Friday, March 31, 2023

The limits of control

Bukayo Saka, Alex Lacazette, Martin Odegaard, Willian, Pierre Emerick Aubameyang, Nicolas Pepe, Reiss Nelson, Eddie Nketiah, Emile Smith-Rowe and Gabriel Martinelli. It’s not a bad collection of attackers that Mikel Arteta has at his disposal. I am not going to pretend it is absolutely world beating but it’s also not a midtable set of options, in terms of quality, depth and variety.

The impoverished approach to attack has been my chief frustration for Arteta’s Arsenal. I think it’s relatively uncontroversial to observe that the talent in the squad is frontloaded, the squad does not boast the same quality in midfield or defence, for instance. Of course, you could reasonably suggest that is all the more reason for caution.

It stands to reason that when you trust the talent of your attackers more than the talent of your defenders and midfielders, you concentrate on keeping the back door closed, which partially explains why Arteta opted for three central defenders for so long. The addition of proper number 10s in Smith Rowe and Odegaard since Christmas has significantly greased the wheels of an Arsenal attack that had become separated from the other departments of the team.

With Arsenal’s domestic campaign floundering during the winter months, there has been lots of talk of prioritisation with the Europa League back on the agenda. My argument has always been that Arsenal has the attacking resources to rotate without talk of weakening the team so I was delighted to see an entirely rotated Gunners front three make such short work of Leicester on Sunday.

Sunday’s attacking trio have all undergone periods of poor form this season, but Alex Lacazette cost £50m, Nicolas Pepe £72m (a figure that is so widely reported that I’ve begun to think it’s his forename) and Willian is a Copa America winner with 70 Brazil caps and every English domestic honour under his belt. He is also one of Arsenal’s most highly paid players. We shouldn’t speak of “weakening” when Arsenal field three attackers with these credentials.

Despite the complete rotation of the front line between the Benfica and Leicester matches, Gabriel Martinelli was an unused substitute on both occasions. When the Brazilian returned from a lengthy absence in December, he looked instantly revitalised and looked as though he had recharged a sagging Arsenal offence.

Still only 19 and in the recovery phase from a bad knee injury, Martinelli suffered a small ankle injury shortly after his return, so the situation does demand a level of patience. However, Arteta’s sparing use of Martinelli does pre-date his recovery. He hasn’t played in the Premier League since 30th January (he was substituted at half-time in the 0-0 draw with Manchester United) with only 13 minutes as a lone striker against Benfica to show for the last five weeks.

Last February, Arsenal played out an uninspiring 0-0 draw with Burnley at Turf Moor. On that day, Martinelli started on the right of the attack, with Aubameyang on the left and Lacazette through the centre. It proved to be an unsatisfying mix. Martinelli spent the next four games as an unused substitute before injuring his knee in training.

Like Aubameyang, Martinelli is a low touch forward who seeks to run in behind defenders and Arsenal simply didn’t have enough creative talent to serve two forwards of this nature. All of Martinelli’s best Arsenal displays have come without Aubmeyang in the team- during his run of goals in the Carabao Cup and Europa League groups stages in the 2019-20 season.

He exploded onto the Premier League scene with goals against Sheffield United and a wonderful solo strike against Chelsea last January- Aubameyang was suspended for both of those matches. Burnley away marked Aubameyang’s return from suspension and Arteta quickly decided he and Martinelli were incompatible.

With Arsenal’s creative improvement, I don’t think that needs to be a permanent issue. I think there is room for two players looking to run in behind if you have, say, Bukayo Saka and one of Smith Rowe or Odegaard supplying the bullets. When pressed on Martinelli’s recent exile, of sorts, Arteta was circumspect.

“When you have many options, it is difficult when you look for certain qualities in certain games.” With Arsenal chasing a goal against Benfica in the Europa League last week, Arteta opted for Willian from the bench as opposed to Pepe and / or Martinelli. “They were a really, really low block, not much space to run apart from when they set the line around the 18-yard box,” Arteta explained.

“You need people to unlock that, with special qualities in tight spaces to create movement and I think Willi(an) was really helpful tonight. He gave us much more composure in moments.” Arteta’s explanation made some sense, the key takeaway word here is “composure.” Martinelli is a raw, instinctive talent powered by pish and vinegar.

Technically, he is not unerringly accurate. In fact, his wonder goal at Chelsea last season nicely illustrates his qualities and his flaws. He simply powers towards the Chelsea goal. His control is actually quite poor as he avails of a slip by Ngolo Kante but his drive and his positivity carry him towards goal.

As Arteta explained his decision to bring Willian on for the Benfica match, it is interesting that he lumped Pepe and Martinelli into the same explanation (though, admittedly, they were probably lumped into the same question). Pepe is another instinctive player who often frustrates with his execution but can conjure a goal with a moment of inspiration.

Everything we know about Arteta suggests that he likes total control in attacking spaces. It took him more than a year to seriously try Aubameyang upfront ahead of Lacazette because he likes Lacazette’s technical cleanliness. He has persevered with Willian because he is also a technically clean player who, though not as devastating as Martinelli or Pepe, is also not as profligate.

Personally, I don’t mind profligacy in attackers because I think volume matters more. I prefer Aubameyang upfront to Lacazette, I responded to Alexis Sanchez more than I did to Mesut Ozil and I would say the same about Aaron Ramsey in comparison to Jack Wilshere. I liked Oasis and Blur, but I preferred Oasis if you get my drift.

A team needs a mixture of precision and improvisation, I think and, of course, many people will have different tastes to mine and will prefer the precise to the visceral- it seems Arteta does too. I think he has struggled to integrate Martinelli for the same reason that he has struggled to take a shine to Pepe.

He wants control and patterned play and, ultimately, this might help him to rotate his attacking options effectively. Theoretically, if Arsenal’s attack is choreographed enough, he ought to be able to slot different moving parts into the machine without undue disruption. Arteta earned commendation for his work with Raheem Sterling and Leroy Sane at Manchester City, specifically chipping away at some of their rough edges and chiselling them into Guardiola’s structured vision for attack.

There are nascent signs that Nicolas Pepe is meeting Arteta’s expectations. I must admit that I am still nervous about whether a player like Martinelli fits the manager’s vision but given the length of his injury layoff, his age and the recent improvements in Pepe and Willian I don’t think there is cause to panic. Yet.

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