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Evidence says both Maddison and Aouar are upgrades on Emile Smith Rowe – But which is the best option?

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With the Euros done and dusted (love you Bukayo!), it is time for the focus to shift completely to The Arsenal – especially their squad building for the upcoming year. Nuno Tavares became the first signing of the summer last week and the pace of arrivals and departures is expected to pick up over the next few weeks. Once Lokonga’s expected arrival is completed, the attention will turn to what I think are Arsenal’s three most important signings – a starting right-sided CB, a starting midfielder to partner Partey, and a starting attacking midfielder. Though I am not fully convinced by Arsenal’s pursuit of Ben White, it seems clear that Arteta and Edu view this as a major piece of the jigsaw. One priority addressed, the only remaining task is the no small matter of building 2/3rd of Arsenal’s midfield!

Arsenal were a poor attacking team in 2020-21

I think most people will agree that Arsenal’s attacking output is nowhere near top-4 levels. Arsenal’s attacking and creative numbers were at a midtable level on average last year – not helped in any way by Arteta’s reluctance to move away from a back three and play an extra attacker until midway through the season.

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Our passiveness with the ball is highlighted by our relative success in entering the final third and the subsequent (alarming!) inability to turn that into meaningful pressure on the opposition. We were close to or worse than the league average in expected goals (xG), non-penalty xG, expected Assists (xA) progressive passing distance, key passes (passes leading to shots), entries into the box, shot creating actions (SCA), penalty area touches, and dribbling. I added two defensive stats – pressures attempted and successful pressures – to this chart because a good press can help in alleviating some of the creative burden on the players, but Arsenal were close to being the worst pressing team in the league. Once teams figured out that there was no need to actually press Arsenal due to their inability to turn control into attacking output, they just let us have the ball with relatively little pressure (Arsenal ranked 14th in pressures faced in the middle third).

Of course, not all of this down to the midfield – Auba had a bad year, Lacazette was his usual average self, and Pepe was not given a consistent run in the team. Despite that, we need to be playing to the strengths of our captain and his supporting cast (Pepe/Martinelli/Saka) this upcoming season. It’s the one area of the pitch where we are stocked with good options and unlikely to invest in this season. That means either creating more chances/shots for our forwards or putting those players in positions to create sustained attacking pressure over the course of 90 minutes week-in week-out. Right now, I do not see Arsenal being capable of playing at a top-4 level over 38 games without significantly improving their midfield’s attacking/creative output.

Yes, there were green shoots of a functional midfield with the introduction of Emile Smith-Rowe/Ødegaard ahead of the Xhaka-Partey partnership. But as @7amkickoff showed, the improvements we made as a team after ESR’s introduction weren’t nearly as big as being 2nd in the form table suggested. Partey showed a lot of promise in an inconsistent season and the hope is for an uptick in form in his second season, and first full preseason with the club. But one man does not make a midfield. Xhaka arguably had his best season for the club. Xhaka is a monster in getting the ball to the final third (97th percentile) but not so good in subsequent phases of the attack (29th percentile in SCA, 31st in expected Assists, 24th in key passes, and 50th in through balls across the big 5 leagues and European competitions).

His form has garnered interest from other clubs and after 5 largely decent seasons, it is time for him to move on. Partey can partially fill that void – his dual ability to move the ball forward and move it forward quickly needs to be tapped into. Lokonga is too raw to take up such huge responsibility. There have been links to the likes of Bisssouma and Ruben Neves as potential Xhaka replacements . I would take either of those and given how much Arteta depended on Xhaka last season, I don’t see a scenario in which Arsenal do not sign a readymade replacement in the event of his departure. Partey + Xhaka replacement + Lokonga + Elneny/Willock/AMN is a nice group to have for those two deep midfield slots. So, I am fairly confident that the base of our midfield will be in good enough shape for the new season. That leaves us with the no. 10 slot.

I love ESR but…

First things first, ESR was a very good shout for our player of the season. Not because of his displays themselves but rather due to what his introduction meant for the team. If he had some of the injured personnel available for that Chelsea game in December, I don’t think Arteta would have played ESR. And would have probably lost his job in the next few weeks. But the introduction of ESR showed Arteta that having an extra attacker can help deliver results even if it slightly compromised our defensive solidity. While that stretch of six league games (Chelsea, Brighton, WBA, Palace Newcastle, Southampton) skewed the post-Chelsea narrative a bit, a run of 5 wins and 1 draw put the back three/five system to rest for good. It convinced Arteta that he needed a no.10 to make his tactics work and salvage the season. It convinced Arteta and Edu to sign Martin Ødegaard on loan to ease the burden on ESR –  who had gone from a promising youngster to first name on the team sheet in the space of a month.

