As we approach the tail end of the season, it looks like it might finally be time to stomach that fact that we have to start bringing in at least one Arsenal player into our FPL teams. The fixtures on paper are very favourable, and so I am going to reveal my top picks from the Gunners, who you should be getting on your wildcard (if you still have it) and on potential triple captain that you might not have considered.
Bernd Leno – £4.9m
The logic behind recommending a goalkeeper for a team who has failed to keep a clean sheet away from home all season seems slightly flawed; I’m writing this before the Everton fixture but am so confident in Arsenal’s capability to capitulate that I feel no hesitation in rolling out that stat. However, one of the main problems for Arsenal is the unpredictability over the starting XI, but one thing that is for certain is that the German will be between the sticks. On an individual level he has improved vastly since the turn of the year, recently winning Arsenal’s Player of the Month award. Even in matches where the score line depicts a comfortable victory, Leno has produced superb saves at crucial moments in the match; Southampton at home, Bournemouth at home and Huddersfield away are all examples of this. This should give you confidence in him amassing some save points as the Gunners head on the road to Watford, Wolves Leicester and Burnley. The few home fixtures you would be forgiven for putting a tick in the clean sheet column, when you consider Crystal Palace and Brighton are neither the most lethal attacking force, and may well be slipping on their metaphorical sandals by that stage. Add to that the Gunners’ very solid defensive record at the Emirates of late, shutting out Newcastle and Man United in the last 2, and you can start Leno with confidence in those fixtures.
For those with wildcard in deck, I think pairing Leno up for a goalkeeper rotation could help assuage those fears of the away games, particularly Watford and Leicester. Matt Ryan, at a mere £4.4m rotates very nicely with the German for those two fixtures in particular; he faces Bournemouth and Cardiff in GW34, and Newcastle in GW36, all at the Amex.
Sead Kolasinac – £5.0m
The Bosnian brute has only recently starting parlaying his impressive FPL record into real life performances. Whilst I was a vocal critic of him at the season’s outset, chastising his lack of defensive work-rate, he too has improved dramatically in recent months. He looks much fitter, if not any leaner, and is now able to use his energy going forward to work back and aid his frequently floundering defensive partners. Although partial to what I’ll charitably call a ‘robust’ tackle, he only has 5 yellow cards in the League this season, albeit less impressive when you realise that matches the amount of clean sheets he has accrued. Yet we all know I am not recommending him for the possibility that he might put in a Maldini masterclass. The attacking output the wing-back offers is extremely impressive. For much of the season his overlapping runs and low cut backs from the touch line have provided a major source of Arsenal’s chances. 42% of Arsenal’s offensive play comes from the left side of the pitch, and much of this is owed to the partnership Kolasinac forms with whomever is playing the nominally more attacking role. Particularly he and Iwobi formed an impressive duo during Arsenal’s unbeaten run. This importance is born out when looking at some underlying statistics: 1.6 key passes per 90, xA90 of 0.37, and xGChain90 (xG of every attack he was involved in) 0.62. In all three of these key attacking indicators he surpasses the likes of Robertson, Alexander-Arnold, Marcos Alonso, and Luke Shaw.
Unlike Leno, I think Kolasinac is the kind of player you don’t rotate. Although there could be some question marks over his minutes as Arsenal’s Europa League campaign reaches crunch-time (and more than likely its end against Napoli), the alternative to his position is an ageing Monreal who has proven himself much more suited to the left side of a central 3.
Aaron Ramsey – £7.1m
As I write this, the Welshman has the dreaded yellow flag looming next to his name, which I feel might be a permanent fixture over his head for the rest of the season. Since his reintegration into Emery’s starting line-up his points return read: 3, 0, 8, 3, 11. His points return is more feast or famine than the New Testament. What is crucial to the selection of Ramsey however, is the improving performances of the team as a collective on his reintroduction to the starting XI. It is since that Southampton game at home that the Gunners have started to really look like the top 4 is within their grasp. Either playing as part of the midfield 2, or at the tip behind 2 strikers, Ramsey’s resurgent performances have breathed life into what has been a somewhat static midfield from a creative perspective. Willing to run with the ball, burst beyond the striker, and a deceptively cool head when it comes to finishing, Ramsey seems determined to leave Arsenal on a high. In a piece I wrote about him when the rumours of his departure for Juventus emerged, I said that to me he was a modern day Arsenal legend. It looks as though he is determined to convince the wider Arsenal fanbase that he deserves that lofty praise. Adorning the captain’s armband, eh has taken a crucial leadership role on the pitch, evident in how he was trusted by Emery to perform a less glamorous task at home to Man United, where he nominally sat alongside Xhaka, and was told to monitor the midfield runners, whilst still trying to get forward in attack. Without his disciplined, understated performance, the result would likely have been different. Somehow he is the highest scoring midfielder for Arsenal from an FPL perspective, despite playing fewer minutes than Ozil, and even Guendouzi.
The Europa League rotation would obviously be the biggest concern. Ironically, the fact that he has become so important to the Gunners could mean he misses the fixtures either side of the tough test against Napoli. I cannot guarantee he will start, but I can offer some counsel. If he is rested, you would feel confident, the type of plyer he is, that were he to be substituted onto the field, it would likely be in an offensive role, or at a time when Arsenal were pushing for a goal. If not, it is unlikely he would be risked in a game state where Arsenal are happy to sit and control the match, given his patch injury past.
Alexandre Lacazette – £9.4m
One of the most unheralded players in the Premier League, the Frenchman has quietly, apart from the occasional glove-throwing strop, gone about his business very effectively. With 13 goals and 11 assists in the league, he has already surpassed his goal contributions from last season despite the competition for the starting spot provided by Aubameyang, and despite having to adapt yet again to a radically different style of play. Part of the issues with his categorisation I think is that people have viewed him as an ‘out-and-out’ striker, but in reality he can offer so much more to his teammates. Taking the most recent home fixture against Newcastle as an example, he is surprisingly adept with his back to goal for a man of his stature. Even if he is not always able to out-muscle the centre half tasked with stopping him, his nous at winning freekicks prevents Arsenal losing possession and being hit on the counter. He works very well with Ramsey, dropping deeper into midfield, acting as a link player, which allows midfield runners to push beyond him. His technical prowess means he can flick passes on very well – albeit not as good as the Baffling Brilliant Backboard (trademark pending) Giroud – alleviating some of the creative pressure from the wide men. When you consider Arsenal have at times set up with Aubameyang and Iwobi flanking the Frenchman, this aspect of his game has been absolutely vital. He has all the hallmarks of, and I sincerely apologise for using this phrase, a ‘False 9’. Comparisons to Firmino are more appropriate than the likes of Aguero, in terms of play style (and probably ability). That it is not to denigrate his finishing, as the xG church will preach he is overperforming underlying stats for goals and assists this season, but to a certain extent that is just because he is *really* clinical. He has only failed to return in 6 games this season, and since what I view as the nadir of the Gunners campaign thus far at the London Stadium, his only blank came away to Man City. Perhaps on penalties, dependent on whether Aubameyang is on the pitch, he also showed he has a saucy set piece in his locker with a beautiful freekick against Bournemouth. Priced kindly at £9.4m, he has the bonus of that double game week over comparative players in his price point. More to the point, the fixtures in which you would expect Arsenal to win are those I think he is most likely to start, although potential Europa League shenanigans could alter that. Crystal Palace at home and Brighton at home are tailor made for Lacazette; sides likely to sit deep, meaning there won’t be the same space for Aubameyang to run in behind, so Arsenal will require a finer touch up top. Might I tilt your head in the direction of that home fixture against Brighton for those of you who didn’t waste your triple captain chip on Leroy Sané all those weeks ago… (I’m fine, honest…).
Iwobi (£5.4m) – Anyone who follows me on twitter will know I am far from a neutral when it comes to the Nigerian winger. If he founded a dictatorship, I would be his Chief of Propaganda. That being said, the player with the most nutmegs in the Premier League has had a really good season. Fans of the eye-test, this might be more up your metaphorical alley than those of the statistical persuasion; he won’t exactly bowl you over with his 3 goals and 6 assists domestically. What he perhaps lacks in impressive numbers, he makes up for with impressive performances. His ball control has improved markedly this season, his decision-making gets better by the game, and this is evident in how he was a stalwart of Emery’s side for much of the season. When a lot of the XI was influx, Iwobi persisted. Although he has recently dipped out more frequently, I think we can charitably put that to fatigue, as his high energy style often leaves him exhausted by the 80th minute.
Aubameyang (£10.9m) – You might be surprised that I’ve not listed the Gabonese Gunner as one of my more assured picks, but there are a few reasons for that. Although he is more positionally flexible, his minutes are becoming less frequent. There was a spell of the season where Aubameyang was completing every match routinely, but since Man City away, he hasn’t notched 90 minutes. Illness and injury might have played their part – I’m sure many have been burned by the pre-Huddersfield training debacle – but he is no longer as essential to the attack as he was during his hot streak. Price must play a factor into the decision as well. On current form, I don’t think he is worth the price difference over his strike partner. It feels bizarre saying this about a player with 17 goals and 7 assists, but given the other options available, I would err away from Aubameyang.
