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The DNA of: Arsenal

As many of you know, my "second love" beyond goalkeeping is club management - aka recruitment methodologies, club financials, and player development philosophies. With that being said, I wanted to create a series for me to write about, focused on how clubs of today (and maybe the past) are operating. Some may be good, some may be clubs that are struggling, and some might not even be football clubs, but all will examine how the team was built and how it is unique. These methodologies of management create the DNA of a club. In the first edition of this series, we are going to take a look at one of the clubs that is exciting me the most right now in football - this is The DNA of Arsenal...

Gabriel Jesus, Bukayo Saka, and Martin Odegaard celebrating a goal

The Foundation

This foundation section is going to be very brief compared to the others because it is taking a look at the playing philosophy brought on by Mikel Arteta, which forms the direction and foundation of how a club tends to behave in the market and behind the scenes. To reference the work of an expert on the subject, Maram AlBaharna, wrote over the years of Arterta's reign, there has always been a focus on domination. When speaking of domination, this is not just in possession but also through defensive engagements. Through buildup, it started at home with the need for an active goalkeeper strong in distribution and progresses through calculated passing that activates lateral movements rather than just vertical buildup. This demand for progression from Arteta created the need to acquire unpredictable players who could widen the pitch without creating exposure... that is where the likes of Ramsdale, Zinchenko, and Gabriel Jesus come in and we transition to building the squad.

Building the Squad

Looking at the building of the team, we will look at the arrival of Edu as technical director as our starting point. Edu arrived in July of 2019, where he found an Arsenal squad that was mediocre for club standards. Looking at the visual below, we can immediately make a quick profile of the squad. The squad was a bit unbalanced, with Premier League minutes primarily going to players in the final stage of their career or players at the end of their prime stage. As you also look at the squad, consider the ability of these players - how many would you say were meeting expectations at the time? As we move to Autumn 2022 and Arsenal is in the midst of what could be a title-challenging campaign, just six players who saw minutes in 2018/19 remain on the squad.

Going to 2019-20, the recruitment strategy was focused on energizing the squad with young players either in the better half of their prime or in their development focus stage. In came Kieran Tierney (22, Celtic), Gabriel Martinelli (18, Ituano), William Saliba (18, Saint-Etienne), and Nicolas Pepe (24, Lille). David Luiz (33) arrived from Chelsea to offer additional experience at the back. Dani Ceballos (22) arrived on loan from Real Madrid in the summer as well.

With new arrivals comes departures. Petr Cech retired as a legend of goalkeeping while Stephan Leichtsteiner, Aaron Ramsey, and Danny Welbeck were released. David Ospina, Laurent Koscielny, Nacho Monreal, Carl Jenkinson, and Alex Iwobi transferred out while a number of other players were loaned.

Since Edu did not arrive until mid-July, he is not responsible for all of these transfers and it is hard to know how many were his that summer. His first "big action" as technical director came in November when Manager Unai Emery was sacked. A month later, Manchester City assistant Mikel Arteta arrived to become the manager. With Arteta on the touchline, Edu's era had truly begun.

They say pictures are worth a thousand words, so rather than go season-by-season chronicling the arrivals and departures, look below to see each season's squad and the evolution of Arsenal.

As you can see from the images above, Arsenal has trimmed their veteran players down each year while more minutes are awarded to younger players. The academy products and younger transfer acquisitions are entering their prime years, allowing Arsenal to become a "win-now" team with some security for the future.

Players have come and gone like at all clubs, but it is safe to say one thing is obvious for Edu and Arteta as they build this squad and try to maximize their performance - the incoming players will be primarily young and they will be given the opportunity to impress in an industry that tends to focus on short-term results, meaning veterans are primarily handed the minutes. Giving consideration as a scout, I struggle to think of any team in Europe that can match the current ability of this Arsenal squad with the potential upside this squad has. Arsenal are already performing at a very high level, but I do feel they will continue improving if they can hold on to their talent. With that being said, let's look to tomorrow...

Looking to Tomorrow

As we look to tomorrow with Arsenal, we will heavily reference the work of Twenty First Group (a leading sports intelligence firm), which has influenced my thinking more and more as I am more involved in squad planning procedures. First, from their collection of insights while they were known as 21st Club, we know "Research into Premier League age profiles reveals that clubs often have their best seasons when the bulk of their squad is made up of peak age players (25-28, depending on position), and their worst seasons when they have too many old and/or young players..." I personally feel this research is justified by looking at the results of Arsenal over the past years. The squad underperformed to the standard of their club for years with largely a veteran force, while mistakes happened as the team became younger - now 62% of the active squad is in their "prime years" and we are seeing Arsenal at their best. Looking at the current squad, assuming no changes happen (unlikely in football, I know), it becomes 71% of the active squad is in their "prime years". Following the logic presented by Twenty First Group and the actual results we see with Arsenal, the best is yet to come.

