Who are you Gunner pick? Assessing Arsenal’s FPL prospects

10/09/2020 Planet FPL

Ahead of the new season, I am filled with a worrying lack of pessimism surrounding Arsenal’s potential. For once there even seems to be more than one slightly viable Arsenal asset for your FPL teams. Accordingly, I’ve been able to find three picks that I think represent decent value, as well as briefly touching on some fringe choices that could be of consideration to a few of you out there.

Aubameyang – £12m

Little needs to be said about Aubameyang’s FPL prospects, but it wouldn’t make for a very good article if I left it there. His potential has already been excellently covered by Tom of Who Got The Assist infamy in his excellent ‘Talisman Theory’ article; if you haven’t read it yet, stop what you’re doing (I assume it’s reading this tripe) and check it out-> https://whogottheassist.com/talisman-theory-2019-20-report/. Now that you’re back, you can see the data supports the hallowed ‘eye test’ that Aubameyang really is Arsenal’s main man. It has felt for the past two seasons that, if the Gabonese striker is not on his game, the Arsenal attacking plan … well to call it a plan would be generous. He finished the season in excellent form, and produced in pivotal moments. To borrow a phrase from across the pond, he put the team on his back and carried the attacking burden for the semi and FA Cup final, with goals of exquisite poise and calm.

Carrying on this streak into the monumentally prestigious Community Shield (the quintuple is on), he showed that regardless of his state of fitness he can still produce goals. The finish for his goal was extraordinary, and there are no other words for it. Add to that multiple goals in pre-season friendlies, and Aubameyang looks set to start the season as he finished the last.

Now for the numbers bit. According to the aforementioned podcaster, Aubameyang would have scored around 230 points as a midfielder last season. In a side with less creativity than an E.L. James screenplay, that kind of points total is extremely impressive.

“But Adam”, I hear you cry, “what about the underlying stats?!?!”. Good question, internal monologue, I’m glad you asked. Since he joined Arsenal, Aubameyang’s xG delta has flipped completely. At Dortmund he was renowned as an underwhelming finisher but an elite ‘chance getter’, i.e. he got a lot of chances. This is supported by the fact that, per 90 minutes, he got 3.4 shots on target in his final season at Dortmund compared to 2.58 last season with Arsenal; accordingly, his goals per shots on target has increased. Final bit of number dumping (for a while) is the oft cited xG. As I stated before, since he joined Arsenal he has begun to sizeable overperform his xG compared to his career history. In 2018/19 it was a moderate +1.2, but last season (2019/20 for those of you with lockdown brain) this jumped up to +6.3.

So, what does this actually mean? It could be down to a number of factors.

Has he simply improved as a finisher? It’s certainly possible, and indeed some of the goals he has scored are that of someone with an added arrogance in front of goal. Yet, there are also games in which he looks more like Francis Jeffers than Thierry Henry.

One thing that is important to note is the difference in the composition of the squads he was part of. Looking back on the Dortmund rosters he was a part of, the chance creators he was able to work with are sizeably better than the ones he has played with thus far at Arsenal. He played as the attacking fulcrum of a team with peak Gotze, Reus, Mkhitaryan, and Schurrle; this is why his shots on target per 90 are down, and could indicate why his xG is down. He isn’t having the same quality of chances he previously had, and so is having to do so much more of the work by himself. Add to this the fact that he is more often played out on the wing, and you not only leave him with fewer opportunities, but the opportunities he does get are likely to be harder.

Lastly, I think it is important to consider the additional creativity already added to the Arsenal squad. Adding to the Seleçao selection, the Brazilian is a cut above the statistical standouts for chance creation in the current Arsenal squad. Last season, in the Premier League, the biggest chance creators were Pépé and Ozil (yes, seriously) with 39 and 36 key passes respectively. Willian, by contrast, racked up a substantial 71. Fans of maths will see that is *checks notes* more … a lot more. Whilst there isn’t certainty as to Willian’s role in the Arsenal side, Arteta has lauded his flexibility and talked about his ability to play on both wings as well as behind the striker.

The upshot is I have probably spent the last few paragraphs talking about a player which 99% of you already have in your sides. If you don’t, I would seriously consider bring him in for at least the first 2 matches, and even handing him the armband for the opening day.

Ainsley Maitland-Niles – £5m

The Arsenal defence is an intriguing proposition to consider this season. The seasonlong statistics indicate Arsenal are overperforming defensively, with the second highest xGA overperformance in the league; the Gunners conceded 9 fewer than the metrics would predict. The Emery caveat aside, it is interesting to note the statistical compatriots in this category last season – Sheffield United (conceding 13 fewer) and Newcastle (conceding 9 fewer). Both of these sides are typically thought of as resolute defensively.