For all those reasons, I love Emile Smith-Rowe. That he came up through the ranks at the academy adds to the charm. He is an important part of our future along with Saka and Martinelli. To help evaluate the two attacking midfielders who have been strongly linked with Arsenal, it is important to also know what our attacking midfielders produced last season. And that means looking at the stats for ESR and Ødegaard. Fair warning, ESR’s stats aren’t impressive. If we were linked with a 20-year-old no.10 from another club with ESR’s statistical profile for > €10m, I would unequivocally ask for Arsenal to stay away from that player. But that is the beauty of rising talents coming from the academy. You are not taking the risk of spending tens of millions to sign them – so you can gamble longer on them breaking into the elite. Also, he is the player I have watched the most among the four compared in this article. And my eye-test tells me there is significantly more potential in ESR than the stats tell because the attributes I most appreciated about him last season were his speed of thought, selfless and decisive off the ball movement, and ability to enable unlocking the potential of other players. I am not an expert in football stats, but there are no metrics to quantify all those things as far as I know.

And now to the all important Aouar vs. Maddison debate.

Thanks to the wall I have built around my twitter timeline over the years, the only two rumours about attacking midfielders to have reached my ears are James Maddison and Houssem Aouar. Apart from the now dead in the water links to Buendia and Ødegaard of course. So, which of the two would I like at Arsenal? Who is the better player? Who would be the better signing? How do they compare against what ESR and Ødegaard produced last season?

Note: All the stats below are based on the 2020-21 season (unless specified otherwise). The playing time for the players were as follows: Aouar – 2050 minutes, Maddison – 2443 minutes, ESR – 2119 minutes, Ødegaard – 1781 minutes across two teams. All stats from Fbref.

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An initial snapshot of the players stats (some base metrics I like to look at in attacking midfielders) tells a very simple story: Both Aouar and Maddison will be a clear improvement on what we had last season. Fbref’s scouting feature that compares players in the Big 5 men’s leagues and European competitions shows that Aouar ranks over the 60th percentile in non-penalty xG, xA, pass completion, touches in the final third, key passes, progressive passes, through balls and dribbling success in the 2020-21 season. Similarly, Maddison profiles very well, though he is about average for pass and dribble success rates. Arsenal’s initial interest in bringing back Ødegaard also made sense – he ranks 70th percentile or above in all these metrics except npxG where his close to bottom of the pile.

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Diving in a bit deeper into passing stats is illuminating. In Ødegaard, we clearly had an elite passer. Except for switches of play, he ranks 80th percentile or above in progressive passes, progressive passing distance, key passes, passes into the final third, passes into the penalty area, passes under pressure, and through balls. Ødegaard’s highest rank (92nd percentile for successful passes under pressure from an opponent) highlights a potential weakness in the two players linked as his replacement.

Maddison ranks in the 61st percentile for passes under pressure while Aouar and ESR are in the 52nd and 38th percentile respectively. That does not look good though I don’t see it as a deal-breaker, especially in the final third. Otherwise, Maddison profiles as a very good passer and could come closest to replacing Ødegaard’s passing. Aouar’s low ranking for key passes and passes into the penalty area could be explained by him playing in a deeper midfield role at times but if passing was the only skill needed in attacking midfielders, I’d say one nil to Maddison.

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Moving on, Aouar more than makes up for his non-elite passing numbers with his brilliance on the ball. He is a high-volume dribbler (90th percentile for dribbles completed) who completes them at an acceptable rate (67th percentile for dribble success rate). He also carries the ball at an elite level and the most encouraging fact here is his high ranking for progressive carries and progressive carrying distance. Neither Maddison nor the two attacking midfielders who played for us last season stack up favourably to Aouar in this area. Ødegaard had low volume and high completion rate for dribbles while Maddison and Smith-Rowe are below average. Smith-Rowe’s numbers needs to be caveated by the fact that he only attempted 29 dribbles (7 successful) in the entire campaign but this is clearly an aspect of his game that needs improvement. All three fare better in ball carrying numbers but overall, Aouar’s numbers are better – and by some distance.

