This Is Why Arsenal Want Thomas Lemar
by Agboola Israel
Thomas Lemar was once one of the most sought-after young players in the world. He was among the main creative threats of the 2016/17 Monaco side, raking in goals and assists every other match. Arsenal wanted him. So did Liverpool. And both had huge bids rejected on deadline day.
Three years later, Thomas Lemar has had his big-money move to Atletico Madrid and it’s been nothing to write home about. Diego Simeone has constantly protected him from criticism. But after two seasons of middling performances, the Argentine head coach seems to be finally fed up. Speaking in a press conference ahead of a La Liga fixture against Levante, he opened up on the 24-year-old:
“The facts speak for themselves, better than words. It is certain that he has not been able to show all his qualities… Each time that he has been available, I have tried to play him. I have always been enthusiastic about his qualities as a player. He has not met the expectations set for him, but we have always had the same expectations. Today, who is to know if he will stay or not… His representatives are working hard. The clubs, they, operate on what they need.”
The point is clear: Thomas Lemar has not met expectations.
What has gone wrong with him? Has he lost all of his creative thrust and talent like Alexis Sanchez? Can he ever return back to his Monaco peak?
The main problem seems to be that Atletico Madrid has not been very suitable for him. The main system of pressing that Simone’s team come up against is teams copying their formation, pressing high and marking man to man. Often enough, they crowd out the middle where Atletico have excellent midfielders and then seek to send blocks of three or four men after whoever has the ball out on the byline. This chokes Atletico’s ball progression and when the wide players are forced to pass the ball back, the other teams usually push up to cut out the passing lanes out wide and keep the middle compact.
The obvious strategy that Simone employs against this pressing system is to bring the wide players inside and create overloads in the middle in order to disrupt the press. When Koke or Saúl are on the flanks this isn’t an issue as they’re more than happy playing through the middle. Lemar though struggles in the middle of the pitch as he’s a winger who is great at beating his man and putting lethal balls into the box or running into space, not playing in the midfield.
This is backed up by Thomas Lemar’s statistics. His key passes made, once one of his biggest strengths, dropped from 2.55 to 1.82 and now at a pitiful 0.90 per match. His per-90 contributions to spells of possession have been halved since his breakout season. He averages less than 1 shot and 1 key pass per 90 minutes now. He has completed 90 minutes only once over his 15 appearances. As this analysis of him put it: his game is aging at a rate beyond his years — and continued subpar performances leave him at risk of a short, unfulfilled Atlético Madrid career.
Is there anything that Thomas Lemar is still good at, then? Yes, there is one.
His pressing can be unbelievable. Highly rated by the soccer analyst community for his defensive workrate, he has been declared a pressing monster.
Still just 24 years old and having played in both an expansive and restrictive system across two leagues, we can see how Thomas Lemar can fit in Arsenal’s new high-pressing attacking system. Credited by both Raheem Sterling and Leroy Sane for their impressive improvement, Mikel Arteta may be optimistic about how he can help the former prodigy rediscover his game in England while he remains an extremely useful option when the team does not have the ball.
If he can be acquired for cheap from Atletico Madrid, Thomas Lemar can very well become Arsenal’s own Mohammed Salah, a star that needs to be reborn under the right coach and the right system.