One of the more interesting facets of Arsenal’s season so far is that they have operated with two distinct starting XIs. With participation in the Europa League and the Carabao Cup this autumn, pretty much every other week, the Gunners’ second string is getting 90 minutes of competitive football together.
This is valuable in two respects. Firstly, it allows Arsenal’s bona fide first team players more rest than they have been accustomed to in recent years. Secondly, it has allowed the squad players the sort of regular competition that will serve them well if and when they are called into the first XI. There are three categories of squad player availing of the opportunity to play in the ‘second string.’
The likes of Olivier Giroud, Theo Walcott and Per Mertesacker have been able to keep their bodies ticking over for when the first team inevitably need them. Injury to Shkodran Mustafi has seen Per Mertesacker catapulted into first XI duty of late and he will have benefitted from ridding himself of any ring rust in Arsenal’s ‘shadow cabinet’.
Meanwhile, young prospects such as Reiss Nelson, Joe Willock and Ainsley Maitland-Niles are getting exposure to first team football to aid their development, with Eddie Nketiah pretty much sewing up the Ballon D’Or award. In the third category, players like Jack Wilshere, Mathieu Debuchy, Francis Coquein and even Alexis Sanchez earlier in the season, have been able to build needed fitness in these matches.
The games are valuable for these three categories of player, but let us not pretend that Arsene is using the Europa League and the Carabao Cup as a laboratory for his second string. His primary target is to protect his big players. In these fixtures, Arsene has largely relied on the quality and experience of his front 3 and Ballon D’Or winner elect Eddie Nkietah to win the games, with everything behind them strung together by circumstance.
In recent weeks, Wenger has settled on a front 3 of Wilshere, Walcott and Giroud. On paper, I think this is a balanced trio. Giroud has lost some ‘allies’ of late in the first XI, most notably Alex Oxlade Chamberlain whose direct dribbling and crossing style suited Giroud’s best attributes. However, the Frenchman is more than a battering ram.
We have seen many times that he enjoys intricate, one touch moves around the penalty area. Wilshere complements his crafty side because he brings the ball to Giroud- Muhammed comes to the mountain as it were. When Olivier plays in the first XI, too often the ball is launched to him on the halfway line, or else he is the target for crosses into the area (though the latter is a better use for him than the former).
Wilshere likes to dribble to the lip of the penalty area and pop off one touch passes around the box and Giroud very much enjoys that side of the game. Both players have ‘soft feet’ and Wilshere enables Giroud to be dangerous further up the pitch in a way that doesn’t just involve him leaping for headers. The improvised winning goal in Belgrade was a neat example of the interplay the two enjoy.
Walcott is neither delicate nor cute in his approach. He offers a more direct yin to Wilshere and Giroud’s ethereal yang. Walcott and Giroud have long enjoyed a good relationship, since Theo behaves like a striker, the two have constructed a slightly lopsided ‘little and large’ strike partnership- though both can be stymied in a certain type of game, as we saw against Norwich.
Wilshere has enjoyed playing in the role behind the strikers. It frees him from the athletic requirements of central midfield while he builds fitness. In the Europa League and Carabao Cup games, Arsenal have typically played sides that sit off them, robbing the match ups of intensity, which again, can only help Jack at this stage of his recovery. It has enabled him to take the game to the opponents.
The picture became confused against Norwich, as Wilshere and Iwobi swapped between the number 8 and number 10 positions during the first half, which just served to confuse everyone. Jack dropped back into central midfield in the second half and I think we saw that he doesn’t quite have the athleticism to play there at the moment. Iwobi and Giroud have always proved to be an awkward fit too. Iwobi thrives on movement around him and Olivier is not the greatest exponent of that.
Further back Arsenal have been a little hurt by injuries to the likes of Calum Chambers, initially Mathieu Debuchy and now Shkodran Mustafi’s injury means Arsene has had to dip into the second string savings account. Because the squad was not built with a 3 man defence in mind, the roster is light on back up at wing back (also because Nacho Monreal has made such a fine left sided centre half).
There is an argument that Carl Jenkinson and Cohen Bramall would have clocked plenty of hours on the night shift this season without the ignominy of going on loan to Birmingham City. However, despite Reiss Nelson and Ainsley Maitland-Niles being shoehorned into unfamiliar roles, they will still benefit from the experience of regular first team minutes.
As fans, we always want to see academy players shine in the manner that Nkietah managed to against Norwich. Nelson and Maitland-Niles won’t be able to do that in wing-back roles they are unaccustomed to, but I would imagine Arsene has spoken to them both about this. He may have told them to bide their time for a chance in more familiar positions.
To play in a different position can force a player to focus so that when they return to their original role, life feels a little easier. Nelson is a victim of the 3421 system, a little like Walcott is and Chamberlain was. It means there are two fewer wide spots in the team. He is only 17 and there is plenty of time yet for him to get a run in a more favourable vantage point.
In the meantime, he is building his capability and, more to the point, protecting Hector Bellerin in a way that has not cost Arsenal in either the Europa League or the Carabao Cup to date. Whilst they’re not excelling, neither Maitland Niles nor Nelson are struggling especially. Wing-back is a pretty protected position and Arsenal have not been forced to do too much defending in these matches.
Nelson passed the ball with an 88% success rate in Belgrade, while Maitland-Niles managed 87% in the same metric. Likewise, Joe Willock has been quietly impressive in the heart of midfield, passing the ball calmly and diligently (he completed 91% of his passes in Belgrade). Arsenal’s first team is not as technically adept as it once was in the engine room, so there is plenty of call for a player that regularly reaches the 90s in his pass completion percentage.
That said the second XI genuflects the first in its lack of offensive support from midfield. Willock has been partnered with the likes of Coquelin and Elneny and, well, all of those players would fetch long odds in the first goal scorer stakes. Iwobi was played in midfield against Doncaster in order to try and inject some craft into the middle of the pitch. It continues to be an issue for the second string.
The real value of having these bifurcate teams is in sparing the legs of the first XI. But as the season goes on, Arsenal will have recourse to raid the piggy bank. The club’s Europa League and Carabao Cup campaigns should provide them with a serviceable umbrella when that rainy day inevitably comes.