This time last year if you’d given Arsenal fans the prospect of finishing second in the Premier League, they’d have bitten your hand off. Qualification for the UEFA Champions League was the ultimate aim last season and Mikel Arteta duly delivered.
But Arsenal saw an eight-point cushion at the top of the Premier League table evaporate over the second half of the season, as they were unable to convert their exceptional start to the campaign into their first league title since 2003-04. It left fans in some quarters thinking ‘what if’?
You need to be near-perfect to dethrone Manchester City. And so, ahead of the 2023-24 campaign, we ask five burning questions for Arsenal to answer as they look to mount another title charge.
Is There Suddenly a Battle for First-Choice Goalkeeper?
Arsenal’s £30 million signing of Aaron Ramsdale from Sheffield United ahead of the 2021-22 season, certainly raised a few eyebrows. Relegated in back-to-back seasons with Bournemouth and then Sheffield United, Ramsdale didn’t seem to have the calibre required to be a goalkeeper in a side with top-four aspirations.
Since then, though, Ramsdale has been an ever-present in goal for Arsenal and the long-term deal he signed a few months ago would surely imply he’s the club’s long-term first-choice goalkeeper.
Why, then, are Arsenal reportedly interested in Brentford’s goalkeeper David Raya?
The easy answer is competition for places. In their efforts to chip away at Manchester City’s superiority, Arsenal cannot afford to stand still. In their transfer business so far – Jurriën Timber, Declan Rice and Kai Havertz – they’ve signed three players who can immediately compete for a first-team spot. The same would also be true for Raya, and his arrival would ratchet up the pressure on Ramsdale. Competition breeds excellence.
Aside from that, Raya is an excellent modern-day goalkeeper. His shot-stopping numbers were superb for Brentford last season. According to Opta’s expected goals on target model, the Spaniard prevented almost six more goals than the average goalkeeper would have been expected to concede. Only Fulham’s Bernd Leno (10.7) and Liverpool’s Alisson (9.5) could better that rate.
Ramsdale, on the other hand, actually conceded one more goal than he ‘should’ have done, which perhaps crystallises the sentiment that while he had moments of brilliance, he was also prone to runs of poor form.
Even in 2021-22, where Ramsdale had an undoubtedly impressive debut season in north London, his shot-stopping came in at about the league average. He prevented just 0.6 goals more than the average goalkeeper would have been expected to keep out.
Ramsdale’s ability with the ball at his feet was one of the main reasons Arsenal targeted him, but that’s something Raya also provides.
Brentford play far more directly than Arsenal. As a result, Raya was often asked to kick long towards Ivan Toney, both from goal-kicks but also in open play. 66% of his passes last campaign were long – the sixth highest rate of any Premier League goalkeeper – and a lot higher than Ramsdale’s 51%.
Yet despite that, the pair had similar passing accuracy overall (Ramsdale’s 63.4% vs. Raya’s 60.8%), and Raya’s kicking accuracy over long distances was particularly good. Raya completed 42% of all his long passes last season, which was among the best rates in the league. By comparison, just 29.2% of Ramsdale’s found a teammate – the third-lowest rate of any first-choice goalkeeper last season.
Raya’s accuracy over long range was a useful weapon for Brentford. The Brentford goalkeeper created nine secondary chances last season – the pass before the pass that creates a chance – four more than any other goalkeeper. He also completed 22 progressive passes – 16 more than any other keeper last season – showing how often Thomas Frank’s side used Raya’s boot to progress play upfield. Raya is good enough to start for most Premier League teams, Arsenal included. He’ll be a more-than-capable understudy to Ramsdale and there is a genuine chance that he usurps him as number one.
What Should They Do With Nketiah and Balogun?
Arsenal need to figure out what to do with their options behind first-choice striker, Gabriel Jesus, particularly with the Brazilian ruled out for the start of the season through injury.
Are they comfortable with Eddie Nketiah being his back up? Or do they twist with Folarin Balogun?
For all the qualities that Jesus brings – and there are a lot – finishing has never been his strong suit.
