Saturday, June 15, 2024

The undercoat

Following Arsenal’s limp 1-0 defeat to Nottingham Forest on Sunday, a lot has been said and written about the quality (or lack thereof) of Arsenal’s ‘depth players.’ It’s always difficult to judge how good your backup players actually are because they usually play infrequently and, when they do so, they play in unfamiliar, disjointed teams with lots of other players that play infrequently.

Arsenal went into the Forest game with a midfield double pivot of Albert Sambi Lokonga and Charlie Patino, which was always going to lead to fluency issues. A midfield of Elneny plus one of Lokonga or Maitland Niles probably sees Arsenal through the tie. In cup games, you can generally hide inexperience in the interior of the team but it is luminous in the spine- much in the way that you can probably limp on with a bad ankle or foot but if your back is banjaxed, you’re not getting much further than the sofa.

This is the vicious cycle of the squad player, you only get to strut your stuff in suboptimal conditions, once every few weeks and when you don’t do enough to impress, you shuffle back into your bench coat and settle in for another watching brief. Players rarely break into first teams off the back of such occasions, usually an injury in the big boys XI is the favoured route.

Take Nuno Tavares, who kept Kieran Tierney out of the starting line-up for four consecutive Premier League games in November and early December. Against Forest, he suffered the ignominy of being sacrificed during the first half. Managing squad players is one of the most delicate matters for the modern coach, how to keep a group of players who play so infrequently motivated and in good shape to contribute when required?

Mikel Arteta and Edu performed wholesale surgery on the starting eleven over the last two summers, with Ramsdale, Gabriel, White, Tomiyasu, Partey and Odegaard all signed for the base of the team, while Smith Rowe and Saka have become bona fide starts within that timeframe too. It stands to reason that addressing the first eleven was the most urgent part of the Arsenal rebuild.

A long-term striker option and, at least eventually, a Granit Xhaka replacement are surely the next pillars required for the starting team. After all, Xhaka and Lacazette are pretty much the final starting eleven players that Arteta inherited alongside Tierney. In the meantime, some surgery is required for the squad players, most of whom Arteta inherited and have their secondary status because they cannot quite execute what he requires.

Some futureproofing was also addressed in the most recent summer window with Albert Sambi Lokonga and Nuno Tavares coming in. I have always maintained that young and academy players are the optimal choices for back up players. First of all, they tend to be more patient and willing to accept such a role in the short-term.

They have something to work towards, career wise, as they seek to push towards first-team football. We have seen many, many times at Arsenal that having senior professionals in these roles just doesn’t work (and it’s also not cost effective). Any player that signs for the club on this basis in or after the peak years of their career is essentially looking after their pension (which they are entitled to do, of course).

Young players tend to be hungrier and more willing to move on when it becomes clear that they won’t quite make the grade, which aids squad regeneration. Joe Willock and Alex Iwobi were sold at a tidy profit. On Sunday, a justifiably impatient Ainsley Maitland-Niles played for Roma against Juventus, while Cedric Soares played at right-back for Arsenal at the City Ground. One of those players was very keen to move on and progress in his career.

Of course, with younger backup players you experience not just a quality drop off when your main pillars are absent but an experience dip too. Besides which, no academy is fruitful enough to fill out an entire squad. Players like Rob Holding, Pablo Mari and Mohamed Elneny are necessary. The issue with a lot of Arsenal’s current, more experienced squad players is that they have that status precisely because their footballing halos have slipped.

Calum Chambers, Sead Kolasinac and Nicolas Pepe weren’t supposed to be squad players, they have just shown that they cannot meet Mikel Arteta’s demands for myriad reasons. ‘Squad player’ is not a deliberate role for them like it is Elneny or Holding, who are occasionally rotated into the first eleven without duress. It’s a hairshirt that they wear.

Arteta’s inexperience has, at times, exacerbated this issue too. Too often he has dithered or flip-flopped on the value of players, such as Maitland-Niles, who was so desperate to leave Arsenal that he wouldn’t stick around for the cup ties with Forest or Liverpool. Arteta never came to a firm enough conclusion on Nketiah to either sell for good money or offer an attractive contract to until it was too late. Now he will walk away on a free transfer.

Calum Chambers went from bona fide first choice right-back to total outcast incredibly quickly. I am sure the Tomiyasu signing was always desirable to the manager but, that being the case, Chambers really ought to have been sold for decent money last summer, with his stock as a right-back relatively high. If the first three games of the season were enough for Arteta to relegate Chambers from first choice to the ghost at the feast, he was clearly never properly convinced of his quality.

That’s where the Technical Director will have to be stronger too. ‘If you can’t tell me exactly how this guy is a crucial cog then he is on the transfer list’ might be an overly simplistic rule of thumb but Arsenal need to get closer to that end of the wedge. An Nketiah sale could have been helping to fund a move for Vlahovic (or whoever else) right now.

Instead Nketiah and Lacazette will both leave for free. Arteta and Edu should take inspiration and assurance from the way that the Joe Willock sale paid for Martin Odegaard. That is how you regenerate a squad. Really your squad players should turn over sharply, you don’t really want players willing to execute this role for a prolonged period.

Arsenal have slightly handicapped themselves as a result, as they look to address the next phase of this squad build (and let’s give Arteta and Edu their due, the business they did last summer was impressive by and large). Buying a striker and a central midfielder are the most important facets but they will need to apply a layer of varnish underneath the first team too.

A lot of these squad players will be leaving now- due to expiring contracts mainly. Buying back up players is a delicate business because ideally you want someone who can really challenge and push for regular inclusion, as opposed to accepting cheques and being satisfied with the odd cup game here and there.

The task of managing the squad players has been made more difficult by the absence of the Europa League group stage but if Arsenal want Champions League football again, the idea of playing the stiffs in Europe will no longer fly anyway. How Arsenal replace the likes of Nketiah, Chambers, Kolasinac, Elneny and Maitland-Niles (maybe even Mari and Pepe) is a sub plot for Arsenal’s ambitions- but it’s a very intriguing one.

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