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The Battle of North London

By: Matthew Chuang


Source: Tom Jenkins/Getty Images

Introduction


The historic rivalry between football clubs Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur, spanning back to 1913, continues to be a nail-biting spectacle every year. The stadiums being just four miles apart, these two Premier League powerhouse teams battle it out multiple times yearly for dominance in North London. In the 2022-2023 season, the Gunners and the Coys gave remarkable performances, shaping the narrative of one of football’s most storied rivalries.


Under the guidance of their manager Mikel Arteta, Arsenal secured an impressive 2nd place in the Premier League out of a total of 20 teams.  Boasting an impressive record of 26 wins, 6 draws, and 6 losses, the Gunners showcased tactical flexibility and defensive solidity. At the heart of Arsenal’s success stood a combination of offensive and defensive excellence, transitioning between a 4-2-3-1 and a 4-3-3 formation. Players such as Bukayo Saka, Martin Ødegaard, and Gabriel Martinelli delivered stunning performances week after week.  


In contrast, Tottenham Hotspur faced a season filled with uncertainty and challenges. With a mediocre record of 18 wins, 6 draws, and 14 losses, the Coys ended in an 8th-place finish. Employing a traditional 4-3-3 formation, the Spurs had many hiccups in finding their rhythm. Despite the heroic efforts of Harry Kane, Heung-min Son, and Pierre-Emile Højbjerg, the managerial transitions, injuries, and squad adjustments continued to disrupt their chemistry and cohesion. 


In the starting lineups of their respective teams, Heung-min Son and Gabriel Martinelli stand out as pivotal left-wingers/forwards. This article will explore the impacts of both players on their teams’ success in the 2022-2023 season using a variety of metrics and analyses.


Player Profiles and Accomplishments


Data of player profiles were obtained from transfermart.us


Heung-min Son


Source: Reuters

Nationality: South Korean

Age: 31

Team: Tottenham Hotspur

Position: Left Wing / Forward

Dominant Foot: Right

Market Value: €50.00m

Played For:

  • Hamburger SV (2010-2013)

  • B. Leverkusen (2013-2015)

  • Tottenham (2015-2024)

Career Accomplishments: 

  • Tottenham Hotspur Player of the Year x2 (2018-2020)

  • Asian Footballer of the Year (2014,2015,2017)

  • Premier League Golden Boot (2021-2022)

  • FA Cup top scorer (2016-2017)

  • FIFA Puskas Award (2020) 

  • Asian Games Gold Medal (2019)

  • South Korea Footballer of the Year x7 (2013, 2014, 2017, 2019, 2020, 2021, 2022)



Gabriel Martinelli


Source: David Price/Arsenal FC

Nationality: Brazilian

Age: 22

Team: Arsenal

Position: Left Wing / Forward

Dominant Foot: Right

Market Value: €85.00m

Played For:

  • Ituano (2018-2019)

  • Arsenal (2019-2024)

Career Accomplishments: 

  • English Super Cup Winner (2024)

  • Olympic Gold Medalist (2021)

  • English FA Cup Winner (2020)


Data & Analysis


Definitions: 

Data on player statistics were obtained from footystat.org. Terms that are not self-explanatory will be defined here.


Goal Involvement:  Consists of either assisting or scoring a goal.

Shot Accuracy (%): The percentage of shots that are on the frame of the goal. 

Shot Conversion (%) The percentage of shots that are goals.

Successful Dribbles:  An action where the player moves past player(s) while maintaining possession and control of the ball. 

Dispossessed: The action of being stripped of the ball while attempting to dribble past player(s).

Possession (%):  Total time a team remains in possession of the ball out of the total time of the match. 


Methodology: 

Three datasets were compiled and cleaned, containing player metrics, player metrics per 90 min, and head-to-head team statistics.  Specifically focused on games played in the English Premier League during the 2022-2023 season, the player metric datasets include the top nine goal scorers of the season alongside Heung-min Son and Gabriel Martinelli. Because Martinelli was among the top goal scorers, there were a total of ten players under observation. To account for players playing more minutes and matches than other players, metrics were divided by 90 minutes (the amount of time in one match) for some visualizations. 


