Denilson has risen from the shadows to take centre stage

Denilson’s performances in the centre of midfield have largely gone unnoticed with the stats showing the Brazilian as the Gunners’ top performer.
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Denilson-Totti

At 16th place, he’s Arsenal’s best player this season according to the Actim Index stats which ranks players according their contribution to the team’s success. The more direct forward play one is involved in, the higher he ranks. Not just that, he’s the best interceptor in the the Premier League, the most accurate passer, fifth best tackler and the fourth most fouled player (OPTA stats). But while he’s a great number cruncher, Denilson has yet to get the recognition he deserves because his style is less crowd pleasing than his other teammate in the same position, Alex Song.

The Actim Index and Opta stats only includes actions that can be measured objectively therefore positioning, marking and balance cannot be quantified. Which is just as well as Denilson would surely have been placed much higher. An invisible wall in every sense, the Brazilian combines sound positional play with efficiency, linking up play whether sideways, forwards or backwards and covers as high a distance as any other Arsenal player.

Of course his job was made more difficult after the Gunners made an inconsistent start to the season. It could be described as a season of two halves; the first of which saw Arsenal looking to strike the right balance in their play after key personnel went missing, primarily playing in a 4-4-2. As a result Denilson was often left exposed to do most of the sweeping up and as Arsenal were not as strong in possession as last season, the ball was likely to come back more.

The second half was played in a 4-2-3-1 as Arsene Wenger looked to make up for the deficiencies of the first half, now trying to get the balance between attack and defence and focusing on getting the ball forward quicker. Denilson’s stats were just as impressive and even with an extra midfielder still assumed the main holding role.

Overall, he has managed on average 59 accurate passes a game this season and Song just 38 while Flamini last year made 47. Interceptions are counted as 146 (on average 4 a game) for the full season, 51 for Song (average 2.5 a game) and just 57 for Flamini (average 2 a game). On average Song made more tackles than the other two and the Cameroon midfielder showed why Wenger prefers him in central defence. Song had performed better against the more direct clubs such as Wigan and Liverpool as he is a player who is more comfortable at reading the play in front of him rather than around. Against the ‘weaker’ clubs (those who Arsenal played during their unbeaten run), Song played just as decently but has always assumed a supporting role to Denilson and Fabregas/Nasri.

The two players can be used where the situation best suits them; Wenger deployed Song in the second leg against Villarreal as he wanted the side to pressure higher up the pitch and win the ball back quicker. At Chelsea however, Song failed to impress. Although the tracking back in front of him wasn’t great, Denilson made nearly as much passes as him and twice as many interceptions in the 25 minutes he was on the pitch. The Brazilian has excelled in more technical games, preferring to use his his intelligence to nip the ball away and ensure the ball is always moving.

Matthieu Flamini’s statistics paint a bigger picture of the differences between this season’s Arsenal and last season’s. That season the link up play, movement and balance was better with the ball likely to stay in the opposition’s half more. With Hleb and Rosicky available for much of the season Arsenal were able to play their passing game with greater effect. Also just by a bit, Fabregas’ discipline was better as he went about picking the ball up deeper while Flamini’s role was about keeping the shape if the Gunners did lose the ball. This season, Denilson has had to contend with an inconsistent side hampered by injuries, the lack of team cohesion in defending and without such creative midfielders who owe much to the Arsenal style.

Arsene Wenger’s main priority next season must be about getting his side to become the expansive, ball-hogging side they were in previous years and the role of the defensive midfielder cannot be crucial enough. Denilson has come on leaps and bounds and although he still has much to learn, has shown with his performances that the position is in safe hands.

