Arsenal FC – Recruitment Suggestion at Right Back

Squad Analysis

After a lousy campaign domestically, I am sure Arsenal fans will be hoping for a summer of overhaul at the club, not just on the pitch but within the higher realms of the club’s hierarchy. With rumours rife about a takeover from boyhood Arsenal fan and Spotify Owner, Daniel Ek – could Arsenal fans be about to get their wish?

Well, should Kroenke stand firm and knock back any potential offers from Ek, then it is unlikely that a complete squad overhaul will occur, given previous lack of investment from the American. In addition, failure to qualify for Europe for the first time in 25 years is likely to mean there is even less money in the bank and less pulling power in the market. Therefore, Arsenal are going to have to be cute with their transfer dealings.

Strengthening ideally would happen across the pitch; Right Back, Centre Back, Central Midfielder, Forward. However, it will be important for Arsenal to look within the club before spending money to bring people in. Centre Back strengthening, I believe can happen by recalling some loan players. William Saliba and Konstantinos Mavropanos in particular have had strong seasons at Nice and Stuttgart, respectively. Midfield is an area which requires strengthening, with Ceballos unlikely to return and Odegaard only on loan. Again though, there are decisions to be made on loaned players first; young Joe Willock, exiled Matteo Guendouzi, versatile Ainsley Maitland-Niles and the conundrum of Lucas Torreira. In attack I believe that deploying Aubameyang, Lacazette and Balogun in the central striking area, should provide more than enough goals. Therefore, attention should be placed on keeping them fit and improving their consistency, along with Martinelli, Pepe and Willian from wide areas, to take the weight off Saka’s shoulders.   

As a result, Right Back is the area of the squad that I believe Arsenal should prioritise when entering the market. Hector Bellerin has been in possession of the jersey for a while now, with Cedric Soares the back-up and Calum Chambers’ career resurgence at Right Back providing further options. I think it is somewhat unlikely that Arsenal have stumbled across Chambers’ previously hidden First 11 ability by moving him to the right, despite his recent impressive form, whilst Soares is nothing more than a competent back-up. Hector Bellerin promised so much, coming through the academy, his express pace caught the eye and it looked like he was going to develop into one of the World’s leading Right Backs. This has failed to materialise though, and at 26, it seems like he has reached his ceiling. I think his future lies elsewhere; rumours suggest Paris as a likely destination.

My Initial Thoughts    

The usual rumour mill suspects came to mind; Max Aarons, Tariq Lamptey, Achraf Hakimi. Aarons is likely to come with an inflated English tax, I do not feel that a fee of £30m+ represents great value that could not be obtained from elsewhere and for cheaper. I am a huge fan of Tariq Lamptey, but with his recent injury woes, I think he will stay put at Brighton and try and get himself back and in form. Hakimi – I simply do not see why he would want to join Arsenal from Inter Milan! And if he were to leave, then I am sure there would be no shortage of potential suitors who are currently better placed to acquire his services.

I thought about the important characteristics that I feel are required to occupy the Right Back role for Arsenal. I deem attacking output (through crosses, forward passes and forward runs) and 1v1 defending critical. Using Wyscout clips, statistics, and my database from this season, I narrowed down a 3-man shortlist away from the usual suspects, made up of realistic targets for Arsenal, taking into consideration their position in the market; Emerson Royal (Real Betis/Barcelona), Noussair Mazraoui (Ajax) and Fabien Centonze (FC Metz).

I have paid a close eye to Real Betis this season, under Manuel Pellegrini, and like many others have been extremely impressed with Emerson Royal. Mazraoui has continued to raise his profile at Ajax for a few seasons now, and Fabien Centonze might be an unfamiliar name to some, but is enjoying a stellar season with Metz and presents an interesting prospect for a potentially smaller fee.

Further Analysis

I wanted to examine Bellerin’s performance this season before comparing him to his potential replacements, and what I was particularly interested in was the difference between him and Arsenal’s opposite Full Back and fan favourite Kieran Tierney. Tierney has impressed this season and ranked as one of the better Full Backs in the league, so what exactly does he possess that Bellerin does not? And what is therefore missing from Arsenal’s right side?

Whilst I respect that Arsenal do not always play a completely symmetrical pattern of football. They do usually operate with wingers on both sides who look to play inside. Whether it is Aubameyang, Willian, Martinelli on the left or Saka and Pepe on the right, they play on the opposite flanks and their stronger foot naturally draws them inside. Importantly, space is created in the wide channels, and as per the modern game, this is usually filled by the Full Backs. Heat Maps from this season:

Positional comparison between the Arsenal Full Backs

At first glance it might look like they occupy similar areas – looking closer shows that Bellerin adopts more central areas as he progresses towards the final third. I would question whether this is the most effective positioning, given that the Wingers themselves like to come in and cause damage in those areas. Tierney on the other hand, clearly makes use of the space outside, looking to overlap and often getting towards the by-line. This to me starts to tell the story of why Tierney has been the superior Full Back for Arsenal this season.

