To Arsenal, or Not to Arsenal

Arsenal’s impressive turnaround in recent weeks has seen them transform from a relegation-threatened laughing stock to an in-form team that have their sights set on the European places. The Gunners have won their last 3 Premier League games and are now just 6 points behind Tottenham, who occupy 4th position, although they have played a game more than their North London rivals.

For FPL managers, Arsenal’s renaissance could hardly have come at a better time. Mikel Arteta’s men have one of the standout fixtures on paper in blank gameweek 18, as they welcome Crystal Palace to the Emirates.

The Revival

Stats taken from fantasyfootballhub.com, representing the last 3 gameweeks.

A big factor in Arsenal’s up-turn in form of late is their increased productivity at the top end of the pitch. The stark turnaround in attack cannot be understated. They have scored an impressive 8 goals in their last 3 games, having netted a mere 12 times in the 14 games prior. The underlying statistics also tell us that their up-turn in attack hasn’t been a fluke. In the last 3 gameweeks, Arsenal have had the most goal attempts (47) , attempts in the box (38) and shots on target (21) in the league. However, perhaps the stat that best highlights the marked change in Arsenal’s attacking output is that they have had a chance just 6.1 minutes in the last 3 games, compared to every 9.1 minutes in the 14 games before.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the Gunners’ resurgance has come after the addition of Emile Smith-Rowe to the starting 11. Arsenal have been crying out for a number 10 all season, and with Mesut Ozil seemingly permanently frozen out of the club, Smith-Rowe has stepped up to fill the void. The young Englishman has brought a real energy to the Arsenal side with and without the ball. He has an uncanny knack of finding the half-spaces in between the opposition midfield and defence, and has demonstrated that he has the quality in the final third that you need to play at the top level. Smith-Rowe has created 6 chances in the last 2 games, including the assist for a glorious team goal that was eventually finished off by Bukayo Saka in the convincing win over West Brom last time out. Those two have shown that they have a natural understanding of each others game, having played together for Arsenal’s academy.

Arsenal have also tightened up considerably at the back in the last 3 games, conceding just 1 goal. Their shut-outs away at Brighton and West Brom respectively were the first time they have recorded back to back clean sheets all season. However, their recent success at the back perhaps paints an overly-positive view of their defensive prowess in recent weeks. The Gunners have an xGC of 4.45 across the 3 games, which means they have conceded 3.45 less goals than the metric says they “should have”. They have also given up 39 goal attempts in the 3 games, which is the 5th worst in the league over that period. In fairness, only 8 of these attempts were on target, even though 24 were in the penalty box, which perhaps tells us that Arsenal’s defenders are doing just enough to limit the quality of the oppponents goal attempt.

Arteta seems to have found a settled centre-back partership that has served him well in his hour of need in the form of Rob Holding and Pablo Mari. Mari has been a calming presence at the back for Arsenal and provides a left footed option at centre-back, something Arteta has said is integral in order to implement his passing style. Indeed, Mari has played 90 minutes in Arsenal’s last 4 games in all competitions, and they have kept 3 clean sheets in that period. It may be a combination of a settled defence and an increased confidence that has allowed Arsenal to defy their underlying statistics from a defensive point of view, although the law of statistics tell us that is unsustainable, and they will have to improve if they want to continue to record clean sheets in the coming weeks.

The Options

Kieran Tierney (£5.4m – 11.9% tsb)

The Scotsman’s 18 point haul against West Brom last time out had been coming. In the last 6 gameweeks, Tierney has created 14 chances, which puts him joint second in the league amongst defenders. This has been catalysed by a switch in formation to a back four, where Tierney can play LB as opposed to LCB. The former Celtic man is a key attacking outlet for Arteta, with his seemingly endless energy used to rampage the left-wing and whip crosses in for the attackers.

Indeed, only 5 defenders in the league have made more crosses this season. Tierney is actually underperforming slightly in terms of assists. In the last 6 gameweeks he has an xA of 1.16, but has only notched 1, which came at the Hawthorns in GW16 for Alexandre Lacazette. Arsenal’s BGW18 opponents, Crystal Palace, have conceded 24 chances from the left flank in the last 6 league games, which places them as the 3rd worst in the league. I would expect Tierney to get some joy up against Joel Ward, particularly if he is given the attacking freedom that he has been in the last 3 games.

Rob Holding (£4.5m – 4.8% tsb)

Holding provides a cheaper route into the Arsenal defence than Tierney, but he has provided fantastic value in his own right over the last 3 games, particularly in the last 2, where he notched an impressive 19 points. It is true that the centre-back was lucky with his assist for Tierney’s brilliant solo goal against West Brom in GW16, but he does provide attacking threat from set pieces. Holding has recorded 7 goal attempts in the last 6 gameweeks, which seems more than reasonable for a £4.5 defender. He has an xG of 0.42 over the last 6 games, which suggests a set piece goal might not be too far away.

