Focus now starts to turn towards two very tricky away games. First up Manchester United on Thursday, then Everton on Monday. It’s a tough start to December, and Mikel Arteta will meet the press this morning ahead of the trip to Old Trafford.
As far as we know, the only fitness issue we have is Bukayo Saka who had to come off against Newcastle at the weekend. In general, we haven’t had a lot to deal with so far this season, in no small part because of the schedule. While we’ve been missing midweek European action and the campaign thus far has felt quite sparse, the month ahead will be a real challenge on a physical level.
We have eight games, four away from home, and towards the end of the month it gets really hectic with Norwich on December 26th, Wolves on December 28th, and then Man City
away at home on New Years Day – so we probably need to look at this as 9 game run between December 2nd and January 1st. I suspect that intensity is going to see us suffer a few aches and niggles along the way, but I’m sure that’s something the manager and his staff are expecting.
There may well be some selection decisions during this period which might seem a bit odd based on what we’ve seen so far, but when it comes to squad management, ensuring players in that fabled ‘red zone’ don’t end up injured, they’re going to be a necessity. What will be interesting is seeing what Arteta does. In recent weeks it feels a bit like he’s done things somewhat differently. Perhaps even going back to his decision to insert a lot of the new signings after the first three games of the season.
Gabriel Martinelli ahead of Nicolas Pepe on Saturday was a bit of a surprise, but it was a welcome decision (because we all want to see more of him) and one which paid dividends. Obviously it makes the question mark over our record signing even bigger, and his situation is complicated right now. However, Martinelli’s insertion felt like a nod to the future, giving the opportunity to a player whose best years in red and white lie ahead of him. Pepe has had lots of chances, and to be fair to him, he’s been one of our most productive players in terms of goal involvements, but – to me at least – there’s always been a sense that for Arteta he’s a square peg for what he sees as a round hole.
The upcoming schedule makes it very difficult to be definitive about Pepe. He’s clearly on the fringes right now and his departure for AFCON means he’s going to miss plenty of January too, but there’s a lot of football to play in December and we may well need him. However, with just 5 minutes of playing time in our last five Premier League games, you can’t help but think he’s increasingly marginal in the manager’s plans.
The other decision that felt important was keeping faith with Nuno Tavares over Kieran Tierney, when many – myself included – expected the latter to come back into the side for the Newcastle game. I don’t really think there’s much point speculating as to why Arteta did that, whether it was to ensure a young player didn’t feel downhearted by losing his place after his mistake at Anfield. The fact is he was superb at the weekend, and if he keeps his place for tomorrow night, who could argue really?
Right now, the Tavares/Tierney situation is a very good problem to have. We have two excellent players to choose from, and I feel pretty comfortable with whatever decision the manager makes for tomorrow night. It wasn’t long ago Tierney was being touted as a future captain, and he was 100% a first-name-on-the-teamsheet kind of player. He hasn’t been brilliant this season, but form can fluctuate as we know. It’ll come back around for him. In the meantime, the dynamism of Tavares is adding something to this team, and what’s interesting is how differently he plays the left-back position.
As we discussed on the Arsecast Extra on Monday, and as Lewis followed up on in his tactics column, the positions he took up in the build-up to our first goal were unusual for an Arsenal left-back. Tierney would have been closer to the left-hand touchline, whereas Tavares was drifting in from the central, attacking-midfield area, and ended up making the assist from the edge of the box where you expect a forward/winger to be.
For now though, this is the best kind of problem a manager can have. Last season, when Tierney was out we had Sead Kolasinac, then nobody at all after he was loaned out for the second half of the season, or Granit Xhaka being played out of position which had deleterious knock-on effects to the rest of the team. Now we have a very good player being kept out of the team by the high quality performances of a very promising young player. That’s far better.
There does come a point where it might become an actual problem though, if someone isn’t playing anywhere near enough and gets unhappy, but for now, let’s enjoy the fact we’ve got superb competition in that position. And as mentioned, there is a lot of football to play in the weeks ahead, so I think there’ll be chances for everyone.
Right, we’ll have all the coverage of the manager’s press conference over on Arseblog News. There’s a bonus FSA Award podcast over on Patreon with James, and we’ll have our Man Utd preview podcast up there later on this afternoon too.
For now, take it easy.