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Nicolas Pepe and Dani Ceballos add exactly what Arsenal have been missing

July 29, 2019

IN last season’s Premier League, 13 Premier League teams attempted more dribbles per 90 minutes than Arsenal. 10 teams took more shots on goal per 90 too. Part of this is due to the loss of Alexis Sanchez in January 2018. Sanchez was a high-volume shot taker and persistently took defenders on in search of openings.

The Gunners have slowly shed most of their dribblers over the last 2-3 years. Santi Cazorla, Tomas Rosicky, Alex Oxlade Chamberlain and Jack Wilshere have drifted away from the club too. Theo Walcott wasn’t much of a dribbler, but he added the sort of unpredictability that makes defences unsure of themselves.

In short, Arsenal have not been able to stress opponents enough due to a lack of dribblers and a lack of late arriving runs into the penalty area. Iwobi, Mkhitaryan and Özil all construct attacks well enough, but the moves have lacked some devil for too long. Last season, Unai Emery was left to field an unconvincing 5-3-2 formation in an attempt to shoehorn Lacazette and Aubameyang into the same starting line-up and increase the team’s offensive potential.


#Arsenal’s front three next season is INSANE!

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Arsenal’s setup became heavily reliant on the two strikers to pull rabbits from hats. They need more of the sort of player that can cause conniptions from wide areas with powerful on and off the ball running. Iwobi, Mkhitaryan, Ramsey and Özil scored six goals apiece in 2018-19. Arsenal desperately need players that add dynamism and unpredictability to their attack.

Links to Wilfried Zaha and Everton ‘Cebolinha’ made a lot of sense in this respect. Reports emerged over the weekend that the club will break the bank to bring Nicolas Pepe to North London this summer. Whoscored has Pepe averaging 3.1 shots and 2.7 dribbles per game in Ligue 1 last season. Compare that with Alex Iwobi, averaging 1 SPG and 1.3 dribbles and Henrikh Mkhitaryan, 2 SPG and 0.8 dribbles in the Premier League.

Even when you subtract penalties, Pepe scored more goals than Iwobi and Mkhitaryan combined last season. If Arsenal want greater dynamism, unpredictability and goal threat in their attack to support their overworked star strikers, you can see why Pepe makes a lot of sense. He would be stepping up a level if he finalises a move to the Premier League, but the underlying metrics are encouraging and at 23, he is no longer a kid in football terms.

On paper, the loan signing of Dani Ceballos makes sense for similar reasons. The Gunners have one of the more ponderous, inelastic midfields in the Premier League. The additions of Lucas Torreira and Matteo Guendouzi were a positive step in introducing an injection of adrenaline into the middle of the team, but a midfield that regularly includes Granit Xhaka and Mesut Özil lacks athleticism and ability to move with ball at feet.

Ceballos potentially changes this. Arsenal needed a midfielder to replace Aaron Ramsey in purely numerical terms, but Ceballos looks more like a replacement for the much-missed Santi Cazorla than anything. That said, Dani has played slightly different roles for Real Madrid, where he tends to play slightly deeper, compared to Spain U-21s, where his metrics are a lot more enterprising. Ceballos created more chances and completed more dribbles than anyone else at the U-21 Euros this summer.

A lot of that could be to do with the quality of opposition, but it will be interesting to see whether Unai Emery sees Ceballos as part of a midfield double pivot, or whether he is played in a more advanced number 8 role at the tip of a midfield triangle. Ceballos is very press-resistant, able to wriggle away from opponents in small spaces. This is a trait Arsenal have badly missed since Santi Cazorla’s achilles tendon went to heaven.

The team is well stocked for a range war with ball progressors like of Özil, Xhaka and Torreira, but it lacks ball carriers when the midfield turns into a technical fist fight. Ceballos potentially adds a unique skillset to the squad. It is a pity that the deal is only a one-year loan with no option to buy, but the young Spaniard seems very determined to make the grade at Madrid, which ought to focus his performances in an Arsenal shirt.

Ceballos and Pepe may or may not turn out to be excellent signings for Arsenal, but one can very much follow the logic of both acquisitions. It feels like a long time since Gunners fans have been able to say that about their club’s transfer business.