In light of the news that Arsenal have made 55 staff redundant, including what appears to be a complete overhaul of the scouting department that will see highly rated members such as Francis Cagigao, Brian McDermott (yes, that one), and a number of data-focused scouts depart, player ratings seem a bit trite. In fact, I’ve had to add this caveat that you are currently reading (and hopefully enjoying as a whimsical aside), that Arsenal have now ‘parted ways’ with the Head of Football Relations Raul Sanllehi. Combined with … everything else, it is almost impossible for me to even remember the start of the season, yet alone analyse the individual performances of the entire squad. Hence this article comes to you a little later than I would have liked.
I’ll be basing this rating system from 1-10, evaluating each player separately from each other where possible, and assuming 5 as ‘average’ (obviously, 10 is great and 1 is in the Chamakh-zone).
With how well his replacement has performed since the German was injured against Brighton, it seems as though many have forgotten Leno was arguably our best player up until that point. Coming into the season, whilst satisfied with his performance, there was a sense amongst Arsenal fans he was only ‘good enough’. This season, I think he took a step up. With goalkeepers, your mind is drawn to their errors, and Leno’s blunder against Chelsea at home that arguably cost us the win stands out as a blot on his season. Yet, this has to be caveated by the number of sensational games he had. Even as the team did their best to let him down, I think of away at Watford, home to Southampton, and away at West Ham where, regardless of the result, he pulled out sensational saves at crucial moments. Particularly vs Southampton, where Arsenal only drew, Leno made an excellent one-on-one save when the game was on a knife-edge. This is where he has elevated himself this year; he is making decisive saves at pivotal moments in matches. I firmly believe he would have been recognised as one of the goalkeepers of the season had he maintained his fitness.
Rating – 8
On a human level, it is hard to think of a better story than Emi Martinez this season. The club’s longest serving player, who had made less than 15 starts in the league prior to this campaign, was probably not someone anyone outside of Arsenal had heard of. Looking like the innocent member of a mob family killed in the opening act of the film, his chipmunk face belies a ruthless energy we’ve seen since he became Arsenal’s starting keeper. Like Leno, he has needed to be as excellent due to the amount of shots Arsenal concede, but that only adds to my surprise at his form. He seems to have bulked up since his loan spell at Reading, allowing him to be more commanding in the air. He is exceptional at reading crosses, and holds on to the ball more than many keepers I can remember at Arsenal. His strong wrists (behave) mean he is able to palm the ball away from danger, making multiple ‘fingertip saves’ that defy belief. Away against Tottenham he made two sensational stops that are so sharp, you need multiple camera angles to truly appreciate them. His distribution is very good too. In the rare occasion he is caught out with a wayward pass, he doesn’t let it phase him; a trait common in Arsenal goalkeepers of yore.
Ultimately, it’s nice to see a goalkeeper improve whilst actually at the club. Recent years have seen the likes of Fabianksi and Szcesney move to other clubs and elevate their performances greatly (Ospina less so, but in fairness not having a neck doesn’t help him). With both Leno and Martinez progressing significantly this year, Arsenal are left with a conundrum between the sticks … and for once it’s a good one! It’s now thought the club won’t be looking to sell either player, and will extend Martinez’ contract and let the two fight it out for the No1 spot.
Rating – 8.5
A common theme you will see emerge is me trotting out the line ‘it is hard to evaluate x because of injuries’ – let Hector be the first to slot into that category. 25 appearances from the supposed first choice right back, for a club in multiple competitions speaks to his stop-start campaign. After a horrendous ACL injury against Chelsea last season, it has been a gruelling road to recovery (another cliché we’ll see repeating like a dodgy kebab) for him. When a player is so renowned for his athleticism, his short sprints and recovery pace, an injury like this will have an even bigger impact. For Bellerin this was magnified as a lot of what he does best technically revolves around his ability to use his pace to position himself correctly, e.g. his recovery slide tackles, his aggressive interceptions, and his ability to beat a man with quick feet.
When he first returned he seemed to have lost his confidence. He was not committing to challenges understandably, but it was most concerning in the way he attacked. He seemed to have lost that mythical ‘yard of pace’ that the co-commentators’ bible prophesises about. In all honesty, until he scored the equaliser against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge, I struggle to think of a good game he had. Even after that game, one he always gets up for due to his passionate hatred Marcus Alonso (guess he prefers left backs of the non-man slaughter variety), his performances ebbed and flowed. It was not until Mikel Arteta seriously got his feet under the metaphorical desk that he begun to look like the Bellerin of old (and by old, I mean when he was 21 as supposed to 24). In the FA Cup latter stages we saw elements of what he can do at his best. The burst of pace was back, the confidence seemed to return, and his defensive awareness appears to have improved over the past few months. Despite that, were an offer to come in for him in the Summer, I think Arsenal would consider it.
