The end of the Premier League weekend sees Arsenal sitting in fourth, a point ahead of Man Utd but with three games in hand. It looks very healthy right now, but the visit of Liverpool tomorrow provides a very stern challenge for this team.
Last night, Crystal Palace held Man City to a goalless draw, so if the Mugsmashers win tomorrow night, they’d sit just a point behind the leaders, the title race well and truly on. Whether that provides extra motivation for them isn’t really much of an issue for me. We know what Liverpool are about anyway, and while this might make them even more focused, I don’t think it has any significant bearing on how difficult our job is. If you’re going to slug it out with a heavyweight, it’s going to be tough regardless what else is in play.
Mikel Arteta will hold his pre-game press conference this morning, where I don’t expect much in terms of team news. Assuming everyone is ok after Leicester, this is going to be a week that the manager and his team will have been well prepared for. It feels like the story of this season has been the big, long gaps between fixtures, whereas this week is quite the opposite. After Leicester on Sunday, it’s Liverpool on Wednesday, then Aston Villa away early on Saturday. It’s going to require a big effort, mentally and physically, not least because the reality of our small squad is that ‘rotation’ isn’t really an option.
We have players who can come in and do a job as and when required, some of them better than others, but we don’t have the depth to look at either of these games coming up this week and think about how we’re going to shuffle things around unless we absolutely have to. The only exception is finding a way to include top scorer Emile Smith Rowe, but after Leicester Arteta spoke about how he’s been feeling the physical effects of Covid and some niggling aches/strains, so they might well be cautious with him.
More on that game in tomorrow’s blog, and we’ll have a preview podcast on Patreon later today.
Meanwhile, Martin Odegaard has spoken about Arsenal’s recent form and how much he’s enjoying being part of it:
It’s really fun to play with this team. We’re a group of players that know each other well now and it’s getting better and better. The system works better and better as well, it flows really well now.
And for the second time in a week, he referenced the development of the team:
I’ve not witnessed anything like this before, we definitely have something special here. You can tell across the whole club that we’re building something special and it’s a group of players that likes each other and likes playing football together. You can see that on the pitch.
I have to say, even though I was very keen for us to sign him this summer, I didn’t expect him to reach this level quite so quickly. His loan spell was decent, but not spectacular – although I do think he was hampered somewhat by an injury. Still, I know there were people who had doubts, and that’s understandable. What’s not at all understandable is persisting with that opinion having watched him this season and witnessed his development and growing importance to this team.
One of the great things about football is that we can all have opinions, it sparks debate and discussion, but it’s important to remember that your position does not have to be fixed. It can change. It should change, especially in the light of evidence to the contrary. Isn’t someone like Aaron Ramsdale a perfect example of that? Many people had doubts about the wisdom of the signing and concerns over the size of the fee, but here we are some way down the line and those have been dispelled to a very great extent.
I don’t quite understand the mindset of someone who had doubts about signing Odegaard based on his goal/assist tally and his creativity, who then persists with those in spite of his numbers this season. As I said to James on the Arsecast Extra yesterday when talking about what’s really exciting about this team – it’s not simply a case that improvement will come from signings and replacing players in a couple of key positions that we’re all aware of. I think there’s more to come from key contributors like Odegaard, Bukayo Saka, Emile Smith Rowe and Gabriel Martinelli, and that’s a sexy thought.
The £35m we paid Real Madrid for the Norwegian looks like an absolute bargain, not least because the other option for that position last summer would have cost nearly double that and I don’t think James Maddison is as good. A decent player for sure but I think Odegaard has more to his game, and the context of his signing is something we have to consider. I think he’d already proved during his loan spells that he was a fine footballer, and as Sid Lowe wrote in October 2019 during his time at Real Sociedad, “Martin Odegaard has probably been La Liga’s best midfielder.”
When you consider some of the big names in that league, that’s no small thing. However, there’s a weight that comes with being at a club like Real Madrid, and while not breaking through ahead of some of the players they currently have is far from a failure, he was at a point in his career when he needed to make the right decision, and to find a club where he could really showcase his ability. Sometimes a player and a club come together and it doesn’t work, not because the player isn’t good enough, but because the ingredients aren’t quite right.
To me like it looks like Martin Odegaard found the right club at exactly the right time, with the right teammates and the right manager. A place for him to be an important part of a project where he can feel and relish the responsibility his talent merits. His display against Leicester was as good as anything you’ll see from a creative midfielder this season, and as I already said, at 23 years old just we’re seeing the tip of the Odegaard iceberg here. Hopefully what lies beneath the surface can help Arsenal take out a few of the Premier League Titanics along the way.
I’ll leave you with the brand new Arsecast Extra, enjoying the Leicester win and lots more. Till tomorrow.