I have already written at length about the amount of admin that needs to be undertaken by Edu, Richard Garlick and Mikel Arteta this summer when it comes to contracts, departures and transfers. Ideally Mikel Arteta should not be too involved in the minutiae of that work.
What should Mikel Arteta be mulling over once the team come back together for pre-season training? What are the key on-field elements the coach should be prioritising with the players he already has? Arteta is very lucky that he has me to tell him. Here are three priorities for next season, beyond the vagaries of the transfer market.
Appoint some generals
A few weeks ago, I wrote about the Arsenal attack and why they struggle to keep teams under pressure- especially at the Emirates. 2020-21 saw Arsenal play well in bursts but rarely were they able to totally dominate teams for sustained periods of a game.
This is largely to do with balance- but I also think there is something in the inexperience of the team- and by that, I do not necessarily mean the young players. Gabriel and Thomas Partey were drafted into the team last summer and both have experienced up and down seasons. The Gunners also signed Pierre Emerick Aubameyang (more on whom anon) to a new deal and struggled to inspire his best form.
I think there is an intangible element at play where Arsenal have not quite worked out who their alphas are or, more accurately, those alphas found last season tough going for a number of reasons. Gabriel was Arsenal’s big money signing for the defence last season, Rob Holding was signed to a new contract and Pablo Mari joined the club; but Gabriel was intended to be the cornerstone of the defence (with William Saliba hopefully coming up behind him soon enough).
Gabriel needs to feel like he “owns” the defence much like Thomas Partey needs to grow into the idea that he “owns” the midfield. Teams need players who step up in those moments when a team goes cold. Hopefully Partey and Gabriel will feel more a part of the team next season and will start to grasp this responsibility more organically. Both are very front-footed players and I would like to see them help to push the team up the pitch, aggressively competing for interceptions and transitioning Arsenal from defence to attack more quickly.
It was a very tough season to be a new player in a new country with covid protocols and behind closed door games. The relaxation of restrictions and return of fans should aid that process and drawing on some of that camaraderie and emotion will also help the players themselves and they will need to feel trusted to step into those “General” roles.
With David Luiz gone and Hector Bellerin and maybe Lacazette to follow, players like Gabriel and Partey will need to emerge as the new leadership core of the group. In attack, I think that’s perhaps more difficult because I don’t think Aubameyang is, or ever has been, the piece you build around per se, he’s the guy you sit in the penalty area and try to create for. Nevertheless, while we are on that subject….
Get more from Pierre Emerick Aubameyang
Auba isn’t going anywhere, Arsenal made a conscious decision to award him a big contract when they easily could have ended the relationship last summer. They chose not to and now they have to make it work. A learning point for the future is not to make such critical decisions without a very clear plan of what you are going to do with the player you are investing so much into.
That ship has sailed now, Arsenal have made their bed and they have to lie in it. I think there are myriad factors behind Aubameyang’s underwhelming season that aren’t necessarily his fault. Arsenal’s creative deficit has played into that, as well as the player experiencing personal issues with his mother’s health and his own.
The captain is not entirely blameless, of course. His timekeeping this season has been brought under the microscope and as much as I think he has struggled with the team’s creative deficit, Auba is a very expressive player. It is easy to tell when the sun shines and when the storm clouds are gathering and right now his mood looks as dark and gloomy as the British “summer.”
Arsenal cannot allow him to emotionally disengage from this team (and the player himself has plenty of responsibility to bear there). Last summer, Auba and Arsenal looked to be a love story but fast forward 12 months and if the two parties aren’t quite throwing plates at one another yet, there is some passive aggressive bickering that needs to be nipped in the bud.
The best way for Arteta to solve this problem is to balance the attack. In fairness, we saw much more of that in the second half of last season with the introduction of Smith Rowe and Odegaard into the team and the sidelining of Willian. Arteta made the decision to keep Auba and if he didn’t have a plan at the point that he made that decision, he better get scribbling on the back of a cigarette packet during the summer.
Find more minutes for Gabriel Martinelli
Gabriel Martinelli is not a technically smooth player yet. He requires some development but I really hope that Arteta doesn’t try to smooth out Martinelli’s rough edges too much because those rough edges are so key to his game. The simple fact is, however aesthetically pleasing it is to watch, Martinelli helps Arsenal to take more shots at goal.
This is a team that struggles to keep teams under pressure and Martinelli is a perfect antidote to that- the attack needs greater explosiveness and that is exactly what he provides. Now, it is not as easy as just putting him into the starting eleven for every game and watching him go. Again, there is that question of balance. A front three of Pepe, Martinelli and Aubameyang, for instance, is not technically secure enough to play together.
Personally, I would look to share Martinelli and Pepe’s minutes as a starting point. Both players are relatively similar in that they don’t really conform to patterns of play but they do conform to spanking the ball towards the goal or into the six-yard area quite a lot. Every single minute that was awarded to Willian last season was a waste and a total drain on minutes that would have been better spent elsewhere.
If Arsenal, by some miracle, can get him out of the door and replace him with a more technical no.10 / wide forward hybrid like Buendia, then the balance between, as I termed it a couple of weeks ago, scalpels and sledgehammers looks better. Martinelli is a sledgehammer, I am not saying he should play every minute of every game at this stage; but rotate him with Pepe in one of the wide forward positions and maybe rotate him with Aubameyang in the centre-forward role and you’re developing a player who should be a key part of your future strategy.
Ushering Martinelli in with one arm and shoving Willian out with the other ought to be the broad plan here, though that is contingent on Arsenal getting that extra creator, whether it be Odegaard, Buendia or A.N. Other. Youth is not the key attribute for Smith Rowe, Martinelli or Saka, their quality is their most important quality. As Arteta reshapes the Arsenal attack however, their respective ages just mean that Arsenal can build around them for longer. That process has to start now.