Rating – 5.5
I’m sure even selecting him in this category would annoy him; he has made no secret in the past that he doesn’t see himself as a defender. I could get quite esoteric and ask ‘What exactly is a Maitland-Niles?’. This precise question I think has been his major problem. He is hampered by his versatility. Such is his ability to cover right and left back, central midfield, and both wings, he has failed to truly define himself. This is partly the fault of coaches not giving him consistency, but also due to the player not defining his role through performances. Whenever he has been given the chance in his preferred midfield spot, he has rarely shone when compared to the outstanding performances he put in at left wing-back in the FA Cup semi and final. As a Hale End academy graduate, I look at him with extremely rose-tinted spectacles, and admit to horrendous bias when it comes to evaluating him. Saying that, I think he is a generational talent, England’s best defender, and makes TAA look like he needs to go to AA. Joking aside (ahem, yes … joking…), I really do think he is a very talented player. We saw how well he coped with Riyad Mahrez in the FA Cup, showcasing his defensive ability. The FA Cup final allowed us to see his prowess going forward from the left wing-back spot, as he tormented Azpilicueta to the extent that his own hamstrings saved the Spaniard further embarrassment by imploding. This gives me much cause for optimism; Arteta clearly has faith in him. Yet it was only a few weeks previous that AMN had spoken about how he wanted to leave Arsenal to guarantee first team football, and had been side-lined by Arteta. Arsenal’s signing of Cedric made his departure look inevitable, so the late season turnaround was a surprise. Now we are hearing he will be sacrificed in the Summer (as in sold – we’re not going to put a stake through him at the alter of Robert Pires) despite Arteta wanting him to stay. This would be a great disappointment for me, as it would mean two seasons in a row the Arsenal player I tipped to breakthrough would have been moved on (yes, I really did think Iwobi would be good). For the club, getting anything less than £25 million would be disappointing due to the relative experience for someone of his age, versatility, and his homegrown status.
Rating – 6
Ah, Mustafi. Sweet, hamstring-pulling Mustafi. Poor, ‘I’ll shout and point rather than commit to track a man I should be marking’ Mustafi. Innocent, ‘Let me lunge into this challenge to atone for my previous error, oh dear I’ve sold myself short and exposed the entire defence’ Mustafi. More holes in his game than a slice of Leerdammer, crumbles like room temperature feta, and easier to cut through than freshly baked Camembert. Prior to Arteta, this was Mustafi. A walking catalogue of errors that makes the Argos Christmas special look like a pamphlet from the Jehovah Witnesses. I could go through and list some of the errors he made, but instead I’ll describe three incidents that demonstrate not just why *he* is not the CB Arsenal need, but how he impacts others.
Chelsea at home, a break from the opposition and rather than committing to his man in the early stages on the halfway line, he backtracks like a Government COVID announcement, allowing Pedro, Willian and Abraham to jog all the way into the Arsenal final third. Chelsea score, and win the game.
Chelsea again, this time away. Many remember this game for David Luiz’ red card. People forget it was the woeful back pass from Mustafi that put Luiz in the situation where he had to make the decision whether or not to commit the foul. Yes the Brazilian made the wrong one, but Mustafi constantly does this; he is a human hospital pass waiting to happen.
Spurs away. A game in which he had actually played relatively well until halftime. Suddenly, his confidence evaporates, and he starts lunging like a middle-class mum in yoga class. The image of Harry Kane running past him has he dives in needlessly to a challenge is one that perfectly captures his issues.
And yet … and yet, here I was worrying about him not being available to start in the FA Cup final. Perhaps that speaks more to our other options at CB, but you have to give credit to him. On the whole, he has managed to redeem himself somewhat under Arteta. His relative improvement to where he has been previously is perhaps the most surprising since Emery departed. Granted, two of the errors I listed came since the managerial change, but I think on the whole Mustafi has been ‘ok’ since Arteta took charge. For him, ‘ok’ is pretty good. Is he good enough to be a regular starter? God no. Would I sell him in the Summer? Absolutely, but his injury may hamper that.
Rating – a begrudging 6.5
Had he not been subbed on in the dying stages against Chelsea I would have forgotten about him to be honest. Only 1 Premier League appearance under Arteta shows he clearly isn’t rated by the manager, despite the fact that he has probably been less error-prone than Luiz this season, and more consistent since his arrival at the club than Mustafi. Since the restart he played under 10 minutes, so the writing for his Arsenal career is on the wall. Hard to evaluate a player so sparingly used, but I think the fact that I hope he moves on in the transfer window speaks to the fact that he has only ever been ‘just fine’ throughout his Arsenal career.
