Friday, August 19, 2022

Key men

So that’s the end of this week and as Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang was presented as a Barcelona player, Arsenal wrapped up their warm weather training camp in Dubai, ahead of a behind-closed-doors friendly against Reading.

I know we had some fitness issues going out there with certain players, and I hope they’re now fully recharged and ready to go. For example, Emile Smith Rowe and Bukayo Saka going to Dubai:

Emile Smith Rowe and Bukayo Saka returning from Dubai:

I have to say I’m anxiously awaiting an update about Takehiro Tomiyasu, who was ruled out for a few weeks because of an injury before we went on the trip. Perhaps it’s a weird thing to say about a right back, but I feel much more secure with him in the team, and it’s not simply down to my allergic reaction to Cedric. It’s part of it, but only a small part. It’s mostly because I really like the balance Tomiyasu brings to the right hand side, as well as his defensive qualities.

I can’t remember the last time we had a defender who was so switched on to that aspect of his game. Which isn’t to say others are going through the motions or anything. Gabriel, for example, is a player who seems to relish the duels and delivering us from the chaos of an opposition attack, but Tomi is a bit like a striker who has the knack of being in the right place when the ball breaks in the opposition penalty box. He’s there and it must be infuriating for the teams we play against and this makes me happy because I like it when they’re infuriated. Hopefully he’s not too far away from a return.

The January window has laid bare our attacking depth, no two ways about it. We spent time trying to bring in Dusan Vlahovic, and I found some comments from the Fiorentina owner interesting. Rocco Commisso said:

“The Vlahovic deal was full of dishonesty and liars. We opened talks with English clubs — every time a new offer came up, Vlahovic and his agents said ‘no’.

“Their plan was the same as [Kylian] Mbappe with PSG: leave as a free agent and make money.”

I said at the time I felt like we were being led up the garden path, and while I don’t blame Arsenal for trying, I do wonder if we spent more time on this than we should have. I don’t know how much, if at all, it created an obstacle for other deals and potential targets, because it is possible to multi-task and have numerous irons in the fire, but you can’t help but think we should have read the room a bit more quickly on this one.

We now know where our goals have to come from. Lacazette, Smith Rowe, Saka, Martinelli, Odegaard, Pepe and Nketiah. It’s not a prolific bunch, and in all competitions this season our leading scorers are:

Smith Rowe: 9
Saka: 7
Lacazette: 5
Nketiah: 5
Martinelli: 4
Odegaard: 4
Pepe: 2

Mikel Arteta has to get more or less the same again out of most of them to secure the points we need to keep fighting for the top four. In some cases, he has to elicit more. Nketiah’s goals are all in the EFL Cup. When you break it down to Premier League only, it looks like this:

Smith Rowe: 8
Saka: 6
Martinelli: 4
Odegaard: 4
Lacazette: 3
Nketiah: 0
Pepe: 0

Aubameyang had 4 goals in the Premier League, the last of which came on October 22nd in the 3-1 win over Aston Villa. I know that it’s the chief area of concern, for understandable reasons, and I hope we have enough firepower. Beyond that though, I think the other wish I would grant us for these remaining 17 games is that Thomas Partey stays fit and can replicate some of the form he showed before his AFCON departure.

He was superb in the Man City game, the kind of midfield performance we are absolutely going to need more of in order to control and win football matches. This isn’t to put a huge burden on him or anything like that, but to make whichever forward line we put out click, we have to be more progressive through midfield and he’s the man who brings that to the team. We missed both him and Xhaka against Burnley due their red cards, and I can only hope they’ve both got that nonsense out of their systems for a while.

As I said above about Tomiyasu, Partey just has a presence for me. We’ve never really seen the best of him consistently, so what a time it would be for him to find a vein of form. I think the reality is that in order for us to keep challenging for a top four place, we need almost everybody to be as close to their best as they can possibly be, but some positions on the pitch are absolutely key – and central midfield is one. Centre-forward is another, hence the trepidation we have, but I hope if midfield is functional we might see some improvement in output.

The Partey/Xhaka partnership will have a big role to play between now and May. Not simply a platform for the attackers to do their thing, but a part of what enables them to do it with confidence and conviction. Fingers crossed.

For some extra reading this morning, Tim’s piece on Aubameyang and player connection is really a bit special – check it out here.

Right, let’s leave it there. There’s a brand new Arsecast for you below, chatting to Tayo Popoola about Aubameyang, Arteta and lots more. Enjoy.

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