Tierney’s positioning and overlapping is a likely explanation to his far superior attacking output for Arsenal:

Per 90 minsCrosses (accurate)xADribbles (successful)Offensive duels (won)
Tierney5.3 (37%)0.183.0 (66%)4.8 (51%)
Bellerin2.7 (36%)0.091.9 (59%)3.4 (50%)
Tierney’s superior attacking threat

Tierney offers more to Arsenal’s attacking game than Bellerin, outperforming on all the above attacking actions, both in terms of quantity and percentage completions. Tierney’s use of the wider space makes it possible for him to complete more dribbles and crosses. Consequently, Tierney has an expected assists value (xA) per 90 minutes, double that of Bellerin.

Another contributing factor behind Tierney outperforming Bellerin this season, and therefore adhering himself to the fans, is that he is more expansive with his passing. Bellerin appears to be much more risk adverse:

 Per 90 minsPasses (accurate)Passes forwardPasses backwardsPasses to final third Long passes
Tierney51 (81%)31%20%12%11%
Bellerin46 (84%)28%22%8%4%
Tierney’s more expansive passing range

Tierney goes forward with a greater percentage of his total passes and his overall pass completion does not suffer much compared to Bellerin’s, despite the greater risk. Tierney receives more of the ball than Bellerin, which is to be expected when he is more likely to move the ball forward and create something for his team.

Finally, Tierney is also outperforming Bellerin in most key defensive actions:

Per 90 minsDefensive duels (won)Aerial duels (won)Sliding tackles (successful)InterceptionsClearancesFouls
Tierney5.1 (59%)2.2 (40%)0.06 (100%)4.62.50.4
Bellerin5.6 (49%)2.7(48%)0.85 (46%)4.41.60.8
Tierney outperforms Bellerin defensively

Bellerins height helps him outperform Tierney aerially, but Tierney ranks more impressive elsewhere. Key to Tierney’s outperformance is his positioning, his sheer determination to get back and defend, and his game intelligence. These characteristics enable Tierney to win more defensive duels, make fewer fouls, and only rely on slide tackles sporadically as a last resort (whereas Bellerin must make them more often and unsuccessfully too).

After this analysis, you can see why Tierney has outperformed Bellerin this season and why he is rated higher by the Arsenal fans.

Tierney therefore acts as a benchmark for what works in this Arsenal team regarding Full Backs. The most important aspect for me is the relationship they can build with the Right Winger, with Saka and Pepe looking to cut in from the right, it is important that the Right Back maintains the width and provides an overlapping option.

Analysis of potential targets:

Positioning and areas occupied:

From their heat maps this season you can see that Centonze (bottom left), and Emerson (top left) are close matches, positionally, to Tierney (bottom right), whereas Mazraoui (top right) occupies different areas.

Attacking and Possessional Play

Per 90 minsCrosses (accurate)xADribbles (successful)Offensive duels (won)
Emerson2.8 (35%)0.083.1 (52%)7.2 (48%)
Mazraoui2.4 (44%)0.123.9 (61%)7.8 (47%)
Centonze3.5 (29%)0.095.4 (63%)8.4 (56%)
Attacking Output

Interestingly, Centonze is often used as a Wing Back for Metz and therefore plays a large part in their attacking patterns. His importance to Metz’ attacking output is highlighted above. Centonze attempts more crosses, more dribbles, and more offensive duels than both Emerson and Mazraoui, but it is Mazraoui who creates the better chances for his teammates, represented in the higher xA per 90 minutes.

All three have different ways of contributing to their teams attacking output and how they create chances for teammates. Ajax have different attacking patterns to Betis and Metz, Mazraoui therefore inverts and rarely overlaps the Winger down the outside. By coming inside in possession, Mazraoui creates overloads in the inside channels and unsurprisingly for Ajax, they operate with quick one & two touch passing, playing around and through opposition. When Mazraoui does cross the ball, he does so from deeper areas, really bending crosses in behind the defence. Ajax put in more crosses per 90 mins than Betis and Metz, but Mazraoui’s contribution to this is less, although his crossing accuracy is the most impressive.

Emerson hugs the touchline and looks to use his strength, power, and intensity to burst forward, overlapping and driving towards the penalty area and by-line. Occasionally he will underlap, if veteran Joaquin is playing on the right side, who likes to stay wide and go down the outside. Emerson stands the opposition Full Back up 1v1 and then bursts passed and puts a cross in quickly. He really fires his crosses in, sometimes driven low, other times with some height, depending on the situation and target.  