2008/9 Denilson (3,074 minutes)

Tackles won (includes aerial): 148 (average 4 per game)
Tackles lost: 81 (average 2 per game)
Pass interceptions: 146 (average 4 per game)
Accurate passes: 2,009 (average 59 per game)
Bad passes: 238 (average 7 per game)
Assists: 7
Goals: 3

2008/9 Song  (1,741 minutes in midfield)
Tackles won: 104 (average 5 per game)
Tackles lost: 50 (average 2.5 per game)
Pass interceptions: 51 (average 2.5 per game)
Accurate passes: 742 (average 38.4 per game)
Bad passes: 90 (average 5 per game)
Assists: 0
Goals: 1

2007/8 Flamini (2,665 minutes)

Tackles won: 102 (average 3.4 per game)
Tackles lost: 56 (average 1.9 per game)
Pass interceptions: 57 (average 1.9 per game)
Accurate passes: 1,321 (average 44.6 per game)
Bad passes: 100 (average 3.4 per game)
Assists 2
Goals 1

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32 thoughts on “Denilson has risen from the shadows to take centre stage

  1. the only stat where flamini beats denilson in is bad passes per game. but we already know that flamini played better than denilson last year, serving to invalidate the meaning of the stats. this would also
    mean that we cannot extrapolate to song and say that denilson is better on the basis of the stats. right?

    1. Stats don’t prove everything, you’re right. We can use it as a basis for what you see and sometimes they could contradict. However we can see that Song prefers the physical games but against more technical and intelligent opponents he has more problems.
      The fact that Song has partnered with Denilson in most games just makes up for his deficiencies in positioning.

      1. Stats don’t tell us who is better. Stats tell us who has performed better.

        To illustrate….Anelka has scored 19 goals this season. Does that mean he’s better than Torres? No it means he’s scored more goals than Torres.

        Performance and ability are two different things. Another illustration: Let’s say a player has an ability rating of 90 and another of 95. Let’s say for whatever reason, the one rated at 95 performs at 90% of his best and the one rated at 90 performs at 100% of his best, the less able player would have a better performance. Cesc has had an average season. But we all know he’s a good player.

        Ability is subjective. 100 people could have 100 different opinions on a player. But the stats show us exactly how he performed.

        1. I disagree, ability is what you do on the pitch and stats do show who is better, the rest is potential.

          The point of a striker is to score goals, and if Anelka scores more goals than Torres then he is a better striker than Torres.

          Statistics are the only way to compare two players to each other, the teams results over the season reflect on the team and not the individual.

  2. Ok, the stats say Denilson is better. However, most of his passing is sideways, he’s not as physical as song, and his bad passes come at the worst times. He’s definitely not a bad player, but I’d personally take Song over Denilson for now. Neither of them should be guaranteed starting positions and should fight for it. That’ll make them both better.

    1. i agreee with the sideways passing and the crucial times that he gives the ball away … very frustrating.. but i still belive he will be amazing. He reminds very much of pirlo just wait and see. if we get a qaulity DM in for him to learn from and provide cover for we will see him progress into a world great.

      1. What sideways passing? He’s a defensive midfielder. His job description is to make safe passes. Go to guardian.co.uk and look at their chalkboards. They show the passes made by each player. You can see which passes are “sideways”. You will find that Denilson’s passing is not less incisive than other defensive midfielders. And his 3 goals and 7 assists prove that he is incisive. He has created more assists than Ronaldo, Carrick, Ashley Young, Alonso among others.

        Maybe you just don’t understand what his role in the team is? He is not a playmaker, his job is to defend and be an outlet for passing the ball out of defence.

  3. Denilson is a better player compared to song because he has a better game reading in midfield and fits in the whole better than any arsenal player.

