Sunday, September 24, 2023

Your defence is in trouble

When news broke that Gabriel Jesus required surgery on a knee injury picked up during the World Cup, there was a feeling of panic across the Arsenal fan base. Jesus had transformed Arsenal as an attacking force and while Eddie Nketiah made an impression with his goal scoring run at the end of the previous campaign, many wondered whether Nketiah would be able to offer the same overall output as Gabriel Jesus.

It sparked a debate that would have seemed unthinkable 20 years ago. Fans were, broadly, satisfied that Nketiah would score goals. Most would have happily made the bet that he would prove to be more prolific than Gabriel Jesus, who has scored five goals so far this season. It was “all the other stuff” fans were worried about.

Imagine explaining to someone 20 years ago that football fans would be happy to almost hand wave the prospect of a striker scoring more goals than the player he is replacing. It’s a perfectly logical line to take too, as we saw during Cristiano Ronaldo’s time at Manchester United, he scored a lot of goals but his attacking colleagues saw their numbers drop as a result, which was a net negative to the team. (Allied to the fact that Ronaldo is a prick).

It’s notable that Arsenal never really won the league when Ian Wright was in his pomp. He signed for the club when they were defending champions in 1991 and they didn’t win the prize again until 1998, Wright’s last season when he was largely injured. Ruud van Nistelrooy only won one league title with Manchester United in five seasons at the club.

As soon as he was sold in 2006, United moved to a more multi-faceted front line of Tevez, Rooney and Ronaldo and they won three consecutive league titles and a Champions League title. Teams with only one route to goal tend not to be dangerous enough often enough compared to more democratic attacking models.

Despite Nketiah’s obvious overall improvement when he came into the team last season, it wasn’t without cause that Arsenal fans were concerned about the loss of Gabriel Jesus. Nketiah is a far, far more rounded player than the one we were introduced to in his nascent Arsenal career and he has proved that over the last 12 months or so.

Arsenal had one distinct advantage given the timing of Jesus’ injury- time. Jesus was injured on 2nd December and had undergone surgery around five days later. At that point, the Gunners’ next competitive game was three weeks away and they had three mid-season friendlies to play as the team prepared for the return of the Premier League.

It meant that Arteta had a long build-in time to prepare. While Nketiah has clearly worked incredibly hard at developing his all round game, it would have been useless to ask Nketiah to wear a Gabriel Jesus mask and try to copy and paste the Brazilian’s approach in its entirety. No club should keep a player if they are not comfortable with asking them to play to their strengths.

Nketiah has firmly answered his doubters through a mixture of performance and end-product. He deserves to take the plaudits for that because he has clearly worked so hard for this moment and waited such a long time. But Mikel Arteta and his coaching staff have made some subtle, yet notable, changes to the way they attack to play towards Eddie’s more obvious strengths.

Gabriel Jesus operates very much as part of the left pod of the attack, rotating with Gabriel Martinelli and Granit Xhaka, leaving the right largely to Odegaard and Saka. So let’s look at what the data says, firstly about Gabriel Martinelli, who particularly enjoyed a rotating relationship with Jesus, who would often drift to the left touchline in a way Nketiah does with less regularity.

With Gabriel JesusWith Eddie Nketiah
Passes attempted per 9030.235.2
Pass completion % per 9083.2%66.6%

I have only taken Premier League data since, neatly, Jesus started every Premier League game before his injury and Nketiah has started every game since, which provides a direct correlation in the numbers. I also omitted the FA Cup game against Oxford, which Nketiah started, since the standard of the opposition was not representative.

We see here that Martinelli has more responsibility in possession now, he is attempting more passes with a much lower success rate. Martinelli has probably tired since the autumn which would account for some of the drop-off in his passing success rate but the story these numbers tell me is that Nketiah doesn’t play as close to Martinelli as Jesus does.

The Brazilian has made a sacrifice, taking on full-backs alone- not least since Zinchenko does not really provide an overlap from left-back. Nketiah is not drifting towards Martinelli and providing those short passing combinations or decoys for Martinelli to exploit. We can see this when we look at Granit Xhaka, who plays just inside Martinelli, and his touch data.

He averaged 53.7 touches per game with Jesus in the team and that has risen to 57.2 with Nketiah, which is a sharp increase given the five-game sample size with Eddie. A quick look at Jesus and Nketiah’s comparative touch data shows you why Xhaka and Martinelli are picking up a little bit of slack, in terms of overall involvement. Eddie’s touch data is not bad at all, he is in the 88th percentile for penalty area touches- it’s just that Gabriel Jesus is in the 99th percentile. The Brazilian wrecks the curve for overall involvement.

Gabriel JesusEddie Nketiah
Touches per 9045.133.8

However, none of this means that Nketiah has a nice easy time while others pick up from Gabriel Jesus. It comes at a price and that price is that Nketiah offers a superior goal threat, since Martinelli and Xhaka have had to recalibrate their creative games a little. Needless to say, Eddie is delivering in this respect.

Nketiah is no Erling Haaland, he’s not going to have three touches and somehow score four goals. He has a decent level of involvement in build-up but Arteta and Arsenal have not asked him to become a total facsimile of Jesus. Martinelli and Xhaka in particular have picked up some of Jesus’ workload and allowed Nketiah to occupy more central spaces where he can do Eddie Nketiah things.

Follow me on Twitter @Stillmanator

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