A comprehensive arbitrary offensive index was created, employing a formula that added the goals, assists, crosses, and successful dribbles while deducting the number of dispossessions of each player. This resulting value was divided by the total number of matches played. This offensive index formula provides a way of getting a well-rounded assessment of a player’s contribution to a team’s offensive endeavors. Having successful dribbles and crosses reflects the ability to create goal-scoring opportunities while goals and assists directly quantify their impact. Subtracting the dispossession emphasizes the importance of ball retention and minimizing errors in offensive play. Normalizing the resulting value by dividing by the total number of matches ensures that there is a balanced comparison across all players regardless of playing time.


Head-to-Head Comparison


Heung-min Son 2022-2023 EPL season Heat Map



Gabriel Martinelli 2022-2023 EPL season Heat Map

Source: Sofascore

As depicted in Son’s heat map, it gives a lot of insight into Tottenham’s tactical approach to games and their usage of their wings/forwards. Characterized by an emphasis on prioritizing more ball control, quicker transitions, and a much higher defensive press, this can explain the abundant presence of Son across the heatmap in the defensive and offensive half. 


In contrast, Gabriel Martinelli’s heat map illustrates a more concentrated positioning, especially in the left wing. Arsenal’s gameplay is distinctive in their effectiveness in moving the ball through the center and towards the wings. Martinelli’s tendency for crafty maneuvers on the ball and less physicality explains his lack of presence in the defensive half. 


These two heat maps introduce the playing styles of both players and serve as a reflection of the strategies employed by the two respective teams. 


Head-to-Head Comparison of Statistics




The graphs above illustrate the distinctive contributions of Son Heung-min and Gabriel Martinelli to their teams’ offensive ability. Martinelli exceeds Son in five of the six categories, particularly in successful dribbles, reflecting his importance to Arsenal’s tactical inclination towards maintaining possession on all sides of the field. Although Son’s metrics are overshadowed by Martinelli’s, they are far from marginal. His role reflects more on a tactical design that allows him to be clinical in his finishing and converting goal-scoring opportunities. Both Son and Martinelli showed pivotal importance for their teams, ranking in the 90th and 95th percentiles, respectively, for goal involvement within the Premier League. 


Shot Efficiency



Shot accuracy and shot conversion. Two terms that are vital to any forward for their teams’ success. Son stands out among others, boasting an impressive 70.37% shot accuracy, a clear indicator of offensive threat. However, his shot conversion rate of 18.52% suggests that while he is excellent at getting shots on target, the conversion of those shots into goals is not as high. This could be indicative of Son taking shots from less advantageous spots and/or goalkeepers making outstanding saves. On the other hand, Martinelli has a shot accuracy rate of 59.26% with a conversion rate of 27.78%. While Martinelli had a smaller percentage of shots hit the frame of the goal, his clinical efficiency is much higher than Son’s. 


A comparison with Erling Haaland, who has the highest shot conversion rate of 33.96% among the top forwards in the Premier League, underscores the nature of his finishing skills. While Haaland has a lower shot accuracy than Son, his ability to convert a higher proportion of his shots into goals displays why he is considered one of the best forwards in the Premier League. 


In essence, while having a high shot accuracy is an important attribute of offensive ability, conversion rate ultimately measures how effective these measures are in influencing the score of the game. The balance between accuracy and efficiency is pivotal, especially in terms of a team’s success. 


Offensive Index Comparison



The offensive index constructed employs a formula that factors in goals, assists, crosses, successful dribbles, and dispossessions. This serves as a gauge of a player’s contributions offensively, considering their ability to directly impact the score of the game as well as maintaining possession. 


In this comparison, Martinelli stands above all others with an offensive rating of 3.720 compared to Son’s index of 2.750. This can be attributed to the inclusion of the importance of possession in this arbitrary index, where Martinelli is more involved in ball retention in contrast with Son. 


