I imagine there are many lessons we could learn from the defeat to Brighton on Saturday, but for me the most obvious one is: When we don’t have Thomas Partey, we absolutely need Granit Xhaka in midfield.
That should be set in stone. Made immutable. Legislated into law. And all that kind of stuff. We know that it didn’t happen in the first half, and we were terrible, and when he was moved there in the second half we were better. Not massively, but sufficiently so to make it obvious we should never use him at left-back again. It’s not a question of him being particularly bad there, it’s just that he’s very much needed in midfield.
The team needed him. Albert Sambi Lokonga needed him. And while Xhaka isn’t always the most progressive passer, I think our inability to move the ball forward was in large part due to the imbalance and disconnected nature of that part of the team. Just to be clear: Xhaka at left-back wasn’t the only reason we were poor on Saturday, but it was certainly a contributory factor. So, when Mikel Arteta picks his team for Saturday’s trip to Southampton, the Swiss is surely in ‘first name on the teamsheet’ territory, but in the CM column.
Then the question is: who plays at left back?
We had a question on the Arsecast Extra about Nuno Tavares and whether this would be a good opportunity for the manager to show confidence in him, tell him he’s needed, and begin his redemption arc (I’m paraphrasing a bit). I can see how that might be possible, but I’m not sure you can really convince a player or anyone else of that.
‘Ok Nuno. Everyone saw last season Xhaka at left-back didn’t work, even when we had Thomas Partey in midfield to offset his absence. Now, without Partey, I have so little faith in you that still I’m going to use him at left-back instead of you.
‘But NOW I believe in you!’
Don’t think so. If anything, the Brighton game was the one to stick with him to try and rebuild his confidence. He could even have brought him on at half-time when it was obvious we needed to get Xhaka more central. He didn’t, and it’s pretty clear that Arteta has some serious misgivings about Nuno. If he doesn’t trust him to play a home game against Brighton, how does that get mended with games against Chelsea, United, West Ham and Sp*rs on the horizon? I don’t know if it can be. Obviously Nuno in that position is the ideal scenario: lose your first choice left-back, play your back-up left-back, but it doesn’t appear to be that simple.
So what other options are there? Cedric has played there but right now that would mean a bit of a defensive shift. You’d imagine that for this weekend, it would require Ben White to move to right back, and Rob Holding to come in at centre-half. We’ve done that part of it a couple of times this season, for the 5-0 win over Norwich and the 0-0 draw with Burnley at the end of January. On both occasions Kieran Tierney played left-back.
If we get Takehiro Tomiyasu back, you don’t need to break up the central defensive pairing which has been mostly solid this season, and you can stick Cedric out there, but it’s still an imperfect solution. I can’t recall the details – perhaps I have blanked them from my memory – but the former Southampton man did have a run of games there last season and while it wasn’t terrible, it wasn’t great either. I have vague recollections of a couple of mistakes which proved a bit costly.
There’s one player in the squad who would suit the role perfectly, and who has played it before, and that’s Bukayo Saka. However, as much as I wanted to see it last season rather than Xhaka, it’s more complicated this time around because of the fact he’s our joint leading goalscorer and it feels like he’s needed up the other end of the pitch. Not least because we have a centre-forward who doesn’t score, and goals are increasingly rare commodities for this team right now.
The only thing to say is that there is a very obvious deputy for Saka in the shape of Nicolas Pepe, another player who the manager has limited faith in as we can see from his minimal participation this season, but it’s an option that should be given some consideration. I’ve spoken too much about the need for a change at centre-forward, but a front three of Pepe, Martnelli (central) and Smith Rowe might offer elements of unpredictability and a chaos factor that could be useful. Teams know how to handle Lacazette now, it’s not any kind of a challenge, so as we seek a solution to that particular issue, is it one we can marry with the left-back problem in a nice, package deal?
Then, there’s the nuclear option of a formation shift, a 3-4-3 with wing-backs. Tavares would be less exposed, giving you another option, and clearly his strengths as a player are attacking rather than defending (somewhat unfortunate for someone who is first and foremost a defender); Saka has played there before too and would be more than capable. It’s just how much that impacts you centrally, and changes the role of Martin Odegaard.
After two successive defeats though, and with some big, big games on the not too distant horizon, Mikel Arteta has to find a way to fix his left-back problem, ensure his midfield can provide the right platform for the way he wants his team to play, and fix his centre-forward problem. I’m sure he’d rather have been riding the crest of a wave at this point of the season, but it is what it is and it’s his job to deal with it.