Tuesday, April 16, 2024

The Next Step

The world feels a little lighter after three consecutive Arsenal victories. Whether the decision to introduce Emile Smith-Rowe into the team was forced onto manager Mikel Arteta or whether it was always part of his plan is open to debate- sometimes a coach finds solutions and sometimes solutions find the coach.

What is important is how a coach develops an idea and responds to the inevitable opposition responses. As I wrote last week, simply having a competent number 10, capable of popping up into spaces and creating passing lanes for his teammates has overhauled Arsenal’s previously stodgy football.

Smith-Rowe is still a young player with injuries in his past so he will need to be looked after. Very few players are capable of playing every game in any case, so another creative midfielder should still be near the top of the club’s shopping list in January. Smith-Rowe’s emergence as the glue for a more fluid attack has not solved all the manager’s problems in attack.

Assuming the exile of Mesut Özil continues, there is nobody else in the current squad that even performs a passable impression of the job Smith-Rowe has been doing in connecting the team. Arteta is going to have to find a way to play without him again for at least the occasional game- most likely this Saturday against Newcastle.

The manager will also recall that his 343 formation worked pretty well for a while until opponents worked it out, pushed Aubameyang towards the touchline and annulled Arsenal’s threat. There is a slight distinction between that system and what we have seen in the last three games. The 343 was never able to convincingly deconstruct deep defensive blocks but it made the team more competitive in big games.

A front four with Saka, Smith-Rowe, Lacazette and one of Martinelli or Aubameyang has beaten Chelsea, ground out a steady 1-0 away win at Brighton and gave West Brom a delightful 4-0 shoeing in the snow. Three different tests, three different performances, three victories. The 343 never demonstrated this elasticity.

However, not only is the availability of this attacking unit in question but the element of surprise will erode eventually. You can bet your bottom dollar that the next time Smith-Rowe and Saka start together, they will be marshalled much more closely. Whatever we think of Willian or Nicolas Pepe, Arsenal are going to need them this season.

Arsenal actually have a lot of depth in attack but they need to be able to make seven or eight attackers work together in various combinations. Uppermost in Arteta’s mind will be integrating Aubameyang and Martinelli in the same team. Both are low touch players who like to attack similar spaces. All of Martinelli’s breakout performances have occurred during Auba’s absences.

I don’t think it’s impossible for the pair to generate some synergy. In the Brighton game, we saw them swapping positions and Martinelli helped Aubameyang to attack the box when Tierney had the ball in crossing positions. They would need two ball orientated types to make up the remainder of the front four for it to work (like Smith-Rowe and Saka, for instance).

Aubameyang is 31 with a three-year contract in his pocket, he is a player who will need looking after and that means moving him into the centre so that he doesn’t spend his early 30s chasing opposing full-backs. Surrounding him with young legs like Martinelli, Saka and Smith-Rowe and asking him to concentrate on attacking the box strikes me as a good way of salvaging his calves.

In the current system, Lacazette is arguably more suited to the centre-forward role than Auba. He likes to drift away from the box and combine with players who then run beyond him. Look at his involvement in Mesut Özil’s goal against Liverpool in December 2017 and then compare and contrast it to his involvement in Bukayo Saka’s goal at West Brom. He looks reborn in recent weeks because he has players to come short and combine with and, crucially, they will run past him once he has laid the ball off.

The issue is that Lacazette has 18 months of Arsenal contract left while Aubameyang has two and a half years and a sizeable salary. The club made a decision to invest in Auba so they have to make it work with him while Laca will likely leave this summer. Nobody wants to hear about rehabilitating Willian at the moment but such a setup could also eke the best from him.

Willian has always operated as a right-sided counterweight to more expressive, expansive left hand sides. At Chelsea he provided structure so that Eden Hazard had freedom on the left and he did something similar for Brazil so that Neymar, Marcelo and Coutinho could paint pretty pictures on the opposite flank. If Arsenal have a left side of Tierney and Martinelli / Saka with Aubameyang upfront, Willian’s role makes a lot more sense.

I don’t understand why Arsenal thought Willian could play this free rolling right-sided role that allows him to drift in-field and operate in central spaces when he has never convincingly done this in his career. He is the most old-fashioned, orthodox, chalk on the boots winger the Premier League has seen in modern times.

He also has yet to reap the benefit of playing with Smith-Rowe, a player who drifts towards whichever flank happens to have possession to create another passing option. I don’t think he would look as good as Bukayo Saka has, but Willian would look a lot better with this kind of joining agent in the number 10 role. (I realise the bar is low when it comes to improving Willian’s performances).

Per Phil Costa’s recent profile of him, one of Thomas Partey’s special moves is the lofted ball to the right flank and you would like to think both Willian and Pepe would benefit from his return. I am certain Arsenal will try to sell Pepe in the summer but it’s important that they don’t totally crater his value in the meantime.

The current iteration of the Arsenal attack isn’t bulletproof and opponents will be wiser to its machinations now. As well as answering some key questions about the future of the attack, given the money invested in contracts for Auba and Willian, the cost of Pepe and the emergence of some exciting young talent, Arteta will need to anticipate issues and find a way for his out of favour attackers to plug-in and go when needed. Whether it found him or he found it, the manager has a solution in attack- but he needs to find other solutions.

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