In this visualization, it is important to note that teammates Martin Ødegaard and Gabriel Martinelli had the highest indexes, representative of their significant roles in Arsenal’s attack. Their elevated index values reflect a high level of goal involvement as well as the creation of goal-scoring opportunities, crucial aspects of the offensive game. Teammates Heung-min Son and Harry Kane, although having lower indexes than their Arsenal counterparts, still boast commendable scores. Despite Tottenham not being in the top four standings of teams in the Premier League, Son’s offensive index makes it clear that he is the offensive backbone of the team. His impressive index also gains further significance, when seeing that he outperformed players such as Haaland, Rashford, and Salah, who are players of top-four teams and presumably have had more opportunities to play within offensively dominant sides. 


Ultimately, in pitching these players against each other, the offensive index can be a valuable tool to cohesively compare the offensive impact of players. However, it should be noted that this index may not fully account for all elements within a game. For example, the index doesn’t quantify the quality of the opposition, different tactical systems, different matchups, and positioning of the players.


Arsenal vs Tottenham Matchups



Arsenal and Tottenham had a total of four matchups throughout the entire 2022-2023 year. The contests were divided into a diverse range of outcomes: Tottenham seizing a 3-0 victory on May 13, 2022; Arsenal with a 3-1 win on October 1, 2022, followed by a 2-0 win on January 16, 2023; and the teams drew 2-2 on September 24, 2023. The collected statistics across all four matchups consisted of passes, pass accuracy, possession, corners, shots, and shots on target. 


On October 1, 2022, Arsenal appeared to have had a higher number of all statistics, suggesting a dominance in possession and a more controlled approach to the game. However, in their second win on January 16, 2023, all metrics evened out, with Tottenham slightly taking the edge on shots and shots on target. This suggests higher efficiency in their shots and finishing, as the game resulted in a 2-0 victory for Arsenal. 


On the other hand, during the match that Tottenham won on May 13, 2022, Arsenal’s passes and pass accuracy were significantly lower. The trend is also evident in the tie on September 24, 2023, where both teams were even across all metrics and most importantly on passes, pass accuracy, and possession. This could signify the importance of individual skill and the team’s ability to maintain ball control throughout the game, indicating that victory tends to be secured through passing and possession, reflecting the effectiveness of different tactical approaches. This analysis reflects on the comparison of our two focal players, with Son’s performance being key in Tottenham’s assertive offensive plays. At the same time, Martinelli’s influence lies within ball retention and distribution strategies. 


Conclusion


Based on the comprehensive analyses conducted throughout the 2022-2023 season, it is clear that both Son and Martinelli are world-class players who showcased immense contributions to their respective teams. Their differing playstyles and different tactical frameworks of Arsenal and Tottenham indicate that a direct comparison to determine which player is “better” overall wouldn’t be simplistic or just. 


Given the trends and offensive index, we see a linear trend between Martinelli’s strong individual performances and Arsenal’s success within the Premier League. This correlation, while not completely implying causation, clearly indicates that Martinelli’s contributions and individual performance mirrored that of Arsenal’s continued success. 


The head-to-head matchups further revealed the tactical differences and successes that each team found. Arsenal's success given a more possession-oriented playstyle was bolstered by Martinelli’s contributions, often leading to positive outcomes. Tottenham’s more direct approach and efficiency, similar to Son’s playstyle, were at times equally effective, but also demonstrate how there are a multitude of other factors that affect the final results. This underlines the reality that while certain players might deliver world-class performances, they cannot single-handedly determine a team’s success, a testament to the collective nature of football. 


Thus, in concluding the 2022-2023 North London Derbies, we not only recognize the individual excellence of Martinelli and Son but also the temporal beauty of their careers. With Son at the prime age of 31 and Martinelli at the age of 22, there is still much time to enjoy their presence on the pitch as they continue to encapsulate the beauty of the enriching sport that we all love. 





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