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That both Aouar and Maddison would be an upgrade is further established by their superior ability to be effective contributors to decisive moments in the final third. Though Aouar’s passing numbers are not the greatest, he still ranks above the 90th percentile for shot creating actions (SCA) from open play passes. Maddison’s better passing is reflected in his SCA numbers and both he and Aouar are also good at contributing defensive actions to shot creation plays. Aouar is himself a good shot-taker and averaged 3.59 shots per 90 minutes, 0.12 npxG/shot, and 15.9 yards average shot distance in 2020-21. Maddison on the other hand profiles as a long shot merchant – 23.9 yards average shot distance, 0.06 npXG/shot, and 3.17 shots per 90.

Both however have high numbers for mis controls  whereas ESR and Ødegaard were very safe with their touch last season ranking in the 92nd and 93rd percentiles respectively. Whether that was down to technical issues or the style of play in their respective teams is difficult to tell. But couple that with Aouar and Maddison’s low pass completion percentages under pressure and you might start to have some concerns.

Verdict

I think there are two issues at play here. One is do we need an upgrade on ESR in attacking midfield. And the other is about which of the two linked players would be better. I think most people would have agreed even before looking at the stats that we either needed to bring back Odegaard or add someone to take up his place in the team for this season. ESR alone would be too much of a risk. And that is backed up by the stats. ESR did not put up great numbers and while I am all for giving him the chance to establish himself, asking him to be the team’s primary creator while challenging for the top 4 is too much of an ask. I think his role in the team should be that of a secondary creator –starting from the left when needed additional creativity and technical security is needed and as back-up to a first-choice no.10. If we manage to sell Lacazette, Nketiah, Willian, and Nelson, our options for the four attacking positions will be Aubameyang, Balogun, Martinelli, Pepe, Saka, ESR, and a new signing. So, there will be plenty of time on the pitch for ESR and very little pressure to carry the creative burden on his shoulders all alone.

If that primary creator had been a returning Odegaard, I would have had no complaints due to his elite passing. But I am happy that Madrid wanted him. It allows Arteta and Edu to look beyond the easy (familiar) option and cast a wider net. That Maddison and Aouar are two of the names linked is very encouraging because both are simply better all-round footballers. Maddison would come closest to replacing Odegaard with his excellent and aggressive passing. Aouar does not appear to be as good a passer as Maddison but is still highly effective in using his passing for shot and goal creation. He is clearly much better than Maddison in shooting, dribbling, and carrying and I’d rate both as being defensively on the same level – Maddison is a better tackler and Aouar is better in interceptions and pressures. Both seem to have potential weaknesses with their ball control and passing under pressure. So, if this was a choice to be made based on their footballing talent alone, I think the only conclusion to be drawn is that either would be a good choice.

But there are clearly other factors that will influence any potential signing. Maddison is English and plays for a team who are better than Arsenal. As a result, the rumoured €60m+ fee and ~ €200K/week wages. If we end up completing the signings of White and Lokonga, that will an €80m investment in the squad. Given our time away from the Champions League, loss of match-day revenue, and increased debt, that is already a big outlay without beginning to address our need for midfield starters. Providing the deep lying midfielder costs ~ €30-40m, how much will we have left in the transfer and wage budgets to facilitate a big-money signing in attacking midfield? So, the rumoured fee and wages for Maddison starts to look a bit beyond our reach.

Aouar on the other hand is rumoured to be available for much less. I’ve even seen numbers as low as €20m (which would be an absolute steal) but even at €30-35m, signing him is a no-brainer. We could basically finance his arrival through the departures of Xhaka, Guendouzi, and Torriera. His wages are unlikely to be as high as Maddison. Signing a potential elite talent for such a low outlay might help us to move up a tier in terms of the other midfield targets (Locatelli!!) or strengthen positions such as right back and back-up keeper. You can see where I am going with this.

