of layers of articles and tweets lie some credible sources reporting stories that appear to have genuine truth behind them. One of these would appear to be the links between Lyon midfielder Houssem Aouar and Arsenal.
Whilst the reliable Transfer Checker on twitter has reported Arsenal’s interest in the 22-year-old Frenchman on several occasions, renown journalist Fabrizio Romano has gone on record as saying Edu and Mikel Arteta are ‘in love’ with the player. Recent reports from France have suggested Arsenal have already had a cash plus Matteo Guendouzi bid rejected, whilst it’s believed the club are already preparing a second offer, and a substantially improved one.
After seeing his talents first hand in the Champions League knockout stages over the last month, excitement over the prospect of bringing Aouar to North London has grown exponentially. His ability to impact a game with his excellent technical security, expansive passing and ball carrying skills have seen him dubbed by many Arsenal fans as the ideal replacement for Mesut Ozil and the saviour to our creative deficiencies. They see him as the modern day creative player who can also fit seamlessly into a flat midfield three and can thus carry out the defensive duties and required pressing exertions to fill a role in a progressive 4-3-3 system. Although he would certainly be a brilliant signing, strengthening our central midfield area, I do believe there is a misperception around the type of player he is. He’s certainly not the solution to all our creative problems that we’re all hoping for.
Aouar is a brilliant central midfield player who can operate in a pivot or a midfield three in a team that doesn’t look to dominate the game or has creativity in abundance elsewhere. On the ball, he’s very effective at progressing the play into the final third, putting up impressive deep progression numbers in each of the last two campaigns, largely through his ball carrying abilities rather than progressive passing. His nimble footwork and athleticism enable him to drive forward from midfield into dangerous areas where he often finds teammates who then find the decisive offensive action in creating a chance.
Aouar also offers something of a goal threat from midfield, something we missed heavily last season in the absence of Aaron Ramsey. He often finds himself arriving late in the box, making good runs off the ball and into large amounts of space, shown in his impressive xG/90 numbers across the last two seasons in Ligue 1, with 0.17 last campaign and 0.22 the year before. This is something that would only increase in a less pragmatic side than Lyon and when deployed consistently in a flat three where he has more licence to roam forward. Just for reference, Matteo Guendouzi, Lucas Torreira, Granit Xhaka and Dani Ceballos managed a combined 0.16 xG/90 in the league last season, and scored a combined five goals in all competitions. Aouar scored nine.
Defensively, he’s more than capable of slotting into a midfield three. Whilst he’s not the most defensively active, he still makes more defensive actions (tackles and interceptions per 90) than both Granit Xhaka and Matteo Guendouzi, even after these numbers are adjusted for possession. Perhaps a surprising stat for many who perceive him as a technical player who operates predominantly in the offensive third, but not for those who know his game more deeply. His 23.7 pressures per 90 minutes also demonstrate his relentless work rate and ability to slot into a cohesive pressing system.
To caveat all the plaudits I’ve just placed on Aouar, he’s still not the pure creator we’re all hoping for. Whilst the 10 assists in all competitions this season would suggest he’s relatively productive in the final third, as I’ve stressed many times, assists are a relatively deceiving metric. They do not accurately portray a player’s creative abilities, and may be skewed by set-pieces or exceptional finishing. If a player plays a five-yard pass to a teammate on the half-way line, who then scores from 50 yards, they get an assist, but that’s hardly creative ingenuity from the assister.
Expected assists directly assess the quality of chances a player creates on a consistent basis. Aouar’s xA per 90 in Ligue 1 of just 0.14 is impressive for a central midfielder in a pivot, but it’s not reflective of a pure creator who is directly contributing to high quality chance creation on a consistent basis. In other words, you may see Aouar involved in deeper build up play, as well as dribbling from deeper areas into attacking areas, but you’ll rarely see him playing the incisive pass that directly leads to a shot in a promising position, which is what Arsenal lack at the moment. Nicolas Pepe, Willian, Bukayo Saka and Alexandre Lacazette all managed higher xA per 90 stats than this humble 0.14. Truly creative attacking midfielders tend to manage around 0.24/0.25 xA per 90 at a minimum.
Don’t get me wrong, Aouar would be a fantastic acquisition. At just 22, he has the potential to improve dramatically, would strengthen what we have in midfield, as well as relinquishing a goal threat from those areas. Arteta could look to mould him into a more creative player and if he is tried in a pure number ten role, who knows how he’d do? Right now, Aouar is not a creative player in the final third, and he alone will not fix that issue next season.