Is Dusan Vlahovic worth €80m to Arsenal?

Hey Arsenal. It's us. Yeah, that's right, we're the folks who warned you about overpaying for Nicolas Pepe. We thought €80m was way too much for a guy who looked like he had average attacking output by a Premier League standard. We even predicted how many goals and assists he'd get, and we were pretty darn close. So maybe you'll want to read this before you drop a similar chunk of change for Dusan Vlahovic.

Now, don't get us wrong. Our system has flagged Vlahovic as a smarterscout young prospect, so we think he has a bright future if he gets the right opportunities. But not every young prospect is worth €80m. So let's take a look at his numbers over the past few seasons, adjusted to a Premier League standard:

Vlahovic has shown himself to be quite a good finisher – we rate him 62 out of 99 for non-headers in open play on a scale for Premier League strikers – but his attacking output has been falling, and it's now at a really low level. To find out why, let's see how Vlahovic's playing style has changed since his first big season with Fiorentina:

There are two big changes here: (1) Vlahovic used to be a huge dribbler, and now he does it less than average for a striker; (2) he's passing toward goal more, trying to set up his teammates. Yet Vlahovic has only two assists this season, and his overall attacking output has dropped, so it seems like this change hasn't benefited his team.

Maybe that's not his fault. Under new coach Vincenzo Italiano, Vlahovic has had a slightly different role this season. Here's a comparison of his smartermaps from this season and 2019-20, to show the change in his positioning:

Vhahovic has been playing deeper and covering a wider area near the midfield line, with more long passes than in 2019-20. By the numbers, this role doesn't seem to be as good a fit. And as his shot maps confirm, he's not taking as many shots from central areas in the box, either:

In fact, Vlahovic's shots are coming from deeper positions as well, even inside the box. That's one reason why his overall shot quality has declined, after peaking in 2020-21:

Misfit role, lower shot quality... if anything, Vlahovic's eight non-penalty goals in Serie A this season seem like a testament to his relatively newfound finishing skill more than anything else. It's the first season where he's finished above par. But without that finishing, Vlahovic's attacking output would be glaringly deficient in the Premier League. Even a pure target man, who basically just shot and did nothing else, would be expected to have higher output on a club like Arsenal. A case in point is a player who's had a very similar style to Vlahovic's:

In 2019-20, Edin Dzeko's style was almost identical to the way Vlahovic has played this season. Dzeko's ball retention was similar, and so was his finishing in open play. But he was much better in the air, despite being only an inch taller than Vlahovic, and his attacking output was much higher. In part, that's because he took better shots – averaging 0.16 expected goals per shot versus Vlahovic's 0.09. He was also a better passer, with 11 assists in less than twice the minutes Vlahovic has played this season.

So why are Arsenal excited about Vlahovic? Unless they've been snowed by his finishing (or his five penalties), they probably think he has more to offer than what's on show this season. Indeed, Vlahovic has taken just 0.7 touches per minute Fiorentina have had possession in 2021-22, versus 1.0 touches per minute in 2019-20. With more touches and a more pivotal role in the attack, Vlahovic might push his attacking output back up.

But hold on just a minute – this season, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang has also had just 0.7 touches for each minute Arsenal have had possession of the ball. If Vlahovic's job is to replace the aging captain, will he actually get more touches? Perhaps. Arsenal's younger striker, 30-year-old Alexandre Lacazette, gets more than a touch per minute, but his style of play is quite different from Vlahovic's. Lacazette has been pretty shot-shy this season, and both Arsenal strikers link up much more than Vlahovic:

To be sure, Mikel Arteta's Arsenal is not the same as Arsene Wenger's. It's less about the pretty triangles and more about slicing through the opposition's back line at pace. For this kind of football, Vlahovic – especially the 2019-20 version of Vlahovic – might well be fit for purpose, even with his low ball retention and average skill in 1v1s.

Moreover, Vlahovic is just 21 years old, and he could have four or five seasons before he'd be expected to hit his peak years as a striker. That's one advantage he'd have over Pepe, who was already 24 when he signed. Still, relying on another change in playing style for a young player to come good is a substantial risk. Is it truly worth taking for €80m?

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