Just like that, the Premier League closes its doors for the Summer. With the end of the season, comes the obligatory end of term reports. I’ve decided to start with what always becomes the most inflammatory and controversial aspect of these – the player ratings. For context, I begin from the perspective that 5/10 is the baseline ‘average’, and then move from there. Also, the ratings are for the individual concerned, and so based on the expectations of them and how I feel they’ve performed relative to that. Just because I award one a higher rating than another, it doesn’t mean I am saying they are definitively a better player. Ok? Good, I hope that will stem the tide of some of the Ozil fanboys, at least for a Fortnight.
Xhaka – 5.5
A perennially difficult player to analyse, understand, and evaluate; he is like a (significantly) better, midfield version of Mustafi. Signed three years ago, having captained his club and country at a young age, I think most Arsenal fans would have hoped to have seen more improvement. His qualities that he has, are those he joined us with, and which served Arsenal very well at times this season. On form, the way is able to dictate the tempo with an adept range of long and short passing gives a sense of structure to Arsenal’s play. Particularly in a system that is often (over)reliant on penetration from out wide, having a player who is capable of quickly and accurately switching the direction of an attack is absolutely priceless. My issues with Xhaka come from the fact that he still has glaring inconsistencies in his game. He will go through spells of a match where his technique deserts him, and the tempo looks too much; he was a bystander for the first 15 minutes of Arsenal’s Europa League semi-final. The comparison to Mustafi is borne of his propensity for whoopie-cushion-esque brain farts. Less frequent and costly than the German’s idiocy, it doesn’t make it any less frustrating. In fact, if anything, when Xhaka makes a mistake I become more annoyed, because of the times he displays real quality. I thought that under a different manager, with a more clearly defined midfield structure, Xhaka would emerge from this season a vastly improved player. I think he certainly had a strong middle section of the campaign, but not to the extent where I think we have seen a return on the £35 million investment. Perhaps the greatest issue is his lack of pace, stamina, and manoeuvrability – these are qualities he simply won’t develop at his age. In a competition like the Premier League, where seemingly every single team is able to compose a pressing system in some regard, this is a major issue. He reminds me of a better Eric Dier. Although the Englishman has been injured this season, Spurs look a worse team to me when he starts; when Moussa Sissoko is making you look poor, perhaps it’s time to adapt your game. Modern football demands midfield athletes, like Torreira and Guendouzi, and this season has exposed how perhaps the English game just isn’t suited to Xhaka in its current form. The reliance on Granit as a rock in the midfield is troubling, but I think the side has to move on from him. Although I wouldn’t say he had a disastrous season, were you to offer me £20 million for him in the Summer, I would bid him farewell with little regret.
Guendouzi – 6.5
For context, not only is this the 19 year old’s first season in England, it his first season in top-flight football anywhere, having only previously made less than 10 appearances in Ligue 2. Understandably then, Guendouzi is still very early in his development, but has already shown extreme signs of promise. In the early stages of the season, his energy and drive in central midfield was startling. Emery’s trust in him was evidence of the fact that his enthusiastic, Jack Russell like tendency to dart about the central zone of the field were an important part of the overall pressing strategy. His enthusiasm is matched off the pitch as well, and he feels already to have ingratiated himself to sections of supporters who feel a distance growing to the current Arsenal squad; whilst suspended in November, he was seen chatting to fans in the concourses of Block 6 at the Emirates, and will always stop for fans when leaving home matches. Back in August I was calling for a midfield partnership between the Frenchman and Torreira, as that feels like the direction the club and coach want to take this group of players to. Looking back, I actually rated Guendouzi highest after the first month under Unai Emery which I think speaks both to how impressive his start was, as well as the shock that he was anything other than a rotation player so early in his Arsenal career. A hard player to define, he showed his good passing with a lovely dink to Aubameyang who set up Torreira’s winner vs Huddersfield in December. He has also proved his ability to pick the ball from his midfield partner and drive the team forward, in shades of a green Aaron Ramsey.
As previously mentioned, there were obviously going to be inconsistencies with someone so young. He can be irrational at times, and quick to lose his cool. Too often does he go to ground quickly, but hopefully that is a product of a naivety about the English leagues and the refereeing. This was worsened as the strains of a full season clearly took their toll. The early heavy reliance, that allowed him to bed in to the squad and displayed his qualities, came back to bite Emery. A fatigued Guendouzi became too easily marked/kicked/pressed out of matches, and he doesn’t yet have the tactical awareness to manoeuvre out of those situations; the away fixture against West Ham was the clearest example of this. The loss to United in the FA cup, and the match against Everton showed how this compounded by his enthusiastic style can leave chasms between the midfield and defence. When that defence features certain improbable World Cup winners, the result is often a goal.