Focusing more on Arteta’s time in charge, I think it is hard to argue that Arsenal haven’t looked more resolute defensively, and have looked more competitive in the ‘bigger games’. This is corroborated with an improved post-restart clean sheet ratio. Although in this period Arsenal lost 4 matches in the league, only 2 of these went according to the underlying stats that many are using to denigrate Arsenal’s defence, one of which was away at City when Arsenal suffered an early defensive injury and also suffered a severe case of David Luiz.

Having made the case for the defence, I’ll come to Maitland-Niles himself. The versatile youngster has had a bit of a hokey-cokey in Arteta’s preferences. Seemingly in favour when he first took charge, he then dropped out of the manager’s good books as it emerged that he was actively seeking a move away in order to guarantee more first team football. A change in formation and attitude from Maitland-Niles, who reportedly made amends with Arteta and doubled-down his efforts in training, saw him return to the starting XI in pivotal matches. Not only was he trusted in important games, he was trusted out of his favoured position, and tasked with martialling some of the most devastating attackers in the country. The FA cup showcased the best of his ability as, after silencing Mahrez in the semi-final, he dealt comfortably with the duel threat of Reece James and Mason Mount in the final. On top of that, he showed real attacking endeavour, and exploited the gaps in-between Chelsea’s wingbacks at centre backs, linking well with Aubameyang.

After another encouraging performance in the esteemed Community Shield, I think the LWB spot is his to lose, and nothing he has done recently on the pitch suggests he will. Talk of a move to Wolves has almost entirely disappeared, with it seemingly Hector Bellerin closer to the exit door (rumours of PSG, and most recently Barcelona indicate he may be on the way out). With the centre-backs a bit of a lottery after Luiz’ injury in training, I think AMN is the best semi-budget route into Arsenal’s defence.

Kieran Tierney – £5.5m

Kieran ‘Tesco’ Tierney has become somewhat of a cult hero already at Arsenal, and it is very easy to see why. On top of being a very humble and down-to-earth guy, he matches this with a similarly honest play style. Determined in the tackle, he has an exceptional eye for timing of when to commit, and when show the attacker down the line. I waxed lyrical about his ability in my review of Arsenal’s defenders last season (http://www.planetfpl.com/arsenal-end-of-season-player-manager-ratings/ ), and I think a potential switch to a back four would only improve his attacking prospects. It’s important to remember that he was only able to make 12 starts last season due to persistent injuries, and some of these came under Emery and his … ‘interesting’ defensive system. He is pivotal to Arsenal’s defensive system regardless of formation, and has shown a potential to offer attacking returns in both. In the league, he registered a xA per 90 minutes higher than Mendy, Walker and Aurier, and matched FPL legend Marcos Alonso. I would expect this to increase this season as Arsenal add creativity to their side in the window, and as Arteta has more time to embed a fluent attacking system in the players as the season progresses.

What about the budget options?

Saka – 5.5m

A great price to start the season with, and showed excellent pre-season form in the illustrious Community Shield. His missed minutes post-restart were due to overloading and a minor injury, with Arteta’s confidence in him signalled by the fact he will wear the number 7 this season. He’s versatile – played in 8 different positions last year – and notched 4 goals and 10 assists at just 19, I think it is hard to deny he has an exceptionally bright future. The major worry about him FPL-wise is rotation. For the first couple of games I would be much more confident in him starting than I would longer term, as Willian, Pepe and Martinelli (when he returns from injury) could all provide competition for his place.

Saliba – 4.5m

A highly promising French centre-back, Saliba comes off an injury hit but impressive season individually. He helped his side reach the French Cup final, and has been touted for a great future. In the televised friendly he looked quite comfortable and showed his excellent burst of pace and tactical awareness, looking very strong in the duel. Of the two new defensive signings, I think he is more likely to feature early doors due to the fact he has been training with the rest of the squad for longer. With the news that David Luiz suffered an injury in training, it looks likely that Saliba will start against Fulham. Beyond that, I think he is likely to be rotated in the starting XI, if nothing else as a result of the sheer number of central defenders in the Arsenal squad. Compound this with his inexperience and I think he could be source of frustration if you are relying on him every week.

Holding – 4.5m

With a loan move to Newcastle in the ether, I’m not sure how long he will be an Arsenal player for. Everything looked set for Holding to move to Tyneside before the Community Shield, but the deal stalled as Arteta appears to want to keep him around for the opening games of the season; fortunate given Luiz’ injury. It could be an extremely risky strategy, but I have considered starting with him on basis I think he will start GW1 and then hold him for a potential loan move to Newcastle. However, as Jamal Lewis has entered the game at a tantalising 4.5m, this elaborate plan may be a bit more bother than it’s worth.