Premier League Preview (1/6)
With the Premier League less than a week away, this series seeks to refresh fans about the performances of the teams last season and what it means for this year. The focus of this series is to use numbers to break the teams down in the following ways: Their style of play last year, their key players and what needs to change.
The series will only discuss 17 teams and exclude the three newly promoted sides: Brighton and Hove Albion, Huddersfield Town and Newcastle United. This week, we begin with Arsenal, Bournemouth and Burnley.
Note: All numbers are drawn from Squawka and Whoscored. All lineups posted are based off minutes played, not quality.
Arsene Wenger’s side finished outside the top 4 for the first time since he was appointed prior to the start of the 1996/97 season. As a result, the ‘Wenger Out’ brigade were in their most voluminous and vociferous but when the dust settled the Frenchman was offered, and took, a 2-year extension with the club.
As has been the trend since the departure of Robin van Persie, Arsenal’s performances seem to miss a quality striker to finish the chances that Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez regularly produce. The purchase of Lucas Perez and the moving up of Walcott to striker, coupled with Giroud, seemed to be a good strategy for last season but the team ended up being carried by Alexis Sanchez’s exceptional season. Signing Alexander Lacazette for around $60 million is hoped to be the move that ends their striker woes. With rumors of both the Sanchez and Ozil being unhappy with the underperforming club, this may be Wenger’s most crucial transfer window yet.
Wenger’s teams have a reputation of utilizing quick, snappy passing to dominate possession and keep the ball in opposing halves. They enjoyed the fourth highest possession in the league and the third highest in the opposition’s third. The key cog in the Wenger machine is a striker who can consistently finish these moves, otherwise it’s just pointless passing and possession.
This past season saw Sanchez being used as a full-time striker with Walcott and Iwobi on the wings for a very pacy front three. The likes of Olivier Giroud, Danny Welbeck, Lucas Perez and Ramsey would offer rotation options. With Ozil pulling the strings of the aforementioned trio as well as Oxlade-Chamberlain and Hector Bellerin, The Gunners held true to their old stereotype of ‘walking it in’. They had the highest percentage of shots in the league from inside the 18-yard box at 60% and the lowest from outside the box at 33%. Their tendency to narrow the field and attack through the middle would see either Ozil or Sanchez unlocking the defense with a well-timed through ball for either each other or a charging winger or midfielder. Ozil finished with 8 goals and 9 assists while Sanchez picked up 24 goals and 10 assists out of Arsenal’s 77 goal haul.
At the other end of the pitch, Arsenal signed Shkodran Mustafi and Granit Xhaka to tighten up the back. It didn’t seem to work as they conceded 44 goals compared to 36 in the previous two seasons. The two new signings brought in an aggressive edge to their defending with Mustafi picking up 11 yellow cards, the most in the team, and Xhaka getting sent off twice in addition to his 5 yellow cards. Arsenal conceded 10 goals from penalties, the second highest behind Hull City with 11 and ahead of Swansea City with 6. However the physical presence of the new signings as well as the experience of Koscielny, paid off in other defensive situations. Arsenal conceded just 6 goals from set pieces excluding penalties, the least in the league. The additional defensive pressure also resulted in passing mishaps from the opposition. Koscielny, Mustafi and Monreal were in the top 3 interceptors of the season. While Xhaka’s disciplinary issues meant that he missed 6 games, his short sideways passing was an important aspect in Arsenal keeping the ball near the opposition’s goal. He averaged just under 72 passes a game, the fourth highest in the league behind only Jordan Henderson, Paul Pogba and Yaya Toure.
- Alexis Sanchez, Forward:
The former Barcelona player was a one-man army with his 34 goals+assists, the highest in the league and the only player to pick up double digits in both. His performance was rounded and featured world-class dribbling, passing and finishing. While his passing stats and dribbling stats fall slightly behind Kevin de Bruyne and Eden Hazard respectively, the role he played as a striker meant he never had a player ahead of him to pass to or make space for. His role also required a defensive contribution which is what made him so lethal. His tireless running and closing down of defenders, along with the likes of Walcott and Oxlade-Chamberlain, was a large part of Arsenal’s pressing game and he averaged over a tackle a game.
2) Mesut Ozil, Midfielder:
The German international had a drop-off from the 2015/16 season but was still the only attacking player who could consistently link up well with Sanchez; Sanchez set up Ozil for 5 of his Premier League goals. With Arsenal crowding the middle of the pitch outside the box, Ozil’s strength was being able to circulate the ball quickly and accurately despite being under pressure. Ozil finished with the second highest passes and key passes in the league and the third highest in chances created. A large reason for this was his ability to retain possession in an advanced position until the final pass was available or he saw the space to go for it himself. His tally of 8 goals and 9 assists was a solid all-round contribution but could be considered a let down considering his 19 assists in the season before.
3) Laurent Koscielny, Defender:
The Frenchman was the anchor at the heart of defense despite the defensive lapses around him. His ability to cut out passes and end moves along with his heading ability helped Arsenal at shutting out set pieces. He averaged the second most interceptions per game, behind Curtis Davies at Hull City. Unfortunately, with Mustafi missing games and Xhaka’s disciplinary problems, Koscielny was frequently paired up with a revolving door of partners which is when the Gunners suffered their worst form.
1) 2–1 Vs Burnley, 1/22/2017.
It was the 22nd gameweek and despite back-to-back losses at Everton and Manchester City in December, this home victory took Arsenal to second, the highest point they would end up all season. It also was an accurate depiction of their season: The game began well with Mustafi, Sanchez and Ozil playing well and Arsenal holding a lead, Xhaka was sent off, Burnley equalized in added time, Sanchez grabs a winner at the last-minute to dig Arsenal out of a hole.
2) 1–3 at Chelsea, 2/4/2017.
This was also a storied clash because of Arsenal’s 3–0 victory in their match at the Emirates. That match saw Conte switch to three at the back and Chelsea went on a 13-game winning streak. Apart from all but eliminating Arsenal from the title chase, this loss highlighted the amount Chelsea had progressed since that defeat. This game was just 13 days later but signaled the beginning of Arsenal’s collapse. They faced Bayern in the Champions Leg 12 days later in the first leg of a 10–2 aggregate thrashing.
Areas to strengthen:
Getting Sanchez and Ozil to stay despite Arsenal not playing in the Champions League would be a huge success for Wenger. Getting extensions from the duo, and Oxlade-Chamberlain who is also rumored to be unhappy, would be as important as the 2 new signings for Arsenal. Wenger will hope that Lacazette will be the final piece of the puzzle to make The Gunners title contenders again; the Frenchman has scored over 70 league goals in his last 3 seasons with Lyon. The signing of left back Sead Kolasinac is the other big signing so far. With the likes of Walcott, Gibbs, Welbeck, Mertesacker and Cazorla taking up valuable portions of the wage budget, there may be a need to clear the dead wood as the team moves forward.
Bournemouth’s second season in the Premier League was a huge success as Eddie Howe’s side finished 9th, seven spots higher than their relegation-battling 2015–16 season.
Bournemouth loaned Jack Wilshere and Nathan Ake from Arsenal and Chelsea respectively and spent a club-record $20.6 million on Jordan Ibe from Liverpool in the summer of 2016. The latter was a slightly disappointing signing as he made 25 appearances with no goals or assists while the London duo played a big role in Bournemouth’s campaign. Joshua King stepped up in the face of no consistent striker and scored 16 league goals. Despite their relatively small stature as a club, they play like the big 6 with a big emphasis on short passing and overlapping players. Getting to a top 10 position didn’t prove to be difficult but staying there brings a whole new set of challenges. They’ve made a positive start to the transfer window, signing Nathan Ake (on a permanent basis this time) and Asmir Begovic from Chelsea and Jermain Defoe on a free transfer.
Unlike most mid-lower table teams who use long balls and route one football, Bournemouth would strictly use short passes to build attacks. They had the third least crosses per game and the least long balls per game outside of Arsenal, Chelsea, Southampton and the two Manchester clubs.
82% of their passes were short, compared to Man City’s 88%, the League’s highest. Their build-up style depended on full-backs bombing up and down the field rotating the ball with the central midfielders and wingers. This is reflected in the likes of Daniels, Francis, Surman, Arter and Wilshere averaging the highest passes per game with over 40. A large part of this buildup is having capable center-backs who can pick up the defensive slack, a trait that Ake possesses. However, Chelsea recalled Ake in January and there’s a slight but clear drop in Bournemouth’s defensive play in the second half of the season. This led to less points in the second half despite the team scoring more goals and losing less games.
A unique aspect to Bournemouth’s play is their lack of aggression. They averaged just 9.7 fouls a game, the least in the league, while being fouled 12.6 times a game, the highest in the league.
- Joshua King, Winger:
The 25-year-old is traditionally employed on the flanks but found himself playing right behind the striker and sometimes as the striker himself. He thrived at it and scored 16 league goals along with 2 assists. His main strength was his ability to link the midfield and attack with his dribbling and passing which Callum Wilson and Benik Afobe could not provide. His link-up with Wilshere, Stanislas and the full backs was Bournemouth’s only real attacking strategy. However, Jermain Defoe should change all that.
2) Jermain Defoe, Striker:
The 34-year old Premier League veteran has shown no signs of decline after returning to England from Toronto. He scored 15 goals and picked up 2 assists for last placed Sunderland this past season. The team only managed to score 30 goals all season, making Defoe’s achievements even more impressive. He outscored the likes of Firmino, Giroud and Vardy making him a very good free signing. His Premier League experience and goalscoring pedigree make him a great lockerroom presence in a side that’s relatively new to the top flight.
1) 4–3 vs Liverpool, 12/4/16
One of the games of the season, Bournemouth were two goals down twice before their substitutes pulled a rabbit out of the hat. Goalkeeping mistakes, a screamer from Can and a rare situation of Bournemouth using crosses led to an extremely exciting game which ended an 11-game undefeated streak in the league for Liverpool.
Areas to strengthen:
They’ve moved quickly to secure some very good signings adding a first-team quality goalkeeper and striker to the team. Signing Ake on a permanent basis was great business given his familiarity with the team. Replacing the influence of loanee Jack Wilshere will be next on the priority list with Surman also rumored to be on his way out. They signed young Lewis Cook from Leeds last season and he made a few appearances although it remains to be seen if he will be trusted with a starting eleven spot. Howe’s emphasis on youth and rotation can be seen in signing 20-year-old winger Connor Mahoney from Blackburn despite the likes of Ibe, Gradel, Fraser and Stanislas in the squad. A large part of Howe’s challenge is to better utilize their big-money signings, the likes of Ibe and Gradel.
Burnley were the only newly promoted team to stay up with Middlesbrough and Hull City biting the dust well before the final week. Sean Dyche’s side is a throwback to the physical and direct Route One football that England became stereotypical for. It’s remarkable that they managed to survive using a system that even lower table teams have abandoned. Their campaign relied heavily on their home record which accounted for over 80% of their points. It remains to be seen if they can continue to survive using a rather one-dimensional strategy. However, given Leicester won the league in this vein perhaps there’s more nuance to the system. Their window has had a mixed start with the team losing Michael Keane to Everton but gaining Premier League experience in midfielder Jack Cork Swansea and winger Jonathon Walters from Stoke.
Burnley placed a large emphasis on long balls and keeping the ball in the air. They averaged the most long passes per game (85) in the league despite having the second least possession (42.7%). The system banked on soaking up opposing pressure and moving the ball from back to front as fast and with as few passes as possible. This strategy worked best against teams like Liverpool that like to press high up the pitch leaving them vulnerable to balls over the top. They won and competed in the most aerial duels in the league averaging 48.1 duels per game winning 24 (compared to just 14 wins out of 28.8 for champions Chelsea). An aerial duel is when 2 opposing players go for the ball while it’s off the ground. Only 8 players won more than 4 aerial duels per game, Burnley had 2 of them. The trouble was that they lost more duels than they won making the system very wasteful compared to teams like Crystal Palace and Stoke City who won over 55% of their duels. They only scored 39 goals in the league, the least for any non-relegated team. Another reason for their lack of goalscoring was the lack of shots and shot locations. They averaged the third least shots per game, the third highest shots from outside the box and the third lowest from inside with 10.3, 46% and 47% respectively.
Outside of the top 7, only Leicester had a better home record than Burnley. However, The Clarets played like a different team when on the road. They managed just 7 away points, the second-least after Hull, compared to 33 at home.
- Michael Keane, Defender:
Burnley’s key to survival is replacing Michael Keane in the center of defense. The Manchester United Academy graduate won the eighth-most aerial duels in the league and had the most for a non-striker. Everton did pay approximately $30 million for him but there haven’t been many rumors on who’s going to replace him. Especially considering he started 35 games last year and was an integral part of a defense that stayed consistent throughout the season.
2) Sam Vokes, Striker:
Dyche’s rotation of Vokes, Gray and Barnes for their two striking positions ensured the three picked up 25 goals between them. However it was Vokes’ clinical nature that made him their best attacker. He made 37 appearances but still managed less minutes and more goals than the other two. The striker’s heading acumen is a large reason Burnley’s system worked. Scoring 10 goals, Vokes won the second most aerial duels in the league. He also picked up 3 assists and lost the ball half as often as his strike partners. His heading ability ensured that Burnley had a target man upfront to bombard their long balls toward and he would lay it off for the second striker. A similar rotation system with Vokes as the spearhead should work this year, especially with the signing of Jonathon Walters who has plenty of experience in this system in his time at Stoke City.
1) 2–0 vs Liverpool, 8/20/16
It was just the second game of the season but this sent the message that Burnley were not your traditional newly-promoted team. Liverpool had a whopping 80% possession and 26 shots to Burnley’s 3 but it didn’t matter as two first half goals sealed a memorable first win of the season.
2) 2–0 at Crystal Palace, 4/29/17
This was Burnley’s penultimate away game and they picked up their first and only win on the road. It was a traditional Burnley performance as they enjoyed just 37% possession and a shot disadvantage despite comfortably winning. Also, while it didn’t mathematically secure much, this win moved Burnley 5 points above relegation with just 3 games to go essentially all but guaranteeing safety.
Areas to strengthen:
Finding a capable no-nonsense center-back is the key to Burnley’s survival. John Terry would have been a very good fit but with him choosing to go down to the Championship to Aston Villa, the board at Burnley may have a target in mind. Papy Djilobodji from relegated Sunderland would be a cheap replacement but it will be tough to find the combination of youth, ability and calm that Keane had. Signing Jack Cork from Swansea shores up central midfield a bit and Burnley would hope that they can find creative from varied sources next season. If not, they stand the risk of being found out and going down without a fight.