  4. How does that Optra Index work? Maybe my eyes are letting me down, but Van Persie isnt even on that list!

  5. Well to be honest i don’t care what anyone else says because my opinion is based on what i’ve seen (and i’ve only missed one game this season) but i think Denilson is a cracking player! The injury with Rosicky has unbalanced the team and i belive that if he was fit then Walcott woul’ve been deployed as a front man and to cover injuries, therefore, Denilson has had to play 70% more games than originally anticipated. The dividends of this are huge and he’s gained A LOT more experirance A LOT quicker which can only be to our advantage long term. Denilson has been thrown in at the deep end, and against all odds, this BOY, has managed to hold his own AND pick up some fantastic (real) stats along the way. He’s 2-4 years ahead of his time and when called upon he can do job with great effect. The thing that pains me is that he only started getting recognition after the Roma match where he ran the game. He only got recognition as largely, as a team, Arsenal played badly and he stood out a mile. But he’d been playing to this standard ALL THE TIME and nobody noticed because he’s so quietly efficient. Is he ready to start in the first 11 every game? No. Does he add quality depth to the squad? Yes. Can he get much better? Yes. The point is he’s only a young ‘un that has more champions league and premier league experience than quite a lot of seasoned pro’s who is playing for a top European team and is still 6-7 years away from being at his peak. Denilson is diamond, still a little rough around the edges, but a diamond none the less…..

  6. look no what that thing says denilson should only be a reserve player at a club like arsenal.too slow,not a great passer of the ball and doesnt tackle enough.

  7. I feel that statistics can be superb in adding weight to an argument, but ultimately, it’s best to look at these things subjectively.

    Whilst the statisticians may be a fervent supporter of Denilson, I still don’t feel he is capable of playing the role on his own just yet.

    The stats cannot account for his poor concentration, his poor tracking of runners, and the fact he tends to spend far too long on the ball in dangerous positions.

    I think Denilson is a superb talent, and in spite of the above criticism, hope he stays on at Arsenal and continues to progress and fulfil his potential, but at the moment, I feel he needs to be partnered with a more experienced midfield ball-winner – Gareth Barry, for example.

    1. This is the part I’ll never get. Are you taking the piss? It’s better to be subjective?

      Poor concetration? Look at the picture above, watch his eyes. How do you intercept the ball more than anybody in the league and have poor concentration? How do you win so many tackles and you don’t track runners?

      You know what? How about you come up with examples to back your claims.

      If not I might as well say Anelka scored just 2 goals this season. I dont believe the stat that says he scored 19. My subjective eyes tell me he can’t hit a wall with a hammer.

      1. Wow! He had his eyes of the ball when making a tackle in a picture! Well that’s my argument down the drain.

        Concentration? I’ve always accepted his anticipation is very good, but how about his lack of awareness behind him. Example? Liverpool in the 4-4 draw. A marching band could have been fitted in-between our defence and midfield.

        You can easily put in tackles by not tracking runners; I genuinely don’t know why you feel the two are so interlinked. Example? Leon Osman versus Everton.

        And since you’re being so smarmy, allow me to shoot down the last part of your argument:
        At no point did I argue with the facts; suggesting Anelka has only scored 2 goals because you don’t rate him is arguing with the undisputable.

        I simply highlighted areas of Denilson’s game that statistics do not account for.

        1. Might I just add something. At the start of the season, his tracking back was not the best but the second half of the year has seen some strong performances, especially against technical on-the-floor clubs. The match against Roma a great example.

          But one of his problems, as against Liverpool is dealing with direct teams. Such teams disrupt play easily and once the ball is knocked out and instantly comes back again. At the Kop, both Denilson and Song were suspect in that regard but Song used his tackling to good advantage.

          Defending as a team, against a direct team needs us to be organised, win the second balls and keep the ball, limiting attacks. It has been a problem, only when Fabregas had the ball were we a threat at Liverpool. Last year, even Flamini’s influence waned in such games.

        2. Denílson wasn’t responsible for any of the goals in the liverpool game, he wasn’t even on the field for the second two goals, which were the most embarrasing of the lot.

          1. I often have this exercise with people. I beg them to name Denilson’s mistakes. Guess what? They always go back to not tracking Osman in October! If one mistake is what you can identify then he’s had an excellent season. More than even I give him credit for!

            Well allow me to also assert that there are parts to Messi’s game the stats don’t account for. And I am assuming they’re negative (even though every measurement of his performance is excellent). So I say he’s not fit enough to play for Bolton. Is that a fair enough parody of your point?

