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xGunners: Statistically examining Arsenal’s midfielders

What to do with the midfield is one of the biggest questions facing Unai Emery and the Arsenal brain trust this summer.

Atletico Madrid v Arsenal FC  - UEFA Europa League Semi Final Second Leg Photo by Lars Baron/Getty Images

Today I am continuing with the midfielders, in part two of my series looking at how the Arsenal players performed compared relative to their peers in the Premier League. Part one on the Arsenal center backs can be found here.

One of the calling cards of the Arsenal way of playing football (besides walking the ball into the net) was the ability of the Arsenal midfielders to be able to slickly pass the ball and keep control of the game. I am not so sure that this is actually the case anymore.

Arsenal still have good players in midfield and at times can still put together great passing combinations but they have dropped a level to where they are no longer the best in the league at this. During the last few seasons with the club Arsene Wenger seemed to want to move away from that identity but it never quite came off. That leaves the new decision making regime with the questions of what they will look to build moving forward.

Arsenal Midfield Statistical Profiles

To work to examine how Arsenal’s midfielders did this season I am trying something new. When I was imagining this in my head I was thinking of posting radars for each player but when I went to make them there was more stats that I wanted to include than would really work with the radar format.

So the next idea was to break out the statistics into different attributes to measure and then look look at doing the same kind of analysis that is done with a radar using percentile ranks as a way to see where each player falls in the distribution among Premier League Players.

For these, I have set the cut off to 800 minutes and I have also filtered the players to the general position of “midfielder.” This will include midfielders, defensive midfielders, wide midfielders, wing backs and attacking midfielders.

Granit Xhaka:

Xhaka was a bit on the shaky side with his passing to start the season going six matches before breaking the 90 percent completion barrier and three matches below 82 percent completions. By the end of the season he had really rounded into form and was back to one of the few midfielders who could be trusted to be able to control the match instead of looking to turn it into a chaotic track meet.

Looking at the stats above you can see that he ranks as one of the best passers in the Premier League, above average at creating (I think he is pretty good, but plays deep and it depresses his numbers) and staying in possession of the ball.

His defense is just average compared to other midfielders and even this seems like a stretch but I do think that he better at not being quite as rash in his fouling but that appears to be the area where he is worst compared to other midfielders.

I want to take a little time to rant about Xhaka’s shooting, looking at the percentiles above he is perhaps just a little below average. I think that while he isn’t bad he can be much better if he was just a bit better at his shot selection.

Among players who had taken more than 30 shots, Xhaka had the lowest xG per shot. The biggest issue for him is that he takes too many long range shots for my taste. These are very low percentage probability shots (around 3% expected conversion) and too often these shots miss the target and give the ball to the other team.

TLDR: stop yelling at Xhaka to shoot from 30 yards out.

Aaron Ramsey

In a season where Arsenal didn’t live up to the expectations, Ramsey is probably the closest thing to a player who could say he deserved to be called player of the season.

That isn’t to say that he was perfect; he still missed too many games to injury to be a dependable week in week out player, he still has a tendency to bomb forward leaving his midfield partner with tons of space (this might have been a tactical thing but still it is frustrating) and his defensive numbers aren’t as good as you would want from a central midfielder in a double pivot.

All of the negatives out of the way... Just look at his ability to create offense!

In the Premier League there isn’t another midfield player with the same ability to get into such great shooting positions, while also being able to create as much for teammates.

With a year to go on his contract, it is decision time on what to do with Ramsey going forward. The club have reportedly offered him a five year contract but if he doesn’t sign Arsenal need to learn from the drama of Alexis Sanchez and re-coup a transfer fee in the summer.

Jack Wilshere

Wilshere had an interesting season. When he broke back into the squad in December he played really well. He appeared to have tempered some of his worst habits like holding on to the ball too long and added needed energy to the Arsenal midfield.

As the season went on that bright start faded, he was trying to dribble through too many players, holding on to the ball too long and looking to draw fouls and turning the ball over far too often. He also would too often disappear in matches where he would go long stretches without touching the ball.

The statistics suggest that there is still a good midfielder in Wilshere. He is still a very good passer of the ball, he is above average with his ability to create for teammates and he is one of the best dribblers in central midfield. He isn’t going to give a lot on defense (except the occasional #pashun yellow card challenge) but that is the case with most Arsenal midfielders.

My personal opinion is that it is probably best for the player and the club to go their own ways this summer. Wilshere was a good Gunner, but it is time to move on for everyone.

Mohamed Elneny

Elneny is an interesting type of player, he does one thing really well in passing and everything else average or worse. He has amazing stamina to be able to run around the pitch but doesn’t really have the skills to take over a match. His skills probably put him as a mid-table type starter but not quite at the level needed for a team like Arsenal.

So of course Arsenal have locked him up to a long term contract to be a... well I guess a squad player.

Ainsley Maitland-Niles

The last player I will look at in the midfield, didn’t really play much midfield this season but that really should be his long term spot with this team.

Maitland-Niles got a lot of work as a wrong footed wing back this season and found him to be very impressive. He was very confident on the ball with his passing and his ability to take on defenders.

His defense was raw and he made mistakes. He also has amazing recovery speed that allowed him to get back into position to make up for those mistakes.

At the end of the season I thought that Maitland-Niles might get slotted back into the back up right back role again but with Arsenal chasing Juventus right back Stephan Lichtsteiner perhaps his move to midfield might happen sooner than later.