With a new season hurtling into view in the rear view mirror, the time is right to take stock for the annual “It’s going to be a big season for….” series, previewing a make or break season ahead for three specific players. A small caveat before I begin, I am going to write about three players that I’ve not covered in depth in other columns during the summer.
It says a lot about Pepe’s Arsenal career to date that I picked him out on the eve of the 2020-21 season too. “It’s fair to say that Pepe took some time to hit his straps in England,” I wrote last summer, “And we can’t say for sure that his strong finish to last season is a portent for the coming season. Arteta eventually began to sculpt his attack in a way that better suited Pepe’s qualities.” Plus ça change!
The feeling of waiting for Pepe to go supernova has been a bit like for waiting for some kind of blood test result. Much like this time last year, Pepe is coming off the back of a strong end to a campaign that had flattered to deceive prior to the spring.
Last summer, Arsenal decided to sign a player in Pepe’s position and the signing of Willian has to go down as one of the most disastrous in the club’s recent history. The Brazilian is now firmly relegated to the role of boot boy- to the point that he didn’t even make the squad for Sunday’s North London derby and nobody bothered to ask why.
Pepe managed 10 goals and as assist in the Premier League last season- I mention Premier League data in isolation because there will be no Europa League group stage to massage end-product figures this year. It’s a good return but it does rather show that he is more a finisher than a creator and that is the basis Arteta will have to work on to eke the best from him.
I still have my doubts that he and Aubameyang can co-exist in the same front three given that they both want to be on the end of moves and neither offers an awful lot in the build-up phase. To get the best from Pepe, you need more of a facilitator as a centre-forward and another creator on top of that.
It remains to be seen whether Arteta can configure an attack that appeals to its lopsided and asymmetrical strengths. Creating chances remains a significant weakness for the team and it’s difficult to see how that will change with the existing personnel. Just because Willian is no longer a serious competitor for Pepe’s place, it doesn’t mean that he is without competition.
Bukayo Saka has made a name for himself as an inverted right-winger for club and country. Saka contributes more to the build-up with his knifing runs towards the area from the right touchline. Pepe does have superior end-product however. The Ivorian’s biggest challenge will be to ensure that Saka is seen as an option for the left-side and that Martinelli is forced to fight Arsenal’s starboy for a place.
Emile SMITH ROWE
As it stands, Arsenal have lost Martin Odegaard from last season’s creative options. Emile Smith Rowe is the only outright option at number 10. That puts significant pressure on the 21-year old to be the creative fulcrum of the team. It’s a role he performed well last season but that was with the support of Odegaard and Arsenal still need to improve on what they offered up in the second half of last season, even if it was a dramatic improvement on the first half.
Smith Rowe deserved his new contract and taking on the number 10 shirt demonstrates his confidence but it also illustrates his rising status. Emile had a very good ‘honeymoon’ season but, as Theo Walcott would no doubt explain, once your terms improve and your status increases, the expectations rise in concert.
His emergence last season sparked life into a team so bereft of creativity and life that even a parasite would have starved on its corpse. Raising the team’s creative ceiling from zero is one thing, now he has to push that bar higher and until another creative player is signed (and I think that is a piece of business that Arsenal will complete) he needs to push that boulder further up the hill.
Smith Rowe managed two goals and four assists in 18 Premier League starts last season. While I think he did a lot more besides to unclog Arsenal’s attack, those ratios need to increase, particularly when it comes to scoring goals. He showed a real flair for scoring goals in Arsenal’s junior teams and it’s time for him to rediscover that knack. Smith Rowe is a wonderful talent but now the onus is firmly on him to realise his potential.
Signed from Lille last summer for £27m, the Brazilian won commendation from Arsenal fans for his early performances in the manner that a new signing often does- especially a busy centre-half who engages attackers and does all the things we fans notice without having to make too much effort.
Defenders of this ilk are often high-risk / high-reward types and errors come with the territory with that type of player. Arsenal fans saw this with Laurent Koscielny over the years but overall, his account was very much in credit by the time he left the club. I have to say I wasn’t as certain as other fans were about Gabriel at the beginning of last season and he gradually found himself as a rotation option with Pablo Mari on the left side of defence.
The raw ingredients are certainly there for an excellent defender, though it is a little surprising that Arteta signed off on such a big fee for a centre-half with work to do in possession. Gabriel’s pass completion rate (86%) was lower than Rob Holding’s (89%) last season and that wasn’t because he was trying especially high value passes.
Gabriel attempted 2.4 progressive passes per 90 last season, compared to Holding’s 3.5. Pablo Mari completed 90% of his passes but only tried 1.9 progressive passes per 90. (In fairness, Gabriel and Mari’s low percentage progressive passes can probably be explained away by the presence of Granit Xhaka in their immediate area). I am sure that Arsenal spent £27m on Gabriel to be the undisputed first choice and £10m on Mari to be his back-up. It shouldn’t be this much of a competition in the manager’s mind.
In fairness, Gabriel would’ve required some adaption last season, with injuries to David Luiz, I think Holding and Gabriel was not a partnership that Arteta favoured at all. With Ben White on board and a year in the Premier League behind him, the Brazilian really needs to show why he was one of Arteta and Edu’s principal purchases last summer.