Another promising sign for owners is Holding’s impressive performance in the bonus point system. He has recorded 4 bonus points in the last 2 games, including all 3 in the win at Brighton. If Arsenal keep a clean sheet against Palace, you can expect him to be in and around the bonus points.

Pierre Emerick Aubameyang (£11.3m – 7.3% tsb)

At the start of the season, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang was the darling of the Fantasy Premier League community. He was in the form of his career and was captained by many managers, including myself, for the first two games of the season. The expectation was that he was going to sustain his incredible goalscoring record in the Premier League, and with extra points for clean sheets and goals after he had been converted to a midfielder in the game, he would be a season keeper. The expectation couldn’t be further from reality. The Gabon international has just 3 league goals in 17 games and has looked the shadow of the imperious goalscorer we have known ever since his arrival from Borussia Dortmund in January of 2018.

However, there are promising signs that Aubameyang could be about to turn the corner and kickstart his campaign. Firstly, he scored a trademark poacher’s goal in Arsenal’s win over Newcastle in the FA Cup on Saturday. The way he drifted into the centre of the box and the sharpness he displayed to nip in front of his marker to score was, to me, a sign of life. The underlying statistics show that Aubameyang had been due a goal. Although it is only a small sample size, since his return to the team from injury, he has recorded an xG of 1.42 in two games, which puts him at the top for midfielders over that period. In the same period, Aubameyang has had 5 shots in the box (2nd for midfielders), 2 big chances (2nd for midfielders), and 2 shots on target.

The numbers tell us that Aubameyang is looking more like the player we know in the last couple of games. If I was playing the Free Hit, he would almost certainly be in my team, and I like him as a differential captaincy option. That might sound somewhat rogue to some people, but the data is there to support the decision, and he provides a massive opportunity for managers who are looking to make up ground on mini league rivals or fancy a high reward punt that could propel them up the overall rankings.

Bukayo Saka (£5.3m – 11.2% tsb)

Bukayo Saka is quickly developing into one of the brightest young prospects in world football. At the mere age of 19, you couldn’t have begrudged the England international for wilting under the pressure of having to be one of Arsenal’s key players and leaders in their time of crisis. Instead, Saka has thrived on it. In Arsenal’s last 3 league games, he has 2 goals, 1 assist and 27 FPL points. In those 3 games, Saka has recorded an eye-catching 7 shots inside the box, which shows that he is getting into the dangerous areas frequently. His goal against West Brom demonstrated the understanding with Smith-Rowe I discussed earlier, but also Mikel Arteta’s wider vision for an Arsenal team that has a promising crop of young players coming through.

I think Saka is a great option on free hit this week, but I also like him as a long term pick. He is in that “Soucek mould” where he is just about cheap enough to bench every now and then, which allows you to carry him as a reliable first sub. Alternatively, he is a good enough asset to start every week, and at his attractive price point, he could serve as a nice enabler to allow you to cram in another premium asset.

Alexandre Lacazette (£8.3m – 7.6% tsb)

Lacazette’s comeback as an FPL asset has presented us with an interesting alternative in a forward bracket that had been going somewhat stale as of late. The Frenchman scored his first goal since GW3 when he netted against Chelsea in GW15, and then proceeded to follow it up with 3 more goals in his next two games, netting him an impressive 27 points across the last 3 gameweeks. His underlying statistics back up his upturn in form, and suggest that it is likely to continue in BGW18 against Crystal Palace. Lacazette has had 5 big chances in the last 3 gameweeks, the most of any striker in the game. Of his 8 goal attempts in that time, 7 of them have been on target, which puts him 3 clear of any other striker. In short, Lacazette is getting a lot of chances in this newly energised Arsenal outfit.

In previous years he has been priced around the £9.0m-£9.5m mark, which always looked a tad pricey for a player that always seemed to tick along without ever really exploding. However, at the moment he is just £8.3m, which makes him a lot more appealing and accessible for managers. If Arsenal can continue to create chances at a similar rate in the coming games that they have been recently, then I think Lacazette will continue his good form and firmly establish himself as a serious FPL option. After all, he is a proven striker that has never had less than 17 goal contributions in a Premier League season. This tells us that, although he is going through a purple patch at the moment, he is still likely to be a decent option even when his stats naturally regress slightly.

In the short-term, I think Lacazette is a great option for BGW18, especially if you’re playing the free hit chip. Crystal Palace have conceded 17 big chances in their last 6 league games, which puts them 2nd worst in the league. They have also given up 53 shots in the box in their last 6 (joint 4th worst in the league), which is where you would expect Arsenal’s number 9 to have his best chance of scoring. These stats, coupled with Lacazette’s own impressive numbers, point to him continuing his good form against the Eagles.

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