This season would have been encouraging for everyone at Arsenal who thinks Guendouzi has a future as a starting midfielder, whilst just scattered with issues and concerns enough to fuel those who doubt him. Personally, the games in which he has shone demonstrate enough potential, and the issues are due to the inexperience and naivety you’d expect of someone of his profile
Torreira – 7.5
Ah, my Uruguayan energizer bunny. I’ll be upfront in admitting how much I like Torreira, and it would’ve become apparent in my review of him anyway.
His watershed period began in late September against Everton, and with a simple tactical switch that began to show what Arsenal fans had already seen glimmers of. The defensive side of his game echoes Kante, with an innate ability to sense danger and halt potential counter-attacks before they are able to begin. That Everton fixture highlighted another feather in his cap, as he became the man to pick to the ball from the defence and begin attacks. It was the moment it became apparent Xhaka would become increasingly irrelevant in the future. He was incisive then, turning on a six-pence and rapidly transferring the ball with shorter passes to his teammates. Doing this means that the opposition is constantly shifting its focus, as all possible avenues of the pitch are left open to exploit. His showing in the North London Derby in December was the crowning glory of that exceptional run of performances he had, displaying all the qualities you could want in a central midfielder – passion, determination, quality, and an understanding of the importance that game held to the fans. Such was his quality that he became a target for opposition rotational fouling, which undoubtedly contributed to the tailing off he experienced in the latter months. There is only so much one ‘maté’ (google it) sized midfielder, experiencing his first taste of the hectic Premier League schedule, can do when presented with a midfield leaving more holes than a script from the Walking Dead. When trying to link defence to attack AND attempt to keep some sort of midfield structure AND break up opposition counters, it is understandable that one dimension of his game drops off. Exacerbated by fatigue, it became clear that 1 player, in a 2 man midfield, couldn’t do the jobs of 3 in the centre. But he shouldn’t have been expected to, and part of the blame of his over-extension I think has to be laid at Emery’s door; he simply asked too much.
I look to Arsenal’s most disappointing performance of the season – Crystal Palace at home – and can’t help but notice one name absent. I look to Arsenal’s best games of the season – Spurs and Chelsea at home – and can’t help but notice that same name on the team sheet. Call me a conspiracy theorist, but I *think* that might show how important Torreira is to Arsenal, if they are to be in full flow.
Ramsey – 8
A hokey-cokey season for the departing Welshman started with such promise. It looked as though he was on the verge of singing a new contract, or at the very least negotiations were ongoing, with both sides looking for a productive solution that resulted in Ramsey staying. Ah, how naïve I was back in August and September. I have written on this before, so I won’t go into the ‘who’s’, ‘what’s’, ‘where’s’, and ‘WHY GOD WHY’s’ surrounding his departure, but it certainly influenced his performances and role in the side. When it became clear that Ramsey would be seeking pastures new in Italy, his role was significantly cut-back, after he began the season as one of the instigators of Emery’s pressing style of play. Having started the first game against Manchester City, he was effectively frozen out of the starting line-up for a vast spell of the season. He made 28 appearances in the League this season, but an equal split as a substitute and starter showing just how lengthy the period of time it was when Emery was reticent to begin a game with him playing a central function. As one of the anointed ‘5 captains’ by the Spaniard in one of his first press conferences, earmarked for his ability to provide when it counted and drive his teammates on with his performances, undoubtedly the side would have looked a more cohesive unit were he to have featured more prominently. 4 goals and 6 assists, including my personal goal of the season at Craven Cottage, demonstrate his ability to produce decent output despite a varied and inconsistent role in the squad. Contributions in crucial games has typified the second spell of Ramsey’s Arsenal career, and this season he added to this with an excellent display and finish at Wembley against Tottenham.
When the chips, fish, battered sausages, and deep-fried mars bars were down, and the rest of the squad appeared content to defecate in the collective bed of Arsenal football club, he was one of the few to try and clean up the mess. Driving from deep, harrying the opposition, and providing a focal point for his team mates, he demonstrated perfectly why he was selected as one of the 5 captains and, ironically, how he was probably the most important of all. There were the occasional moments when I saw aspects of ‘the old Aaron’, as fancy tricks and flicks went astray leaving you cursing at him for not keeping it simple. But they have become fewer and farther between the moments of real class. As good at a cool finish as most in the squad (although most are volcanic under pressure in comparison to Lacazette), he was also able to give footballing-zen when all around him appeared lost.
Arsenal’s win ratio dropped to 45.8% without Ramsey starting in the League, and was an impressive 71.4% when he was included. I know context varies etc and so on, but that would have resulted in Arsenal picking up 81 points from wins alone domestically were he to have started every game. Whilst obviously that wouldn’t have been the case had he been first name on the team sheet for each of the 38 Premier League fixtures, it isn’t too drastic to suggest Arsenal would have almost certainly finished 3rd had he done so. The celebration at Wembley against Tottenham, a call back to taunts made to him by Dier in the reverse fixture, showed the connection he has with the club and the fans, as did his emotional farewell in the final home game of the season. Ramsey leaves Arsenal with his head held high, and it is with great sadness that he is unable to feature in the culmination of the season to which he has been the primary provider of joy. Cymru am Byth, Aaron. Nadolig Llawen. Boradar. Archyfarchynad.
