Arsenal are set for a busy summer transfer window as the club looks to bridge the gap between them and the rest of the so-called ‘big six’.
The Gunners endured a torrid 2020/21 campaign languishing in eighth place in the Premier League, whilst also succumbing to a 1-0 defeat against former boss Unai Emery’s Villarreal side in the Europa League semi-finals.
This has resulted in serious questions being asked about manager Mikel Arteta, who football.london understands wants to bring at least four more players into the squad this summer – after completing the signing of Portuguese left-back Nuno Tavares on Saturday.
One of the positions that the Spaniard is looking to address is the creative attacking midfielder role after Norwegian captain Martin Odegaard’s loan stint with the club expired at the end of last month.
The north Londoners have been linked with Leicester City’s James Maddison in recent weeks, as well as Lyon midfielder Houssem Aouar – who the club hold a long-standing interest in.
Here football.london analyses which playmaker would slot into the Arsenal side and make a bigger impact to the team.
Arsenal are in need of a playmaker who can break down deep blocks, something German maestro Mesut Ozil flourished at during his seven-year stint at the Emirates.
Maddison ranks extremely high in terms of his chance creation numbers, averaging 0.23 expected assists, 4.5 shot-creating actions and 2.23 key passes per 90 minutes last term. Comparatively, Aouar registered similar numbers, scoring 0.2 expected assists, 1.87 key passes and 5.1 shot-creating actions per game last season.
Both players offer guaranteed chance creation but their methods of doing so differ.
Maddison is a set-piece specialist, often delivering perfectly weighted corners or free kicks that find a teammate, something that Arsenal have lacked in recent years. In fact, the Gunners netted just six times from set-pieces last term, with only relegated duo Sheffield United and Fulham scoring less from dead-ball situations.
Meanwhile, Aouar doesn’t offer the same sort of impact from set-pieces but his dribbling ability is one of his standout attributes, often gliding past opposition players with drive, something that has greatly benefited Lyon to create a multitude of chances in transition.
It is no secret that Arsenal have lacked goals from midfield since Welsh international Aaron Ramsey departed for Juventus in the summer of 2019.
In fact, other than Joe Willock (who did so on loan at Newcastle) no Gunners’ midfielder has netted more than two Premier League goals in each of the last two seasons, suggesting whatever playmaker the north Londoners do decide to acquire should offer a goal threat from the middle of the park.
Again, both Aouar and Maddison boast a solid return in front of goal but in very different ways.
Maddison scored on eight occasions in the Premier League last season, seven of which came from open play whilst one came directly from a free-kick. The English international did so with a low npxG (non-penalty expected goals) tally of 4.4, suggesting that he was clinical when given half-chances as well as long-range opportunities.
Aouar netted seven times in Lyon’s 2020/21 Ligue 1 campaign, albeit having played 300 less minutes than the Leicester playmaker. The 22-year-old scored two penalties and five from open play, accumulating a npxG of 8.8, which suggests that his movement is superior to Maddison’s, but also that his finishing isn’t as prolific as the former Norwich midfielder.
Maddison would represent a better fit to play as a no.10 in Arteta’s 4-2-3-1 system as he has often been deployed in that very role for Brendan Rodgers’ side in recent years. The 24-year-old often picks up the ball in pockets of space left vacated by opposition defensive midfielders, similar to what Ozil was famed for during his spell with the Gunners.
He often drifts to the right half-space, to find double up on opposition left-backs, something that would allow Arsenal wingers Bukayo Saka and Nicolas Pepe to drift inside on their favoured left foot.
Maddison also offers considerable pressing ability when his side are without the ball. During the Foxes’ impressive 3-1 win over Liverpool in February, Maddison pressed excellently to block the Reds from vertical passes between the lines, which derailed their build-up and in turn allowed Leicester to win the ball back high up the pitch.
Aouar has previously played as a no.10 but he is at his best either in a midfield three or as a wide playmaker on the left-wing, a similar role to what Emile Smith Rowe was tasked with in the latter stages of last season.
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If the Gunners were to sign the Frenchman this summer they could operate with a fluid left flank, with Kieran Tierney staying high and wide, Aouar cutting in and Smith-Rowe supporting him centrally, a trio that would undoubtedly create goalscoring openings for fun.
The 22-year-old could also be utilised in a midfield pivot alongside Ghanian vice-captain Thomas Partey but they would perhaps be too exposed as a duo to play in front of a back four, with a 3-4-3 more balanced against dangerous opposition.
There is little difference in the two players’ underlying data in terms of chance creation, ball progression or goalscoring exploits and each possesses their own strengths and weaknesses. However, Maddison may represent a ‘safer’ signing given he is Premier League proven, would fit into the no.10 role that Arteta frequently deploys and would greatly improve the Gunners’ set-piece taking ability.
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