Jesus has played in the Premier League for seven seasons now. Over that time, he’s accumulated a total of 83.6 expected goals. But from those chances, he’s scored just 69 times. That works out as an underperformance of 14.6 goals. Since his first season at Manchester City in 2016-17, no player has underperformed their expected goals tally by a larger margin.
The work he does off the ball and his ability to elevate the game of his teammates is worth that trade off. Mikel Arteta is well aware of that.
But should Arsenal’s Plan A fail, or if they need to bring in a more clinical finisher to make the most of a scrappy half-chance, they need other options.
Nketiah only signed a long-term contract last year – worth a reported £100,000 per week – and although he deputised admirably for Jesus at the start of 2022, he struggled for fitness and playing time once the Brazilian returned.
Nkeitah’s underlying numbers have always been strong, though. In his 1,070 Premier League minutes last season, he averaged 0.69 non-penalty xG per 90, which was more than any other Arsenal player. In fact, only Erling Haaland (0.75) and Callum Wilson (0.72) averaged a higher non-penalty xG value per 90 than Nketiah’s, suggesting the Englishman frequently took up good shooting positions in his limited playing time.
The English striker did suffer from a lack of confidence in front of goal last season though, scoring just four times from an xG total of 8.25. That underperformance of -4.25 was the third worst in the Premier League last campaign behind Patrick Bamford (-4.61) and… Kai Havertz (-4.60). Arteta will hope that at least one of them can course correct in front of goal, and Nketiah did score a timely strike in Arsenal’s pre-season win over Monaco.
Or perhaps he will turn to Balogun. The recently declared US international is a relatively unknown quantity, but one that has more upside than Nketiah.
Balogun returns to the Emirates after a successful loan spell at Reims in Ligue 1. He scored 21 goals in the French top flight last campaign, enough for fourth place in the Ligue 1 rankings behind the more established trio of Kylian Mbappé, Alexandre Lacazette, and Jonathan David. He almost single-handedly carried Reims’ attack too, scoring 46% of their goals last season.
On last season’s showing, Balogun offers a more immediate goal threat than either Jesus or Nketiah.
Last term he displayed an ability to consistently create good chances for himself. Only Mbappé (0.84) generated more expected goals per 90 than Balogun’s 0.79, and even stripping away penalties from that analysis sees Balogun rank third overall in France.
Aside from that, Balogun created quite a few chances for himself via his ability to run with the ball. The American completed 32 carries that ended in a shot in Ligue 1 last season, the fourth-most of any player in France, and has shown a bigger tendency to run with the ball from deep than any of Arsenal’s other options.
Granted, with Reims playing a far more direct style than Arsenal, he’s probably afforded more space to run into. But his carrying ability, along with being able to generate pure shot volume, indicates he can create several chances for himself from the final third irrespective of the service he receives.
Having already been out on loan, Balogun’s made it clear that another loan deal is off the cards. Nor would he be satisfied with playing a bit-part role in Arteta’s squad – he wants, and needs, to play first-team football. You get the sense that Arteta won’t keep both players on the books for the upcoming season. Who he elects to keep will be an interesting decision.
Have They Done Enough in the Transfer Window to Prevent Another Rob Holding Situation?
We’ve got absolutely nothing against Rob Holding. The Englishman is a competent Premier League defender and a useful squad player for Arsenal. He’s also a great personality to have in the dressing room. Every team needs a Rob Holding.
But the drop in quality that Arsenal suffered when their first-choice right-sided centre-back, William Saliba, went down with injury in March was evident. Saliba had been exceptional up until that point, and his central partnership with Gabriel Magalhães at the heart of defence had been a driving force behind Arsenal’s remarkable start to the campaign.
Arsenal lost just three of the 27 games that Saliba and Gabriel started together, winning 21 of those (78%). That win percentage dropped to just 33% when Holding and Gabriel were partners. Arsenal faced over three more shots per game with the Holding-Gabriel partnership compared to Saliba-Gabriel, and conceded almost 0.5 more expected goals per game too.
The point of all this is not to bash Holding. It’s more to articulate the point that in order to maintain a title-charge for the full duration of the season you need exceptional strength in depth. There needs to be no noticable difference between your starting XI and your bench. When a player is lost to long-term injury, somone else needs to step in and cover seamlessly. That may sound unreasonable, but that is the standard Man City have set.