            Denilson had a bad game against Liverpool. Not that he did too much specifically wrong. Just that he wasn’t at the races. That was like his 46th game of the season so one could see he was exhausted. But it wasn’t all his fault. As someone pointed out above, he wasn’t even on the pitch for the last 2 goals.

            1. Fine then: what about letting Gelson Fernandes stroll into the box when Micah Richards was bursting through – almost gifting the Swiss a goalscoring opportunity; what about the numerous occassions he left Frank Lampard in acres of space between defence and attack; what about his total lack of awareness of Senna – dropping deep into defence and giving him acres of space to shoot? Please appreciate that me leaving one example doesn’t necessarily mean it has only happened once by my reckoning; simply that I have not compiled a list of every mistake made by Denilson.

              Okay, onto your next point: I never said Denilson wasn’t fit to wear the Arsenal shirt; simply that he needs to be partnered with a more experienced player. Is that too inconceivable?

              Onto the Liverpool game: the fact that none of the goals weren’t directly his fault, does not mean to say he can’t take criticism during the match. The gap in between midfield was far too large.

              And I don’t think it should be attributed to exhaustion. We saw them in the early stages of the season (in particular against Fulham) and we are still seeing these flaws now.

              This does not mean to say he hasn’t improved upon such areas, but I still don’t believe they are sufficient yet.

              Now any more snide, condescending retorts you’d like to add?

              1. If we’re being totally honest, Denílson hasn’t been making these mistakes and errors on a consistent basis for a long time (Since the end of November at least) but instead he’s been the opposite and rarely made these mistakes.

                Other top teams work much better as a unit to defend than Arsenal have this season, so when Alonso, Mascherano, Carrick, Mikel, Essien et al make mistakes it’s usually covered by another defender and dealt with.

                When Denílson has made mistakes, the fact a goal scoring opportunity is created just goes to show just how vital his consistency since the end of November has been to securing fourth and getting us into two semi-finals. Last season, when Flamini made a mistake he had Rosicky/Eboue, Hleb or Fabregas to cover him.

                He’s certainly not the best DM in the world (At least not yet) but he doesn’t deserve even half of the criticism he receives, especially when people are simply criticising what he’s been instructed to do (pass sideways and backwards quickly to those in space).

                As for the Liverpool game, yes he played badly (From Villareal away until the Pompey/Utd league games) but I’ve seen him get a lot of stick and abuse for that game where the whole team played poorly.

                1. While I appreciate he’s improved, I don’t think these deficiencies appear as infrequently and sporadically as people suggest.

                  Even if they aren’t necessarily as noticable (perhaps not directly leading to a goal a la the Osman incident) we still saw in the latter stages of the season that he was struggling to track midfield runners, whilst when the defence was getting pushed back, he was generally unaware as to this deepening of the defence line; thus leaving a gap between midfield and defence which could be capitalised on.

                  And yes, the team as a whole played badly against Liverpool, but the fact that many of our other players were poor, does not mean to say that Denilson is not due criticism.

                  I also think you have to appreciate that it is difficult for a team as a whole to function well, when many players are interdependent on the role of others. The defence came in for a lot of criticism in that match, but very few attributed that to the poor protection it received.

                  I am not one of those that looks to criticise Denilson for no reason; I rate him highly and think he has the potential to be a superb footballer. But currently, he is not ready to anchor the midfield on his own IMO.

              2. That’s a bit unfair in my opinion, considering that barely any defensive midfielders have been able to deal with Lampard this season and Fabregas and Diaby didn’t exactly help him out in that department.

                Although I do agree that a new defensive midfielder would be good considering how even despite Denilson’s very good performances there’s clearly problems in that area that haven’t been addressed for far too long now. The sale of Diarra has got to be the worst sale I’ve ever seen a manager make and possibly one of Wenger’s biggest regrets in his career.

  8. I coudln’t agree more on this article.
    This is exactly what i’ve been talking to my friends!!
    Denilson does his job efficiently, he is just unnoticed because of his style.

    Song must be prefered when we have physical battles in the middle of the pitch (like against palacios), but Denilson is much better DM than Song.