Stat Aouar Maddison
20-21 19-20 18-19 20-21 19-20 18-19
Goals (season) 7 3 7 8 6 7
Assists (season) 3 4 7 5 3 7
npxG (season) 8.8 3.7 7.5 4.4 4.9 5.9
xA (season) 4 3 3.3 5.3 7.4 7.1
Touches in final 3rd (per 90) 30.2 22.4 20.1 30.3 29.8 30
Touches in penalty area (per 90) 6.92 3.04 3.59 2.96 2.84 2.92
Key Passes (per 90) 1.87 1.24 1.18 2.23 2.88 3.05
Progressive Passes (per 90) 4.95 4.93 5.62 4.33 5.89 4.92
Progressive Passing Distance (yards per 90) 182.9 165.5 222.9 177.9 266.4 239.1
Through Balls (per 90) 0.2 0.28 0.32 0.26 0.55 0.35
Passes into Final Third (per 90) 4.39 4.98 5.94 3.69 5.27 4.35
Passes into Penalty Area (per 90) 1.26 1.06 1.12 1.5 1.54 1.62
Successful Dribbles (per 90) 2.53 3 1.97 1.37 1.92 1.37
Carries (per 90) 51.6 51.5 60.2 41.5 49.8 47.2
Progressive Carrying Distance (yards per 90) 173.2 167.6 155.4 104.5 101.7 107.1
Progressive Carries (per 90) 8.74 8.8 7.91 6.35 5.79 5.75
Carries into Final Third (per 90) 2.47 3.23 2.18 1.76 1.68 2.29
Carries into Penalty Area (per 90) 1.36 0.6 0.71 0.6 0.51 0.44
Shot-Creating Actions (per 90) 5.1 3.17 3.26 4.5 5.76 5.15

 

In addition to the financial aspects, Aouar is clearly a player on the up. Both Maddison and Aouar had break-through campaigns in 2018-19 (both 7 goals and 7 assists) and a second season dip in 2019-20 (Aouar 3 goals and 4 assists, Maddison 6 goals and 3 assists). If you look purely at their goals and assists numbers, it looks like Maddison had managed the inevitable dip better and recaptured his form last season. But the underlying stats point to a more worrying picture for Maddison. His numbers have steadily gone down for a majority of the metrics since his arrival in Leicester in 2018-19. I read somewhere that it could be down to the injury he had at the beginning of last season, but the decline is still noteworthy. Aouar on the other had has managed to improve his underlying numbers and his 2020-21 campaign was his most impressive to date.

Aouar is the clear choice here. Financially it is a deal that makes a lot of sense. On a footballing level, he is on par with Maddison right now. I don’t think Aouar playing in France an issue – many players have managed to successfully make the transition. With Maddison, I don’t see him being any better than he is already (which is still very good!). Aouar’s underlying metrics though shows a player who has improved over the last three years. And if he can make another step-up in the next two years if signed, he could potentially become one of the best creative midfielders in English football. He is also versatile and could play wide left or as part of a midfield 3 in a 4-3-3. At the quoted price for his numbers, we are on the verge of a ‘must-do deal’ territory.

Aouar also ranked in the 98th percentile for nutmegs in 2019-20 – so imagine the fun!

 

Follow me on twitter @gunnerviv.

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3 Responses to Evidence says both Maddison and Aouar are upgrades on Emile Smith Rowe – But which is the best option?

  1. Iain Hanley July 13, 2021 at 3:20 pm #

    One base assumption here is that all 4 players will perform this season as they have in previous seasons – it’s a data analysis, and so that’s all you can do. But… you could easily argue that ESR is both younger and at a much earlier stage of his career, and so his performance is much more likely to make a big leap this coming season. With the other three players, they are much more likely to be already performing at or near their potential. So the real question should be “how do we think they will perform in the future?” – this coming season and, let’s say, the subsequent 4 seasons until 2025. For this question, data is a guide but it cannot ever be the entire picture. ESR knows the league, is settled at the club, and has displayed enough talent in a half-season worth of performances to suggest he is very capable of making a big leap to another level. Also, pragmatically, MØ is not coming, JM is going to be very expensive for someone who struggles to get into the Leicester team (!), and HA would be moving country, leagues etc. Personally, I’d rather gamble on ESR making a jump.

    • Dave Seager July 13, 2021 at 5:02 pm #

      Great point, well made

  2. blave July 20, 2021 at 7:20 pm #

    Excellent analysis. We know Odegaard well, but I’ve been wondering about the other guys strengths and weaknesses. You paint a nice clear picture.

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