Arsenal have signed Sokratis Papastathopoulos from Borussia Dortmund and just from looking at his stats there are a lot of things to like about the center half.
The first thing we need to get out of the way is that Arsenal under Arsene Wenger played a kind of unique defensive style. Wenger wanted his center backs to intercept and attack passes. Before the last three seasons, Arsenal typically had enough interceptions per game to rank top three or four in the Premier League and players like Clichy, Koscielny, and Monreal typically were top 10 players in interceptions per game. Koscielny averaged 3.8 interceptions per game in 2015/16 and only averaged 1.4 tackles per game that season.
I don’t think we can expect the same style from Unai Emery. His PSG teams didn’t tackle, intercept, or block much and were last or near last in all of those categories when he was there. That could have been down to possession (they had a lot of it) but even when he was at Sevilla his teams were middle of the pack or even almost last in most of those categories. This indicates a coach who wants to control space more than he wants to attack the ball out of possession. I can’t say for certain that he will set up Arsenal to play that way, just that that’s how he played in the past. That makes the acquisition of Sokratis kind of interesting because the Greek player loves to attack the ball, especially in a tackle.
Over his career, Sokratis has always been more of a tackler than an interceptor, which is the opposite of how Arsenal’s center backs have ever played. Where Koscielny averaged 3.8 interceptions and 1.4 tackles in his best season, Sokratis averaged 4.5 tackles and 2.6 interceptions in his first season at Werder Bremen.
He has since calmed down… a lot! Last season was his least “adventurous” of his career. He averaged just 2.5 tackles won and 2.8 tackles attempted per90 and just 1.1 interceptions p90.
This chart shows his career progression in tackles per90:
One thing you might notice is that he attempts fewer tackles but wins a higher percentage of them. That is also true and I have a nice chart for that as well.
Koscielny won 77% of his attempted tackles last season but Sokratis won a career high 89%. That’s a fantastic stat which is illustrated further by saying he was only dribbled past 0.3 times per90 minutes played.
Another area that Arsenal supporters are interested in improving is in aerial duels won. It’s important to know that the Bundesliga is different when it comes to aerial challenges and players can sometimes struggle to adapt. Per Mertesacker won 75% of his aerial duels in his last full season at Werder Bremen and that number dropped to 64% in his first season at Arsenal. Mertesacker’s number went back up to 68% the next season and reached a high of 76% aerials won in 2015/16.
None of Arsenal’s center backs were good at winning aerial duels last season and if Sokratis can continue winning those at his current rate of 67% he will step right in to be the best header of the ball in this Arsenal side.
Defensive stats aren’t the only thing that Sokratis brings, he’s also a much better passer than you might expect and with Unai Emery almost certainly wanting to build play from the back, Sokratis will be an important player in that regard.
I like to look at long ball stats as a test of a player’s passing ability but it’s not always a good measure: lumping long balls to Peter Crouch is easier than to Theo Walcott. But when I see a player has had a long career of low percentage long passing, across many managers and different teams, it could be a warning that he’s not a very good long passer.
What’s odd about Sokratis is that his numbers are all over the map. Some seasons he’s as low as a 38% long passer and some seasons he’s as high as 85% (his five matches with AC Milan). The vast majority of the time, however, he’s been about a 50% long passer.
Mustafi was ostensibly brought to Arsenal for this exact skill, his “line breaking passes” long and hard along the ground. But if he was supposed to be that guy, it’s never really worked out. Last season Mustafi only completed 42% of his long passes and often put his teammates in trouble with an errant long pass in midfield. Koscielny has never been great at long passes either but he still made 66% last season, which isn’t horrible, and made him Arsenal’s best passing center half.
Sokratis won’t have to make a lot of long passes, however, if he has Torreira and Xhaka in front of him. Xhaka is Arsenal’s long baller and so it’s more important that Sokratis makes accurate short passes rather than long. This is where he should be fine. Last season in the Bundesliga he was 93% accurate hitting 58.4/63 passes accurately per90.
Tantalizingly in Champions League play he was even better! In 450 minutes of Champions League play he managed 98% short passing. Dropping just 1.4 short passes out of 64.6 per game over 4 matches. He also hit 67% of his long passes in that tournament. That’s when he had Aubameyang to pass to as well, so that could help explain the bump up in long passing.
Overall, Sokratis is a solid signing for the Arsenal. He’s a little old for my taste but that will be forgiven if Arsenal get two solid seasons out of him and he helps Unai shape Mavropanos, Holding, and Chambers into starting center halves.
Source: Whoscored.com, Opta