    It’s really impressive how much he has improved this season, it’s juat remarkable.

    He has still a lot to learn, but considering what we’ve witness this season, he’ll be much better next year. Really look forward to seeing him next season.

    p.s I think Denilson did awesome this season and the stats back up my opinion. Some people think Denilson was shit. They trust their eyes and they don’t believe the stats. Are you guys wearing any special glasses or something?

  9. Completely agree with you.

    Song is liked by fans because he looks like he is doing a good job. He hassles opponents and nips at their ankles. Unfortunately his positioning is very poor at DM – he is much better at CB (he will became a greta CB, better than Toure).

    Denilson’s skill is subtle. He positions himself well like Gilberto and is like an invisible wall. I think his passing is also better than Song’s and althought he is often critcised by fans for passing sideways all the time, dont we want Denilson to feed Fabregas to start the attacks? He also has the capacity for long cutting passes – see Arshavin’s wonder goal against Blackburn – set up by Denilson.

    Denilson is our future DM, while Song is our future CB.

  10. Also do you think it is just coincidence that when Denilson didnt play against Chelsea (league) and Man U (Cl) we let in 7 goals in those games. Against Chelsea and Man U, early in the season when he was playing, he dominated in front of the back 4 (we only let in an own goal (DJ) against Chelsea and a wonderstrike by Silva against Man U.

  11. Well, a lot of differing views. Can’t say I didn’t expect it.
    Ole Gunner: You’re doing my job for me. Replying to everyone. Thanks.

    Stats are not as subjective but they do at least paint part of a bigger picture. Watching Denilson at the start of the season, tracking runners etc. he didn’t do as well but still did an admiral job considering it was a new position. But now, the guy’s reading of the game is exceptional.

    He can improve however but the backing of Song has been quite confusing. He has partnered Denilson in most games and as a result not actually playing the holding role. He played DM against Chelsea (1-4) and while the team pressuring wasn’t the best, looked out of sorts. He also played against Chelsea when we won 2-1, but Fabregas played much deeper but as I recall the first half was very poor and we could have gone more than a goal down.
    Still, Song has improved much as well but for me, Denilson all the way at the moment. An experience shoulder will be a bonus but he’s learned a lot by playing too.

  12. I’d be interested to see a comparison of the “sideways and backwards passing” stats between Denilson/Song and Flamini. This has also been one of my concerns. I don’t dismiss this charge so easily the way Ole Gunner does, tho I’m willing to admit it may not be as serious a charge as others think. Ole Gunner is the same poster who argues that Man Utd are a team shot thru with awful, average, mediocre players so I have serious doubts about his football opinions. For such an average, mediocre team they certainly have a lot of trophies. And they certainly made us look like a Sunday pub team in the CL semifinal, not to mention the FA cup at OT in 2008.

    One of the most frustrating sights this season has been our midfield passing sideways or backwards so predictably and so consistently, and not having the guts to break into attacks. No world class midfield does that as consistently as we did this last season. It was clear they simply had no idea what the hell to do with the ball. Our genuinely world class midfield from 07-08 certainly didn’t do that. It simply is not true that the only thing holding midfielders do is to pass sideways to the attacking players–and that’s it. The best DMs strike the right balance between defense and attack, the best ones are much more dimensional than Ole Gunner’s one-dimensional view of them. If anyone thinks that the likes of Senna, Flamini, Mascherano just sit there and pass sideways to their teammates then they have a laughable understanding of these players.

    Brain, I’d also be interested in your own take on this point. I am a fan of Denilson’s and agree that the stats show clearly what a fine player he is, and how much he’s improved. I keep saying he’s the type of player so easy to ignore and dismiss because he’s so tidy, much like Gilberto (tho Gilberto was taller than Denilson and therefore not as easy to ignore). Sometimes Denilson’s positioning is uncanny and his tackles are remarkably clean.