Rating – 5
Another Arsenal defender who’s season was blighted by injury, Chambers had arguably been one of the club’s best performers under Emery despite being used a lot at right back. He showed increased maturity and decision-making, both of which had been serious shortfalls of his previously. Given he has played at Arsenal for six seasons now, with a couple of good loan seasons at Middlesbrough and Fulham thrown in, I still struggle to define him. I’ve seen great improvement from him as a central defender and feel he would be a perfectly good squad option in that position, especially given he has shown he is still capable of improvement. Yet rupturing your ACL has already proven to stunt the development of two Arsenal defenders, both of whom are younger and with higher ceilings. Throw into the mix that his best two seasons have been for relegation fighting (and losing) sides, in positions and formations Arsenal are unlikely to use him in, and the reasons to keep him around the squad dwindle (apparently my wish to maintain the handsome quota aren’t legitimate). It looks likely his Arsenal career will come to an end this Summer, with a heavy case of ‘what-might-have-been’ about him. A good case study of how mismanagement of a young defender can end a promising career.
Rating – 6
(For this section, I’d like you to play the Benny Hill theme in the background)
I think Luiz might be the player with the greatest disparity between his best and his worst; a defensive Theo Walcott. I have no doubt that his hair and his play style mean that he becomes a lightning rod for wider criticism; give him a short back and sides and suddenly he doesn’t look quite as clownish.
His form post-restart encapsulates this perfectly. Coming on and receiving a red card at Manchester City distilled everything people rightly hate about Luiz as a player; the rash challenges, the infuriating decisions, and the seeming ignorance of his responsibility to his team. Cut to the FA Cup run and he suddenly puts in two of the best centre back performances of the season, marshalling a haphazard defensive line to shut down one of the most potent attacking lines in Europe. It is probably not a coincidence that this came with a switch to the back three – the formation I think he is most comfortable in. There is an element of the intangible positives that he brings to the club as a whole. He is said to be a great dressing room presence and has been excellent at helping the young players come through into the first team. However, there is also an element of the tangible negatives. Mainly being the two red cards and Premier League record number of penalties he conceded; an example of nice guys finishing first I guess?
With an anticipated move to a back four, I worry about how he will fit into a line-up that is expected to feature the incoming William Saliba, but his experience will certainly be helpful in acclimatising the young Frenchman.
Rating – 5.5
Tesco Tierney has been probably my favourite player of the season. There is a real element of the ‘F**k Offs’ about his defensive style; ‘no nonsense’ doesn’t quite do it justice. Early season injuries (sound familiar?) stunted his adaptation to a chaotic Arsenal defence, and then just as he was finding his stride, particularly in the Europa League, he suffered a dislocated soldier that once again stopped him finding his flow. I think he was the Arsenal player who benefitted most from the enforced break, and showed since that he is the only immovable object from that Arsenal backline. Whether playing as a left back or on the left of a central three, the Scotsman brings the stereotypical Highlands’ determination and fortitude. Arsenal have had players like that in the past, despite the stereotype, but what we have lacked is a defensive player who times his tackles so well. Eerily reminiscent to Laurent Koscielny, Tierney knows just when to hold off and shadow the attacker, and when to opt for the sliding tackle. One aspect we could see improvement from him is when he goes forward, which I suspect will come if he is to be played as the left back in a back four. It was a feature of his early season form in the Europa League, and so I don’t think it will be long before we see him putting in dangerous crosses in the Premier League.
Rating – 8
Cedric Soares – He did fine whenever he did play, but he was injured when we signed him (obviously) and so very rarely featured. Set to be a back-up next season, he is the definition of a ‘meh’ signing.
Sead Kolasinac – Not an ‘unrateable’ due to minutes, more due to the fact I think this season has exposed his woeful defensive abilities. He is no longer even 3rd choice in his favoured position at this point, and rightly so; Maitland-Niles, Saka, Tierney and maybe Cedric would all get in ahead of him. I would be very surprised if he didn’t move on in the Summer, and I would be very happy to see the back of him.
Pablo Mari – Another defender who suffered a season ending injury. He looked relatively solid when he did play, and the fact Arteta picked him to start against City in the opening fixture of the restart says a lot about how he is thought of in regard to the pecking order.
Rob Holding – Disappointingly he managed less than 1000 minutes due to recurring problems after he suffered a (you guessed it) ACL injury. In my mind, he still has potential to establish himself as a very capable defender, as he showed in the FA Cup final. Yet when Who Scored lists one of his weaknesses as ‘tackling’, perhaps I have to take a step back and realise I’m not being as objective as I should be. Talk is that he could be one of those out the door in the Summer, as he looks to join Chambers in the list of promising defenders gone astray at the Emirates.