Tuesday, March 5, 2024

Balance the talent first, not the age

“I am alright to play on Thursday!” laughed Gabriel Martinelli in his interview with the official website following the 3-0 win over Sheffield United.

It was his first start since Jan 30th, the 0-0 draw with Man Utd, and that he marked it with a good performance and a goal will obviously have pleased him, and given Mikel Arteta something to think about. It’s interesting: whenever he talks about the young Brazilian, he does so in glowing terms, referencing his talent and potential. There’s always a caveat though, about how we need to be patient.

When you see him play, you wonder exactly what it is that gives the manager such pause for thought. He almost always has an impact. Think back to the doldrums in November and December, and when Martinelli (along with Emile Smith Rowe) were selected for the game against Chelsea, they reinvigorated our dismal campaign to that point. There was a change of formation, but also too a change of energy.

These young players brought a kind of imperfect bravery to the way we played; something that was fresh and enjoyable after the overly-choreographed cautiousness with which the team, and certain individuals, had been performing for too long. Smith Rowe more or less cemented his place in the team, but Martinelli remained a bit too peripheral for many tastes.

To be fair, he did pick up an injury, turning his ankle in a warm-up, and that certainly had an influence on his involvement. It led to speculation about why he wasn’t playing more, and suggestions that maybe Arteta doesn’t like him. I don’t think that ever stacked up, even if I was keen to see him play more often, but I can understand why, when you see someone like Matteo Guendouzi dispatched ANYWHERE ELSE because his behaviour wasn’t tolerated, people might suspect something wasn’t 100% with Martinelli.

However, he was brought on for Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang in the 1-1 draw with Benfica; he replaced the captain again with the team still needing to score in the 3-3 draw with West Ham; and last Thursday he was the first sub as we sought a goal in the first leg of the Slavia Prague tie. It’s not a huge amount considering the number of games we’ve played, but it did at least demonstrate that Martinelli had jumped above Eddie Nketiah in the attacking substitution pecking order.

There was also an interesting quote in the post Sheffield United press conference from Arteta who declared himself ‘delighted’ with Martinelli’s contribution, and then said:

I’m asking you to be patient because we have a lot of players who are 19/20-years-old and if you compare where we are with them with other Premier League clubs, then we’re at the top end. It’s not common.

I think every manager has a kind of default for experience. It gives them some measure of reassurance knowing a player has been there, done that and worn the t-shirt. Sometimes though, the places they’ve been and the things they’ve done are no longer of much benefit, and the t-shirt is old, faded and needs to be cut up for rags.

I do get the need to find the balance between youth and experience. If you put eleven 34 year olds out, you’re getting done, the same way as if you put eleven 17 year olds. Clearly it’s important to get that side of things right. But surely there comes a point where the need to balance the talent is more important than balancing age?

Against Slavia Prague, we made chances to win the game, nobody’s disputing that, but the frustration of not taking them was exacerbated by our understanding that the team wasn’t set up correctly. As I said in the blog following that game, you can’t play football the way it needs to be played these days without players who can run. Against Sheffield United, with Martinelli and Nicolas Pepe outside a striker like Lacazette, we looked far more balanced from an attacking perspective, and even if we did miss a chance or two, you felt like we could create more. I say this fully acknowledging we were playing the league’s bottom side who have now lost 8 of their last 9 games as they head towards relegation, but it’s still true.

And let’s be clear, this wasn’t exactly the most mobile Arsenal team you’ll ever see. Lacazette’s strengths aren’t in his running power, his stamina, or an ability to pop up deep and then get into dangerous positions in the opposition box. We had Dani Ceballos with his wibbly-wobbly legs in midfield, just ahead of Granit Xhaka at left-back, so we had some issues in that regard. Nevertheless, they were offset by the inclusion of running power in the wide channels, and through the centre with Bukayo Saka and Thomas Partey.

For me, that’s the balance Arteta needs to find more often. Again, I do understand the need for caution with young players at times, but when your struggles during a season have come primarily because you haven’t played enough of them as often as you should, the solution is kinda staring you in the face.

It will be very interesting to see what he does on Thursday in terms of his team selection. There are a number of issues we need more clarity on before we begin to speculate about that, but that’s stuff we can discuss later in the week.

For some extra reading this morning, Lewis looks at the decision to use Xhaka at left-back in the latest tactics column, and it’s something James and I speak about in the new Arsecast Extra, all the links to listen/subscribe are below. Till tomorrow.


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