    But I also have had some doubts about him this season, I don’t buy into the gung-ho defense of him like Ole Gunner, who seems to believe Denilson is the world’s best DM and that there’s no one better in the league than him in the position.

    Some have mentioned the Man Utd game at the Grove, praising Denilson in that game. However, it was either the Times or the Telegraph who did an excellent graph of that game analyzing every player’s contribution. One graph showed Denilson just standing there ball-watching while Utd were allowed to attack en masse close to our goal. He’s done this on a number of occasions, just standing there as opponents bear down close to our penalty box, instead of trying to fight for the ball and head them off.

    I’m also concerned about his ability to physically dominate the midfield against teams like Chelsea. I’m not talking about the Chelsea we beat in November — they didn’t have Drogba or Essien, nor an astute manager capable of beating the top teams in the PL. They were mentally adrift after being beaten by Liverpool at home and having a number of poor results. I’m talking about the kind of full-strength Chelsea team Everton and we faced in the FA cup.

    Is Denilson capable of dominating a midfield against a powerful, physical, in-form team with such strong skillful players like Drogba, Lampard, et al? That’s my concern.

    I support Denilson, I think he can grow into a truly remarkable player and his progress this season has been amazing. I don’t want him to be sold. But I still have my doubts. Even a team of small, short, highly technical players like Barca and Spain have physically strong, tall DMs like Busquets, Yaya Toure and Senna. We don’t. And unlike those teams, our players compete in a league known for its physicality, aggression, little protection from referees, incredible speed, and opponents who look more like boxers and basketball players rather than footballers.

    Sorry for the incredibly long post. Great article, as always, Brain.

  13. Actim stats can be misleading. They do not adjust for the no. of games played so those playing more get higher ratings – not a bad thing as consistency over the season is also a big positive, particularly with this injury prone team. Denilson was the “iron man” this season playing more than anyone else so that helped his rating. Actim also do not publish their formula for ratings but it is known that goal scoring, even for midfield and defensive players scores highly. This is why Barry (who takes the AV penalties!) scores quite highly.
    Opta stats per category (tackles, intercepts, assists, assist attempts etc.) are more objective but also rate Denilson as the 5th best midfielder, but best defensive midfielder this year. Actim rate him as 5th best midfielder and 2nd best DM behind Barry.
    For DM’s the stats do not lie as the job description is really all about tackles, intercepts, composure over the ball, accuracy of passing. I agree that if you look at any one game it is unfair to draw conclusions but over the course of a full season the stats are a fair representation of what the player brings to the team.

    The trolls that attack Arsenal and are happy to denigrate the younger players always raise the “passing sideways and backwards” argument. But frankly this is pathetic – all DM’s pass quite a bit sideways and backwards. As Denilson himself said in an interview recently in his position the Boss would not be at all happy if he loses possession easily in the position he occupies on the field. Besides if you spent the time looking at his actual passing patterns you will see that he passes about 60% of the time forwards (Cesc is more 65 to 70% forward passing as expected of the playmaker) – go to the Guardian Chalkboards and it is all there game by game. What you will also see (which he is not given credit for) is the incredible coverage he provides all over the pitch.

    Lastly, Denilson should be compared with the other DM’s (Barry, Mascherano, Mikel, etc) category by category over the full season. Surprise, surprise he actually outperforms them all in all categories. This is why AW rates him and that is the most important issue. Since April of last season it was clear that AW was going to play Denilson as his DM, and he has done so. I don’t expect anything different next year. If he brings in another DM it would only be to provide backup.

  14. Firstly I believe Denilson is great and the only concern I have about him this year is his lack of strength and power, here you can see that Song and most DMs are superior. I’ve seen him lose tackles he went for simply because he wasn’t strong enough whereas Flamini and Vieira won nearly everything they went for. We all know this will improve, the kid has been getting better all the time as he adjusts to the role. This is Wenger’s youth policy in action and we can all see it’s bearing fruit in Denilson’s case. The stats merely back this up. He’ll probably be the main DM next year and I’m not too worried about it as I think he’ll only improve.

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