Saturday, September 23, 2023

Saturday round-up: Willian, Pepe, 5 subs, social-media conspiracy theorist

Hello, and welcome to a Saturday round-up, in which I will do a round-up of some Arsenal related stories on a Saturday. The great thing about this concept is that you can do it any day of the week by simply rebranding it. For example, on a Sunday you could do a Sunday round-up and so on and so forth.

Let’s begin with Willian, a player I’m struggling with, I have to be honest. Nevertheless, Mikel Arteta seems more positive about him but acknowledged he hasn’t been brilliant, saying:

I think he started really well with his first game against Fulham, but we’ve been changing the front three, he had an injury, and he didn’t have time to train in pre-season – he was later than the others.

I can see a development in the last two games, the understanding of the things I ask them to do, it’s probably different from what he’s used to. He’s getting better and better, we all know the quality he has, and he’s a great option to have on the pitch.

I guess a manager is generally going to be positive about a player publicly, but aside from the opening day at Fulham, I’m not feeling it at all with Willian. He has plenty of experience, I know he can give the team structure, but I expected more from him given his years in the Premier League. In 9 appearances he has two assists, both of which came at Craven Cottage, and since then, nothing. He was pretty bad against Molde the other night, and for me the team improved when he went off and Bukayo Saka came on.

One of the things I wonder about is how his presence is impacting Nicolas Pepe. Towards the end of last season he seemed to be making real progress, much more in tune with what Arteta wanted from him, and he capped off his first year at the club with an excellent performance in the FA Cup final. Then he watched as we pushed the boat out to give a three year contract to a 32 year old who plays in his position. How did that feel?

We can see that in Premier League terms, it’s changed things for him. They both have six appearances, but in terms of minutes Pepe has 202 to Willian’s 453. Willian has started all six games, Pepe has started just one, and that was at Man City away where we played the Brazilian as a kind of false-9, another performance which was underwhelming – but to be fair he was played out of position.

In his 11 appearances, Pepe has three goals and two assists, so there’s some end product. I can’t argue that his overall performances have been stellar, but as Arteta pointed out once more, we’re a team that needs to score more goals. It’s overly-simplistic to say the solution to this is use more players who can score goals, you have to find the balance, but so far we haven’t done that. I think that front three of Aubameyang, Lacazette and Willian has one too many players who don’t have the ability to impact games the way we’d like – and the captain isn’t one of them.

I obviously hope that we see more from Willian, but it’s hard not to harbour some concerns about a player of his age who is being asked to play in a very specific and physically intensive way. He looked like he felt the Europa League was beneath him the other night, and I didn’t like that, but perhaps he’ll remind us of some of the quality we’ve seen from him over the coming weeks and months. The pressure is on though, because when you’re a player of that stature, expectations are higher. If Pepe’s price-tag is a millstone around his neck, then so too is Willian’s past.

That was longer than I thought.

Next. The five subs rule, scrapped in the Premier League after the restart, but like many managers, Arteta is urging a re-think because of the physical demands on players:

We have to be conscious that we have to protect them and we are constantly exposing them, we’ve had no holidays, they are going to play international football every time there’s an international break, there’s a competition [the Euros] this summer and it goes on and on and on.

At the end of the day, we’re going to have some really bad news with players that we are not respecting. We can change some things, even if it’s not ideal, but having the context that we are in at the moment, it would be really helpful [to have five subs] in my opinion.

At the time it struck me as a bad idea to go back to three, and I think it’s even more so now. The schedule, the lack of rest and then proper pre-season preparation, as well as the internationals, are going to take their toll. Not to mention for English clubs in Europe, when it gets down to the business end of these tournaments, they’re going to be facing sides who have been able to manage their squads better because their leagues allowed the two extra changes.

Whether this can be changed mid-season, or in January when the transfer window opens as some kind of marker, I don’t know, but right now every aspect of life needs to be based around a common-sense approach and this is exactly that.

Speaking of internationals, Wales manager Ryan Giggs won’t be taking charge of their upcoming fixtures because he was arrested on suspicion of assault, so his coaches will step in. One of those coaches is Albert Stuivenberg, who also happens to be one of Mikel Arteta’s assistants. This led to comments from Jose Mourinho who is apparently worried about Gareth Bale:

The fact that one of the coaches is an Arsenal coach does not make me very comfortable,. Honestly, it doesn’t make me very comfortable. National team matches should have coaches that work exclusively for them, not coaches who work for other clubs.

It’s been kind of funny of late to see Mourinho reinvent himself as this kind of affable, Instagram loving eccentric, and how people have actually bought into that despite years of evidence to the contrary. In reality, he’s the same nasty, bitter provocateur he’s always been. Arsenal, rightly, declined to comment, and if anything happens to Bale when he’s playing with Wales, Mourinho will have whipped up a storm against entirely the wrong person.

Leaving aside the fact he’s questioning the integrity of a fellow professional, the issue is far more about playing international games during a worldwide pandemic – something which lacks the common sense I mentioned above. As well as the fact that many sides are squeezing in an unnecessary friendly into the schedule, with Wales playing the USA before their two nations league games against Ireland and Finland.

It would be far more helpful for a high profile manager like Mourinho to take issue with that and question that decision publicly, but instead he chooses the baseless conspiracy theory route, and frankly we’ve had far too much of that bullshit – football or otherwise – in recent times.

Right, that’s it for today. Have yourselves a good Saturday, back tomorrow to preview the Villa game and all the rest.

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