Arsenal will be confident that Timber, Rice and Havertz fit that brief. Raya might be a fourth. Will that be enough?
The Rice vs. Partey Debate
If the signings of Timber and Havertz were the hors d’oeuvres of Arsenal’s summer transfer business, then Rice was the whopping main course.
The former West Ham captain made his way across London for an eye-watering £105 million fee. It’s a price tag that shows Arteta clearly thinks Rice is the transformative player he needs to go one better this season.
The aggression with which Arsenal targeted Rice left Thomas Partey’s future in doubt. Reports suggested there was interest from Saudi Arabia as well as from Juventus for the Ghana international.
But those rumours have cooled, and it now looks like the 30-year-old will be staying put. Arteta has said himself that Partey is still very much in his plans for the upcoming campaign.
But, as both players favour the number six role, how might that look in practice?
Well, having Rice and Partey to occupy Arsenal’s holding role in midfield is yet another example of Arteta building depth at a crucial position. With Champions League football this season there will be plenty of minutes to go around.
His qualities aside for a moment, one thing Rice offers that Partey doesn’t is durability. Rice has started at least 32 league games in each of his last five seasons, and since 2018-19, only James Tarkowski has played more minutes than Rice out of all outfield players. Partey made 33 appearances last season but was limited to 24 in each of his first two seasons at Arsenal.
The pair profile quite similarly. According to our radar comparisons, the player in Europe’s top five leagues who had the most similar profile to Rice’s was actually Partey himself.
Out of possession, both are dependable ball winners and excellent readers of the game.
On the ball, they do offer something different in possession. Rice’s ability to carry the ball should give Arsenal some cut and thrust in midfield, while Partey brings progression via his passing range.
On average, Rice progressed the ball upfield 6.4m per ball carry, a notable tick above Partey’s average of 5.5m. The English midfielder is also more capable of surging past players with his carrying too, completing 31 carries which included a take-on compared to Partey’s nine.
While Rice offers ball progression through running with the ball, Partey does so through passing. The Ghanian averaged 4.5 progressive passes per 90 minutes last season, the most of any Arsenal midfielder. In fact, only seven central midfielders in the whole Premier League could better that mark, while Rice’s average was down at 2.9.
It will be interesting to see if Arteta deploys them together – perhaps Rice’s ability to drive with the ball means he can play as one of Arsenal’s number eights with Partey sitting behind. However he uses them, both are brilliant options for the manager to have at his disposal.
Can Arsenal Beat Their Bogey Teams?
When Arsenal headed to the Etihad Stadium in late April to take on Manchester City, there was not a lot of optimism that they’d be able to get the result they needed to keep the title race in their hands. After all, they’d lost their last 11 games against Pep Guardiola’s side by an aggregate score of 29-4.
Sure enough, history repeated itself as they were put to the sword by Kevin De Bruyne and co, and the 4-1 defeat marked their 12th consecutive loss to City. This is Arsenal’s longest losing run against a single opponent in Premier League history.
That woeful record is something they’ll need to stop if they want to have any chance of winning in 2023-24.
But it’s not just Man City who Arsenal have poor record against. Their last league win at Anfield came over a decade ago (a 2-0 win in September 2012). Since then, they have lost seven and drawn three of their subsequent 10 visits.
They’ve lost their last eight Premier League games against sides who were top of the table on the day of the game; 10 if you extend that to sides who started the fixture in the top two.
And there are sides in the lower half of the table who Arsenal have bizarrely poor recent records against as well. They’ve gone five games at Goodison Park without a win, losing four of those, including the fixture last season. That was a result, by the way, that ended an eight-game winless run for Everton.
They’ve not met since the First Division in 1991 but Arsenal haven’t won in eight away games against Luton Town. Arteta will hope Arsenal’s December trip to Kenilworth Road doesn’t rekindle bad memories of their opening-day defeat against Brentford at the start of 2021-22.
Arteta won’t read too much into the poor records against Everton and Luton, but his side’s inability to compete against Man City and Liverpool – two of their direct rivals for the title this year – will certainly be a concern.
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