A few weeks back, I was asked here to compare the numbers for Gervinho with the players we had been linked to this Summer. I wanted to get a feel for who everyone else thought we were linked to so I asked my followers on Twitter. The most common answers were Mata, Goetze, Hazard, Valbuena, and M’Vila. Following them was Parker, Barton, Kaka, Gourcuff, and Marvin Martin.
This presented me with a bit of a dilemma. Comparing M’Vila to Gervinho is akin to comparing Robin van Persie to Eden Hazard, both are fine talents but they play in different positions.
My initial reaction was to create a spreadsheet with all of them using data from their League games only and add in Song, Arteta and Ramsey because the thing about Arsenal’s midfield is that we don’t have as many purely defined roles as some other teams. The result was this, unsatisfying, graphic:
What’s missing here is M’Vila and Parker first of all but also it’s a very basic look at these players. We know for a fact that Arsene approached Valencia over Mata this Summer and that a deal was close to being done.
Key passes are passes that create a scoring opportunity. That means that Mata not only leads all of these players with 7 assists in his first 12 starts (it’s 13 now) he also has one of the highest key passing rates among them. Just look at Arteta’s numbers to see the difference; Mata (and Valbuena) are not only picking out key passes, they are also getting assists. And Mata is doing that in the Premier League.
You can also see from that graphic that Ramsey has some work to do on his possession. A little more tidiness in that department would go a long way.
Drilling a little deeper I decided to compare just the attacking players (Goetze, Mata, Valbuena, and Hazard) and take a look at how each of them play the game by looking at totals* instead of per game numbers. The result was this chart:
Now I think you can clearly see why Arsene went after Juan Mata as a replacement for Cesc. He is a pure passing midfielder. He’s not going to dribble past a lot of players (though he did that pretty well against City a few times) but his crossing is solid, long balls solid, and he creates a lot of chances, especially in using the through ball. Gervinho is more inclined to take his opponent on with a dribble though unfortunately his crossing after he does get to the line is the worst of the bunch. Yes they are both sort of midfielders who like to play wide but that’s where the comparisons end.
What surprised me the most was Goetze’s tackling and dribbling numbers. That kid plays like an out and out wide man. Goetze plays more like Gervinho, though his crossing is well beyond better than the Ivorian.
Oh, and I included Leighton Baines because every time I mention Baines for Arsenal I get people saying that he’s shit. Sorry, but I think those numbers paint the picture of a player who is tidy in defense, keeps possession, puts in a great cross, and has the vision to pick out a man with a key pass. He could play fullback, wingback, and outright wing player for me any time.
In general, what I hope this chart shows is the distinctive character of each of the attacking midfielders that Arsenal were linked to. Valbuena and Mata are passing mids, Gervinho and Goetze dribblers, and Hazard is your sort of all around attacking midfielder who has some pretty astounding numbers in terms of goals and assists.
And then there’s the M’Vila/Parker/Song comparison. Here, I wanted to look at the defensive abilities of various players. You can already see from my first chart (or the assist to Robin van Persie in the Everton match) that Song is among the best in terms of picking out key passes to teammates and setting players up for goals but what about his tackling?
Again, you are looking at a chart with totals and not per game numbers. Also, like the chart above, numbers in bold mean that players leads his team in that category. Just like the chart above I think what we are seeing here is more a difference in playing style. Scotty Parker is a pure tackling midfielder. He’s also that guy who will throw his body on the line for a block. But what he won’t give you is much in terms of going forward. He’s a tidy little side-to-side passer who will kick you off the pitch when his team loses possession.
M’Vila was the surprise for me. At just 6′ tall he wins an amazing number of aerial duels. France is not quite Spain but they don’t have nearly the number of aerial challenges that England have to to see a player like M’Vila winning headers at that rate is pretty impressive.
I also included Yaya Toure and Gareth Barry in this chart for two reasons: first because Arsenal play them on Sunday and second because before he signed for Man City, Yaya was touted as that big body defensive midfielder that Arsenal needed to dominate teams like Stoke. Clearly that’s not the case. If you want a player who will win the ball in the air, who is tidy in possession, who passes well, and yet who will kick people all over the pitch then Yaya is not your man, Lucas is. Which I have been saying to everyone who will listen for the last three years.
But that’s exactly the point. “If you want…” Arsene certainly wanted Mata and from what he’s shown at Chelsea he would have fit in perfectly. Instead Arsenal got Arteta (for stability) and Gervinho (for attacking) and put Ramsey in the Mata role. Not quite as effective but we can hardly argue with the results of late.
Meanwhile, people calling for M’Vila and Parker are asking for a player that Arsenal don’t really have a counterpoint to: a “midfield destroyer.” Arsene has shied away from that type of player over the last 5 years not because they didn’t exist or weren’t available but because I suspect he feels that Arsenal doesn’t need one. But this also raises another point; what would Parker or Lucas’ assist numbers look like in the Arsenal system? Unfortunately, we’ll probably never know.
As for Gervinho, he’s a mixed bag so far this season. I think his crosses are brilliant but that his teammates don’t quite know to look for them yet. So that number should improve. Also his scoring record is decent but just observationally most folks would agree that he could do to find the net a bit more.
I know that this will leave many people dissatisfied because we want to have simple answers but the simple answer is that almost none of these players map very well to an Arsenal counterpart. But the reality is that we don’t need them to, Arsenal are doing just fine with our “misfits” — thank you very much.
*Turnovers here is a combination of both the player’s dispossessed numbers and his turnover numbers