Arsenal had a player in the 2011-12 season who started 15 matches, and appeared in 10 more off the bench. He scored six goals in all competitions (4 BPL, 1 UCL, 1 CC), which tied him for third-most on the squad. This player has been used effectively both in the midfield and as a winger. He also notched three assists, scored an 87’ winner as a substitute against Aston Villa, and was the Man of the Match in the most important game of the season. This player is not wunderkind Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain (4 goals, 2 assists), nor is he Tomas Rosicky (2 goals, 4 assists) with his shiny new contract, nor is he the star of Arsenal’s 2011 summer transfer period, Gervinho (4 goals, 7 assists). He is Yossi Benayoun, on loan from Chelsea, who struggled to get in Wenger’s side consistently, yet did nothing more or less than show up in big games and give maximum effort. Now the season has ended, and Arsenal have come third in the Barclays Premier League, guaranteeing them a spot in the UEFA Champions League group stage next season, and Benayoun is headed back to Chelsea, who likely don’t have much use for him. The question is this: has Benayoun’s performance, especially late in the season, earned him a chance at a permanent transfer to Arsenal? And if so what price should Wenger be willing to pay to retain the Israeli captain?
Before I make a decision, let’s look a little deeper at the games in which Benayoun played for Arsenal this season…
In games he started, Arsenal were 5-2-3 in the Premier League, 0-1-1 in the Champions League, and 2-1-0 in the Carling Cup, for an overall record of 7-4-4 in games that Benayoun started this season. Included in the Premier League games that Benayoun started and Arsenal won were the 5-2 win at home to Spurs, the 2-1 win away to Liverpool, the 1-0 win at home to eventual champions Man City, and the 3-2 final match win away to West Brom.
In games where Benayoun came off the bench for Arsenal, the team went 7-2-0 in the Premier League, and 1-0-0 in the Champions League, for an overall team record of 8-2-0 in games that Benayoun made an appearance off the bench. His largest impact as a substitute was against Aston Villa away on December 21, where as I already mentioned he scored the game winner with his head in the 87th minute.
Altogether, Arsenal were 12-4-3 in the Premier League, 1-1-1 in the Champions League, and 2-1-0 in the Carling Cup when Benayoun played, giving the team an overall record of 15-6-4 in all competitions for games in which Benayoun appeared. For context, Arsenal were 21-7-10 in the Premier League this season, 6-2-2 in the Champions League, 2-1-0 in the Carling Cup, and 2-1-0 in the FA Cup, for a total mark of 31-11-12 in all competitions.
Okay, so that’s a lot of numbers I just threw out there, so let’s take a second to step back and think about what it all means. I’m going to exclude the domestic cup competitions from this analysis because (a) the Carling Cup is, well, the Carling Cup, and (b) Benayoun didn’t play in the FA Cup, so what we’re really looking at here is the difference between his performances in the Champions League and in the Premier League. My question is this: is Benayoun a Champions League player, is he a regular contributor in the Premier League, or is his value mostly in coming off the bench in the league and providing depth for cup matches?
Just looking at Arsenal’s record in games Benayoun played in, his value seems to be higher in the Premier League (5-2-3 when Yossi starts) than in the Champions League (0-1-1 when Yossi starts). This does not necessarily mean that Benayoun isn’t a Champions League caliber player, as this analysis has two main problems: (1) Small sample size! I mean, we’re only talking about 2 games in the group stage where he started, so that’s not much to go on; and (2) Benayoun didn’t really hit his stride until later in the season, when he started to get more regular playing time, but by that time Arsenal were out of the Champions League, so Benayoun’s Champions League performance may not be indicative of his true skill as a player. All that being said, for the sake of this analysis, I’m still going to say that Benayoun is a borderline Champions League player at best, so any contribution Arsenal get from him in that competition should be seen as a bonus.