Centonze holds the width for his team and is an outlet ball. He gets up and down well, he lacks the power of Emerson, but not the speed. He is sharp and mobile and what he does well, particularly as a Wing Back, is he holds his starting position back. A failure of modern Wing Backs can be that they often start too high up the pitch, on the last line of the opposition defence and therefore when they receive the ball they are forced backwards. This clever positioning means that he is more accessible as an option and the space is in front of him when he does receive possession. As you can see, he likes to dribble with the ball, and he utilises this forward space to do so. Centonze mixes up the positions of his deliveries, he can get towards the by-line and deliver, but he often will whip the ball in from deep, because of this you can see he attempts more crosses than the other 2, although far less than Tierney. His deliveries tend to be slightly floatier and aerial.

Based on positioning, areas of possession and his injury problems last season, I do not think I would take a punt on Mazraoui at this time at Arsenal. I would consider Emerson and Centonze as top of the shortlist.

Passing Styles

Per 90 minsPasses (accurate)Passes forwardPasses backwardsPasses to final thirdLong Passes
Emerson48 (83%)35%20%10%6%
Centonze33 (77%)40%14%12%11%
Emerson vs Centonze
 Per 90 minsPasses (accurate)Passes forwardPasses backwardsPasses to final third Long passes
Tierney51 (81%)31%20%12%11%
Bellerin46 (84%)28%22%8%4%
Tierney vs Bellerin

Moving on to passing and how they use the ball. Straight away you can see that they are more expansive with the ball than Bellerin, particularly Centonze.

Emerson’s percentages are almost identical to Tierney’s and I would put this down to the similar approach adopted by both Real Betis and Arsenal in possession, whereas Metz take a more direct approach. They actually have one of the lowest average possession stats in Ligue 1. Therefore, Centonze is way above the others when it comes to forward and long passes. That being said, they are both extremely comfortable in possession and I see no reason why either player wouldn’t be able to adjust their game and fit in to this Arsenal team.  

1V1 Defending

Per 90 minsDefensive duels (won)Aerial duels (won)Sliding tackles (successful)InterceptionsClearancesFouls
Emerson8.4 (61%)3.3 (56%)0.4 (39%)5.2         2.61.6
Centonze7.8 (58%)2.5 (66%)0.7 (48%)7.34.31.1
Defending Stats

I have included some statistics above, but I am more reluctant to use defensive stats when comparing defenders from different teams. What it does show however is that both certainly do not shirk their defensive responsibility.

Evaluating their positioning and 1v1 defending through an eye test, it is clear there are differences in defensive styles between the two teams. Real Betis play a higher line than Metz and despite Centonze largely playing as a Wing Back, he is expected to form a back 5 in defensive shape. He does this well, working just as hard out of possession as he does in possession. Emerson has just as much intention when it comes to getting forward, but like Centonze, he also works extremely hard going backwards, very rarely getting caught out of position. Both players play with a great intensity to their game and cover a lot of ground.

The first difference I noticed to their individual defensive game was their positioning. Emerson playing in a back 4, tucks narrowly inside to form a compact defensive line, positioning himself in line with the edge of the penalty area. Centonze on the other hand, with an extra Centre Back inside, positions himself wider, closer to the touchline. Emerson’s positioning leaves space out wide, whereas the space for Centonze to defend is in front of him. This then leads to the second noticeable difference to their defensive style – their 1v1 defending. Where Emerson starts narrower, opposition Wingers receive the ball out wide, but when they do Emerson closes them down quickly, coming on to them square on, not allowing them inside. Once Emerson has closed the attacker down, he likes to then make a challenge quickly, aggressively, trying to win the ball back. This does however open the possibility of the attacker being able to skip passed him, but the benefit is that he often wins the ball back quicker for his team.

Centonze on the other hand forms part of a lower block when the opposition are enjoying sustained possession and he starts further out wide. Therefore, he meets the attacker straight on, using his body to show the attacker down the line, standing them up and waiting for his moment to make the relevant defensive action. His approach changes when faced with an opposition counterattack, he becomes more aggressive, if his man drops deep to receive the ball, Centonze stays tight, nicks the ball in front, and stops the counterattack in its tracks. The advantage if successful is that he does not need to drop right back into the defensive line, and he wins the ball higher up for his team, he has the licence to do this knowing that he has the insurance of 3 Centre Backs behind him.

Centonze in a wide position, approaching attacker from in front and using body to show him down line

Concluding thoughts:

In summary, I like both players and in their own way would both represent value to Arsenal. Centonze would cost less but Emerson has the much higher ceiling. For this reason, in addition to the raw power and aggression that he has, I would edge towards making Emerson the priority signing. However, Emerson’s situation is complicated, he is the subject of a form of joint ownership between Barcelona and Real Betis. Having spent the last 2 seasons at Betis, he is now expected to join Barcelona this Summer. That being said, with the financial pressure the Catalan club find themselves under, and with the emergence of Sergino Dest at Right Back, Barca might elect to cash in on Emerson. In any case, should Barcelona decide to keep the Brazilian, I would have no qualms then moving for Centonze.

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