Rumors indicate that Arsenal have signed Sead Kolasinac from Schalke 04 and if the stats show us anything, it’s that Arsenal might have an excellent replacement for Nacho Monreal lined up for next season. Those same numbers also show us exactly what the Arsenal supporters will complain about when he is eventually exposed by Arsene Wenger’s kamikaze defensive system.
Monreal has been a fan favorite at Arsenal but in recent seasons has started to look his age (31) as younger, more agile players have been able to beat him off the dribble, and teams have targeted him for balls over the top. Arsenal, meanwhile, haven’t been able to get the best out of his backup, Gibbs, who has made just 21 League appearances for Arsenal over the last two years, a decline from his average of 25 per season over the three years prior. Gibbs’ limited starts, at the time when Monreal’s talents are clearly waning, is evidence that Wenger decided Gibbs would never take over for Monreal. If Gibbs was going to take the starting mantle away from Monreal he would be getting more playing time rather than less.
The demands from an Arsenal fullback in the Wenger system are more like a wingback, except where a wingback would typically be in front of three center backs, the Arsenal system relies on just one or two center backs, pushed as high up the pitch as possible. Like a wingback, Arsenal’s fullbacks are auxiliary midfielders while also providing attacking width for when the Arsenal wide forwards (who are usually played “off-foot”) tuck inside in attack. Since their attacking partners are tucking inside, the Arsenal fullbacks also have to provide defensive cover for the forwards and wide in defense.
The full skillset for an Arsenal fullwingforwardback is: pass the ball exceptionally well (like a central midfielder), cross the ball (like a winger), intercept the opposition attacks (like a fullback), tackle perfectly (any missed tackles mean that Arsenal’s entire two center back system is exposed), work seamlessly with the forward in front of them in attack, be able to cover the opposition forwards and the opposition fullbacks, and have the ability to recover lightning quick when they are all the way forward and the opposition win the ball and pass it into the open space behind them. Needless to say there are few players in the world who can sustain this level of perfection for long and even right back Hector Bellerin, who was an Arsenal fan favorite last season, is quickly being burned out by the demands placed on him by Wenger’s system.
The good news is that Kolasinac ticks a lot of those boxes.
First, his “goals from counter attacks” number is small (just 2) but Opta counts counter attacking goals in a very narrowly defined way and so even getting one on your annual tally sheet is a big deal. For me, this is a sign that Kolasinac plays as a foot-forward fullback, who breaks with speed at opposition defenders.
Second, his long balls percentage is high as is his crossing percentage. This indicates that he’s a good passer, despite the fact that he has a low overall short passing percent of just 75%. Counter attacking teams often have low passing %’s because they value speed of ball movement over accuracy for possession’s sake.
Third, his key passing numbers are excellent for a wingback with the player finding teammates both long and with crosses, unlike Monreal who isn’t as well developed in the Arsenal attack. This is crucial. Wenger sends his fullbacks forward, thus exposing his defense. But if the fullbacks aren’t helping to develop Arsenal’s attacking play then sending them forward is pointless and even counter-productive.
Kolasinac’s attacking numbers (counter-attacking goals, good long ball %, and long ball key passes) indicate a player who is well versed in the offensive requirements of a counter-attacking system. So, what about defense?
Wenger’s main defensive style is train his defenders to intercept the ball and Kolasinac plays a similar defensive scheme for Schalke 04. Kolasinac is so good at interceptions that he ranks 5th in the Bundesliga overall and first among fullbacks with 3.6 per game. To put that in another context, Sead had as many interceptions as Nacho did in 708 fewer minutes.
Where Arsenal supporters will be particularly pleased is in his outstanding tackle percentage. Kolasinac was only dribbled 16 total times last season in 76 different 1-v-1 duels with attackers. Nacho Monreal made a similar number of tackles but showed clearly that his is losing a step in the fact that he was dribbled an astonishing 43 times.
Monreal has also been dispossessed more times than Kolasinac, with 15, but has a much better first touch than the Schalke man with just 9 unforced turnovers, compared to Kolasinac’s awful 23. In fact, given the massive disparity in passes between to the two players (Monreal averages 10 passes more per game than Kolasinac) this is the one stat that I expect Arsenal supporters will be frustrated with, if (IF) he doesn’t show better touch in the Arsenal system, which was (until about 5 years ago) world renown for developing player’s touch.
Given his excellent attacking and defending numbers, if Kolasinac signs for Arsenal he could turn out to be the perfect replacement for Monreal. And if Wenger moves Monreal to center back and plays a three center back system with Bellerin wide right and Sead Kolasinac wide left, Arsenal may very well have a defensive scheme and counter attacking system which suits the Premier League’s rabid pace.