That being said, I definitely believe that Benayoun has value in the Premier League, and he proved that this year. His four Premier League goals put him tied for 5th with Gervinho, and his development as a big game player cannot be ignored. Down the stretch, Benayoun started every big win that Arsenal had, with the exception of the 2-1 home win against Newcastle, from February through the end of the 2011-12 season. Arsene Wenger only began to trust Benayoun later in the season, and his performances in those games certainly justified his selection. He also finished with a flurry, starting the last two games against Norwich and West Brom, and scoring the game opening goal in both, each inside of 15 minutes of the opening whistle. He was the best player on the pitch in the most important game of the year, against West Brom, where Arsenal clinched third position and an automatic berth into next season’s UEFA Champions League. With all this in mind, I believe Benayoun has value in the league, not just as depth or a nice option off the bench, but as a regular contributor.
Even though I believe in his value, the harsh reality of a club like Arsenal is that the quality it takes to get regular minutes is much greater than at most clubs, and I do not believe that Arsenal will challenge for silverware if Benayoun is one of Wenger’s top 11 players. If all goes well in the transfer market and with injuries this summer, Arsenal’s midfield and wing situation could get crowded with quality, making it much harder for Benayoun to find time in the potential 2012-12 squad. If we assume that Wilshere will be back and 100% to start the season, and that the deal for M’Vila does get done, Benayoun will have to contend with those two, plus Song, Arteta, Rosicky, and Ramsey for only three spots in the midfield. On form I believe Benayoun is a better option than Ramsey and can push Rosicky for his place in the squad, but that still leaves him behind Wilshere, Song, Arteta, and the looking-ever-more-likely addition of M’Vila. The picture isn’t any les crowded on the wings, with Walcott, Gervinho, Oxlade-Chamberlain, and now Podolski in the picture. With a year of experience in the Premier League each going into next season, I expect (and I’m sure Wenger expects) more production out of Gervinho and Oxlade-Chamberlain, so I really can’t see Benayoun getting much time on the wing other than as a fill-in.
Ultimately, despite Benayoun’s production this year, ideally he would have a tough time getting into an improved Arsenal squad next season, and that’s a good thing, as the overall talent level at the club must be upgraded this offseason in the club is to compete for anything in 2012-13. Hell, ideally Wenger will not only bring in M’Vila, but another midfielder as well. I know Lucas Biglia of Anderlecht and Younes Belhanda of Montpellier are two names that seem to be linked with Arsenal more each day, so adding one of those young players would present yet another hurdle to Benayoun getting picked. Just today news started to trickle out that Arsenal had agreed to terms with Borussia Dortmund (still unconfirmed) for Shinji Kagawa, who would likely play on the wing, again clouding the picture for any possible playing time for Yossi should he stay. Admittedly, the talk of M’Vila, and Kagawa, and Belhanda, and Biglia is all just speculation at this point, but I have to believe at least one if not two of those players (or another as-of-yet-unknown midfielder or winger) will be in an Arsenal shirt next season, so it is going to be a struggle for Benayoun to get even as much time as he did this year.
This, of course, does not account for injuries, which as an Arsenal supporter, I know are inevitable. As we saw this year with Wilshere, Diaby, and our fullbacks, injuries seem to always hit Arsenal hard, which leads me to my ultimately conclusion on whether or not to keep Benayoun: for the right price, absolutely. I don’t think Wenger should blow £5 or £6 million on him, but Chelsea should be motivated sellers, and cannot be counting on much of a return on him, so if Arsene can snatch Benayoun up for around £2 million, I’m all for it. Yossi Benayoun is the exact kind of depth that Arsenal need: he’s a proven, experienced Premier League-caliber player, that can make the most of his opportunities even in limited time, and he appears to be a good teammate. Yossi may not want to accept that role at Arsenal, as it will not come with a guarantee of regular playing time, but past experience should tell him that opportunities will appear in the way of injuries, and he is the right kind of player to capitalize on those opportunities.
I think Yossi is a good guy, I’ve enjoyed watching him play for Arsenal this season, and for the right price, I’d love to see that little #30 in red, flailing his arms as he buzzes around the pitch next season at The Emirates.
unrelated edit: it looks like that purple and black striped away kit I posted yesterday may be the real deal; take a look at this training gear for next season that seems to match the colors (via @rodedra6).