Ainsley Maitland-Niles (£4.4m) – Perhaps the only time you will ever see anyone recommend a player who is playing reverse out of position. Since the injury to Hector Bellerin, Arsenal’s right wing back spot has been up for grabs. Somehow it is only in recent weeks that Maitland-Niles, who’s name sounds more like a Conservative MP from the home counties than a footballer, has established himself over the geriatric Lichsteiner and the, well, not-really-that-good Jenkinson. Pacey, energetic, and increasing in maturity, the youngster put in arguably the best performance of the season on a personal note in the second half against Man United. This is even more impressive when contrasted to his underwhelming previous 45. Only one goal and one assist this season doesn’t scream attacking threat, but with only 700 league minutes, I think these statistics would be better had he been a season regular. With Arsenal utilising the width provided through wingbacks, and clean sheets considered a bonus when choosing any player from the side, I think he could be a very good option for those using the bench boost in the upcoming double game week. His price makes him a handy bench player for the rest of the season.
In an attempt to reflect the ‘change in mood’ following Arsenal’s embarrassing 1-0 away defeat at Everton, I thought it would be a good idea to add this small coder onto the end of the article. It brings into stark contrast that, during a run in which the Gunners have faced Rennes, Bate, Brighton and Southampton, Arsenal have only won 2 away matches in their last 12 in all competitions; slaying the behemoths of Huddersfield and Blackpool. Before delving too deep in to the darkness, there are a few caveats that perhaps help explain the underperformance.
Firstly, Arsenal started the game without a number of key players. Koscielny (the best centre back), Xhaka and Torreira (the two lynchpins in the two-man midfield), Aubameyang (why you’d bench your top goal scorer and most lethal counter-attacking threat I don’t know), and probably most significantly Aaron Ramsey, whom had put in Man of the Match performances in almost every game for the past two months.
Secondly, there is the possibility Emery had his eye on the midweek match against Napoli. Given fitness concerns over the likes of Xhaka and Ramsey (whom Emery revealed post-match he didn’t think could have completed 90 minutes), perhaps it was logical not to risk them, and rather ensure they are fully prepared for what could be Arsenal’s biggest game for the season. The importance of that home tie has only grown after his result, and thus I can only suspect a greater likelihood of future rotation.
Now onto the part you all came for – the concerns. AS reactive as this may make me appear to be, I think it is important to understand the fact that most of these were issues I raised when Arsenal were at their most stale – think Lidl bakery croissant levels of rigidity. The recent good run had assuaged me that these lessons had been learned; rather it appears some very glossy paper was covering the underlying cracks.
Reverting Ozil into a wider position was perhaps the most bizarre decision at all. Perhaps the most damning indictment of that decision was how Iwobi instantly looked brighter, more creative, and more threating as soon as he stepped on the pitch. The German failed to create a single chance, have a single shot, win a single foul, or complete a single take-on. Often he is chastised for ‘going missing’ or being anonymous, but that wasn’t the case. He was a detriment to Arsenal on Sunday. He dropped too deep, meaning Arsenal lacked the natural width that the system relies upon; look at how Iwobi and Kolasinac have been successfully dovetailing all season and you will see how Emery wants these wingers to function. He didn’t track back enough, leaving Maitland-Niles exposed and at the mercy of Bernard, who credit where its due was absolutely outstanding. The lack of cover extending into the central zone, with Guendouzi too frequently trying to dart the ball out, leaving a gaping chasm in the midfield for Everton’s inverted wingers and progressive playmakers to stroll into. This led to the bizarre situation where Arsenal somehow managed to leave both acres behind the defence, whilst simultaneously looking to have nobody in midfield. If such fragility isn’t resolved via personnel returns, then it looks as though the ‘solidity’ exhibited in a couple of the recent games was all a mirage. I could lambast Mustafi, but that would feel harsh. Like shouting at a poodle for not winning the Grand National. With reactions as quick as a sloth on ketamine, I simply just don’t think he is good at football. Its becoming increasingly difficult to come up with creative ways of illustrating that, but be sure to follow me on twitter in case I do.
As far as FPL-centric analysis goes, I’m not entirely sure there are many things I would change from my previous assertions. The rotation risks still apply to both Aubameyang and Ramsey, although the latter has the added ‘bonus’ from Sunday’s fixture that Arsenal looked infinitesimally better after his introduction. Reticence over Lacazette is valid if the away performances for the rest of the season are of the same quality, but not only did he appear to be limping for most of the match but it is also tricky to evaluate him when he lacked service for most of the match. The one big takeaway would concern over Kolasinac. When Emery decided to switch to a back 4, the Bosnian was sacrificed over Monreal. Whilst I still feel the back 5 is the preferred system, it does show that perhaps when the going gets tough, Emery keeps his faith with the senior of the two left-sided defenders, whose versatility might make him appealing.
In the parlance of the internet, TLDR – I started Sunday with 2 Arsenal players in my Wildcard draft. I now have none.