In our next sub-section, we will be utilizing Capology data (sourced on FBRef) - the reason I say this is because there must be a disclaimer. Capology data is not perfect, it does not include bonuses (which are always a substantial amount) and it is presented in the form of gross pay, not net pay. In addition to this, not all wages are verified. I am filtering out the unverified wages, meaning you may notice certain players missing. It is important to remember that flaws exist, but we can only work with what we have when it comes to challenging our thinking and learning.

There are a number of metrics we could use to see who is "earning their worth" for the squad. No metrics are perfect, while also none present no value. To use a more generalized/basic approach, we will be looking at the wages of Arsenal last season. In addition to this, we will be looking at the percentage of minutes on the pitch available to the player. An example here to justify the reasoning is if we use raw minutes, a player who arrived in January and took two weeks to be integrated into the squad will have substantially fewer minutes compared to a player who has been involved for the whole season. This shouldn't result in the January acquisition being viewed as a failure for not matching the productivity that his wages demand. That is why we will be using a percentage of minutes available. Finally, before we actually view the data, wages are being compared to minutes because no other metric really matters if the player is never on the pitch!

Looking at the past season, let's consider the assets on Arsenal's books in terms of playing personnel. Pepe and Leno are two players who were both past the stage of development, but not involved heavily in the squad. While a second-choice goalkeeper usually isn't, it is not ideal to have a player earning roughly 20k/week above the team average without contributing. Leno was not an ideal asset from a financial perspective, so it makes sense that he was sold this summer. Nicolas Pepe also found himself in the troublesome corner after failing to really make the impact his transfer fee expected of him. Due to his high wage, Arsenal likely had trouble moving him on permanently, so for now he is on loan at Nice in Ligue Un. It is a very promising sign that Arsenal cut loose their two least cost-efficient assets from the previous year in the summer. In addition to Pepe and Leno, the least involved asset in Calum Chambers was also let go - his move coming in the 2021/22 Winter player movement window.

While he was highly involved, Lacazette was a very costly asset that fit into the "veteran player" group, so it made sense letting him go. If we were to speculate and follow the trends of Arsenal's operations, it might not be too surprising to see Partey, Elneny, and Holding moved on in the coming windows. Other clubs could take notice of these players as ideal acquisitions to upgrade what they have while being able to purchase at a lower fee than expected.

As this season progresses, consider making this visual to see Arsenal's current asset involvement and valuations. Arsenal clearly are on top of their finances and (like everyone tries but few succeed) strategize to have a positive/direct-relationship between their weekly wages and minute involvement.

Lessons to Learn

  1. Rome was not built in a day - neither was the current success of Arsenal. Building a squad takes time. While results must be achieved in the short-term, know how football is developing and identify players who can win points in the next three years. Too often we see clubs make a wide number of changes at once, a "dynamite rebuild" of knocking down the system fast and rebuilding fast. Synergy takes time and results are not immediate. A gradual rebuild is often better in the medium and long term, not just for results but also for finances. Arsenal limited to a smaller amount of first-team acquisitions per transfer period/season to allow less integration need, which in turn kept current performances at a high level.

  2. Trust the process - We see clubs who are struggling go through a revolving door of managers, hoping one turns out great with 4 months to prove themselves. Arsenal and Mikel Arteta know there were certainly chains of results that would justify a change of strategy, but the club stuck to the process.

  3. Know your assets - See who isn't stacking up compared to what you are paying them. Try and forecast your asset valuations to know who can contribute tomorrow and who needs to be let go.

A Final Note

As I wrap up my first of this series, it feels appropriate to thank certain influences along the way here as well as credit sources. This article is certainly focused on the work being done off the pitch, but no one has explained things better with how Arsenal is performing on the pitch than Maram AlBaharna (@maramperninety on Twitter). If you are interested in seeing an in-depth analysis of Arteta's evolution at Arsenal by Maram, you can read it here. When it comes to front office theory, the works of Tiotal Football (@tiotalfootball on Twitter) and Twenty-First Group (@TwentyFirstGrp on Twitter) have undoubtedly challenged and influenced my thinking over the years. I would be remiss not to mention the sources referenced in my work one more time. When it comes to age profiles, there are a lot of debates over what the prime of a player truly is. After discussing with Viborg FF First Team Analyst Marius Fischer (@Gegenpressing91 on Twitter), we agreed that 22-28 serves as an ideal prime in modern football. While visuals I make come from Tableau and I often utilize player data from WyScout and InStat, the work found at TransferMarkt and Capology contributes massively to this series. With all of this being said, thank you to everyone for reading. I do not yet have a timeline for the next part of this series, but I think now that we have explored "the good" with Arsenal, we will likely be looking at "the bad" next.

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