(and so ends my knowledge of the Welsh language; sorry to let you down, dad).
Ozil – 4
I can’t imagine anything I am about to say will in any way be controversial, or attract the anger of anybody over social media so I won’t beat around the bush. 2 assists. £300,000 British Pounds Sterling a week. I’m no statistician, mathematician, or accountant, but something there doesn’t feel quite right. 5 goals is perhaps more in line with what you would expect from Ozil, but it is really hard to overlook the serious lack in substantive contribution he has provided this season, and ever since he signed that hefty contract in January 2018. His impressive assist record has increasingly become relied upon to justify his inclusion in the team by his fans in order to account for the ways in which he hamstrings the side, but even that figure is now hard to hide behind. Ultimately, that will be the main issue with Ozil, akin in some ways to Aubameyang. When a player who’s primary role in the side is to do one thing, to the extent the rest of the players defer to him, and he isn’t producing you have a serious problem. The comparisons to Auba are limited, as the striker (most importantly) is really good at scoring goals and has other aspects to his game that are of benefit to the rest of the side. Ozil on the other hand?
Let’s begin with the away (lack-of) appearances and form. It is unacceptable. Perhaps not the latter, but simply not even turning up for matches north of the Watford gap is unbefitting of any professional footballer, let alone a World Cup winner and another of the famous five captains of a club of Arsenal’s stature. This season he has been better in that regard, starting consecutive away games against both Newcastle and Cardiff, but when that is becoming a marked as a notable improvement, it really demonstrates the low ebb by which he is judged. Benched away to Bournemouth, he then missed the next three games with ‘back trouble’ to which I cast as dubious aspersions towards as the ‘knee trouble’ that saw him miss the away game at Anfield. Then you get to the times when the club can’t even be bothered to provide a reason for his absence. He just simply isn’t in the squad. That happened 6 times this season (5 if you take out the final game against Burnley). Taking a different approach, Ozil started in 4 of the matches against the other members of the ‘top 6’, earning 4 points. The 8 points from the remaining games don’t exactly highlight the difference as starkly as the performance gap. He didn’t play a single minute in either of Arsenal’s best domestic performances of the season, was only deemed suitable for an (underwhelming) 18 minute stint away to Spurs, compromised Arsenal’s left flank during the opening day defeat, and was dragged off after a sub-par outing at Stamford Bridge. Increasingly it feels like points won in those sorts of fixtures are done so in spite of Ozil, not because of him. The twitter meme of him disappearing in big games isn’t true, but not because he steps up to the plate. Like a Greek wedding, he leaves that plate smashed on the dance floor with his rigid role. I don’t think there is a place for the traditional number 10 which Ozil embodies in modern football anymore; players of his ilk are few and far between. Whenever he is shunted out to the flank, it becomes apparent how out of place he is, with the structure of that side of the pitch crumbling. Defensively, he doesn’t do enough, and no-one needs me to point that out. It is also worth considering, however, what he does to the attacking structure. Such is his natural talent, the rest of the side defer to him when in possession. Frequently, the first thought is to find him with the ball. As he removes himself from the configuration of the attack, gaps are left in his wake. For a coach so intensely reliant on systems of pressing, and organisation in attack and defence, I think Emery’s attempts to accommodate Ozil have been to the detriment of the team’s cohesion. I realise this may also be partly the fault of Emery, but given his hand is essentially forced into playing him, there is little room for him to manoeuvre.
I’ll touch on the positives as well, because to describe it as a complete Mustafi of a season is unfair. The role he played in the home match against Leicester, peaking with his involvement in that wonderful team move, showed just what he is capable of bringing when on form. The guile of the passing, the delicacy of the touch, and the vision of the entire move are hard to equal in the Premier League. At times, it is as though he sees plays before they even happen, and has the ability to pick out the perfect pass for them. His bizarre and impressive chop/kick-it-into-the-ground goals he has scored also show his technical quality, and ooze the class and effortless play you think of when picturing Ozil in full flow.
So we come to the Summer, and despite his increased integration into the side after reports of a split between Ozil and Emery, the fact remains he doesn’t feel like someone suited to the Spaniard’s management style. On top of that the poor performance since he signed his contract, and the only reasons I can see for keeping him around is the difficulty of moving him on. From what I know, the club are ‘encouraging’ offers for the German international, but any deal that takes him away from the Emirates would likely result in some form of wage-subsidisation. A very expensive mistake, but one that Arsenal need to accept and move on from.