Arsenal face Rennes in the Europa League Round of 16, hoping to book a place in the quarter finals (and hopefully further) for the second straight season.
Rennes, given the teams remaining in the draw and the lack of seeding or League protections, are a favorable draw for the Gunners.
They currently sit in 10th place (even on points with Strasbourg, but with a game in hand) in Ligue 1. They have the 9th best goal difference at +1, but are 6th in NPxG difference at +6.3.
In attack, they rank towards the top half of the table in Ligue 1. They rank 3rd in final third touches per match, 4th in total xG, 5th in completed passes into the box, tied for 6th in non-penalty big chances, 6th in total shots. Overall, the stats paint a picture of a team that is solid in attack.
The main thrusts for their attack are midfielder Clément Grenier, and attacking midfielder Hatem Ben Arfa. In my “Offensive Value Added” statistic, Ben Arfa leads the team with 6.4 (scaled to goals) while Grenier is second at 5.8.
Ben Arfa derives his value from doing a bit of everything. That is what has always made him a frustrating player to have on the team you support; he has elite talent in many areas but through bad decisions, or lack of effort, or whatever, he has never been able to maximize that talent for prolonged periods of time.
Outside of one very good season in Nice where he was a consistently great player, he has oscillated between being the best player on the pitch and a player that looks like he is just there to cash a check, with little effort or regard for what is going on around him.
While Ben Arfa is the biggest talent, Grenier is the key to Rennes in my opinion. He leads the team in build up play, while also taking on a big role in creating the final ball. He leads the team in xG+xA, xG Buildup, and also key passes. Overall he has just about everything that you would want from a top level midfielder (except maybe a bit more on the defensive side).
I would target Grenier as the focus to look to shut down Rennes’ attack and to disrupt the connection from the defense/midfield and attack for Arsenal. It will be a big task for the Arsenal midfield.
On the defensive side of the ball, Rennes have under-performed this season and that has been the biggest factor for them slipping into mid-table this season.
They don’t allow many shots in the league, just 11.3 per match which is 5th fewest, but they have allowed only the 12th fewest goals. By xG allowed they have given up the 6th fewest expected goals.
Looking further into this, the rate at which teams are getting shots on target against them isn’t out of line of what would be expected. They are allowing 35.2% shots faced to go on target vs 33.9% for the League as a whole. When teams do get shots on target against them they are going in at a much higher rate than expected.
The league average team in Ligue 1 saves shots on target 69.7% while Rennes goal keepers are saving just 63.5% of the shots on target that they face. On big chances it is more of the same, league average save rate for shots on target is 38.3% and Rennes are saving just 32% of the big chances on target they face.
Two Leg Tie Simulation
This year I have added the capability to look at two legged ties to my regular simulation engine. This currently doesn’t use as much data as my typical simulation would, but that is an enhancement for the future.
Here is what my simulation gave as the odds for Arsenal to advance over Rennes.
Arsenal are the favorites and have found themselves in the more advantageous position of having the opening fixture away with the chance to overcome any slip ups in the opening match with the final match at home.
My simulation is in line with fivethirtyeight (albeit slightly more pessimistic), which gives Arsenal a 75% chance to advance and has them as fifth favorite to win the Europa League. Being in the same ballpark makes me feel pretty good about how things are tuned in the model.
Hopefully this Thursday’s opening match leaves the tie with significantly less drama and post match hand-wringing than the match up against BATE.
I also am “pivoting to video” (not exclusively but they are fun to make) so if you want the video version check it out here: