Over Under

Last week Arsenal completed the loan signing of Denis Suarez from Barcelona and if I could summarise the reaction, I would use the word ‘whelmed.’ Through the scientific measure of gut feeling, I have observed a general cooling in temperature between football fans and the transfer window, which once seemed to be more significant than the football itself.

The studied reaction to the Suarez signing was interesting, to me at least, because it felt very contemporary. The player’s profile is not significant enough to cause an Özil or Sanchez type frisson in the Gunners fan base, but as a Barcelona player, he hardly represents a mystical unknown. Coverage of Barcelona is plentiful enough for a fair portion of the fan base to be familiar with the player, his strengths and his shortcomings.

Even if you are not a seasoned La Liga observer, the proliferation of data at our fingertips means we can get an artist’s impression of a player before he has had a chance to don his shinpads. Reporting on transfers is so fastidious that everybody knows a player is joining long before the zany social media announcement video is pieced together.

That goes some way to quelling any sense of excitement and it also gives us plenty of time to fill the gaps with YouTube videos, Statsbomb radars and expert opinion from those that have followed his career closely. I observed much the same process when Arsenal signed Bernd Leno and Sokratis Papastathopoulos this summer, enough people have a good working knowledge of the Bundesliga to familiarise us with a player before they make their debut.

The overall feeling of whelmedness over the Suarez signing was also informed by the austere context the club is operating in. Confirmation that Arsenal weren’t planning to spend cash money during this window created confusion and a little resentment. There is also a sense that Arsenal would have been better off investing in a defender, though I am not sure I concur in that respect.

Arsenal’s defence needs a flamethrower taking to it, don’t get me wrong. But I’m not convinced the transformational signing required to rebuild Arsenal’s rickety old rope bridge backline was out there in January. The club needs studied, long term solutions in defence- not least with Koscielny and Lichtsteiner out of contract this summer.

Suarez seems to be a short term signing. The fact that Arsenal did not want an obligation to buy clause inserted into the transfer- to the extent that they were prepared to walk away from the deal altogether- is not a resounding affirmation of faith. You would think a loan with an obligation to buy would be a pretty sweet deal for a club with newly released funds available in the summer. Buy now, pay later is the perfect deal for a club in that scenario and Arsenal still weren’t interested.

On the upside, the player himself resuscitated the deal by agreeing to sign a new contract with Barcelona in order to protect his value. That suggests Suarez is hungry to play and keen to put himself in the shop window, for Arsenal or A.Nother. The phrase ‘value protection’ pretty much sums up his Barcelona career.

Barca bought him back to the club due to a dirt cheap buyback option they reserved upon selling him to Villarreal in 2015. This is a common part of Barcelona’s strategy, the loan system is different to England, so instead of farming young fringe players out on loan, the bigger Spanish clubs tend to sell with a low buyback clause.

Barca did not re-sign Suarez in 2016 because they thought he was the heir apparent to Lionel Messi, but because at €3.5m he represented excellent value for a squad player with a healthy sell-on fee likely in a few seasons’ time. This sort of practice will become commonplace in the Premier League soon enough when the number of loans permitted are capped in time for the 2020-21 season.

I am not one of those seasoned La Liga watchers, but I have absorbed enough secondary expert analysis to consider myself an absolute authority on Denis Suarez. We are told, and the data suggests, that he is more of a link player- or ‘final third entry player’- than he is a goal or assist machine. This has caused a little anxiety from those of us that have watched Arsenal struggle to create for significant periods recently.

But one thing we have learned about Unai Emery is that this is exactly the sort of player that he values. Aaron Ramsey has been reduced to the status of high level squad player and Mesut Özil hasn’t so much been frozen out as frozen out, thawed out and refrozen again. Whereas the likes of Alex Iwobi, Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Danny Welbeck (pre-injury) and Matteo Guendouzi have earned the manager’s trust on a regular basis.

Emery likes to shuffle his pack in terms of personnel and formations, so he prefers generalists to specialists. Mesut Özil and Aaron Ramsey have signature moves, but Emery doesn’t value his tin openers as much as he values his Swiss army knives. Arsenal have recently taken to playing two strikers, which has probably cost them a little technical control. In short, another ‘final third entry’ player is quite valuable to the team at the moment.

Arsenal have stacks of firepower in Lacazette and Aubameyang, the problem is getting the ball to them in an orderly fashion, something the team has really struggled to do in Mkhitaryan’s absence. In his piece on Arsenal.com, Edward Stratmann describes Suarez as “a nifty dribbler, who’s very comfortable on the ball and uses swift changes of pace and direction effectively in 1v1 duels.” To say Arsenal lack dribblers is a little bit like saying Jose Mourinho lacks humility.

Opponents have cottoned onto Arsenal’s passing out from the back. They either stand back and let the defenders have possession, or else mark the centre halves and force Leno to kick long. Teams generally know that Arsenal want to work their full-backs into positions to cut the ball back from the by-line and without Bellerin, the Gunners have lost one of their prolific avenues for doing so. They need another way of progressing the ball through the thirds.

In recent seasons, they have lost Cazorla, Chamberlain, Rosicky, Sanchez and Wilshere- all of whom are dribblers to some extent or other. Santi, Rosicky and Wilshere always had fairly modest goal and assists totals during their Arsenal careers, but at their best, they were undoubtedly a valuable creative force and I think Emery will hope for a similar impact from Suarez. Whether he manages that will go a long way to determining whether Arsenal fans are overwhelmed or underwhelmed by his impact come May.

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