Friday, September 30, 2022

Stick or Twist?

Early last month, I spoke to Arsenal Women coach Jonas Eidevall after the team’s 3-0 victory away at Brighton. The team had gone through a sticky spell either side of Christmas as the team adjusted to some injuries and to the ideas of a new coach. In January, they bought a top-class striker in Stina Blackstenius and dropped Vivianne Miedema into the number 10 position.

The move has helped to revitalise Arsenal’s form and they have looked far better since making this tweak. I asked Jonas whether he felt the team better understood his demands now, “It’s in a better place but I learned in football that the moment you relax and think you have it figured out, you get whacked in the back of the head!

“You can’t do that, opponents will change, dynamics will change in your team, you have to be on your toes. You have to keep on looking for improvements and for reinforcements, the small details make the difference. I am not relaxing; I have done that in my career before and I learned that nothing good comes from that.”

I reference this because there is a corollary, I think, with the men’s team, who have enjoyed improved form and improved output in 2022 as they rejigged their attack in the wake of Pierre Emerick Aubameyang’s exile from the team and eventual departure to Barcelona. Arsenal’s diamond of Partey, Xhaka, Odegaard and Lacazette with Martinelli / Smith Rowe and Saka exploding outside it gave opponents a new problem to deal with.

On Monday night at Selhurst Park, Crystal Palace were ready for it. They were able to shadow Lacazette’s runs between the lines, they were able to swarm Thomas Partey and neuter his influence, they harried and harassed Odegaard and forced him to receive the ball with his back to goal and a Palace defender in his shorts.

In short, Patrick Vieira and Palace had Arsenal’s number. They had enough data points from Arsenal to predict their patterns and snuff them out. The question for Arsenal now is how successfully other opponents can copy or take inspiration from Palace’s approach. Have Arsenal been sussed or have they just been sussed by Crystal Palace?

Palace have form for this. They took four points from Manchester City this season. They were very unfortunate not to beat a previous version of Arsenal at the Emirates in October. They beat Spurs at home 3-0 back in September. Vieira seems astute at identifying other team’s weaknesses. Mikel Arteta now has a balancing act between not over-indexing a bad night at the office at Selhurst Park but being proactive enough to change tactical tack.

This is very normal; teams often have to adjust their approach several times during a season. Back in the early autumn, Arteta adopted a kind of 4411 formation which saw Odegaard and Tierney drop out of the team and Tavares and Lacazette play in their steads. It never felt like a long-term situation, it just worked until it didn’t and then it was shelved.

Arteta started his Arsenal tenure by playing a 4231, switching to a back three, before switching back to a 4231 shape once Odegaard and Smith Rowe were available to him. During the last few months, it does feel as though Arsenal have gotten closer to Arteta’s ultimate vision but there were always going to need to be nips and tucks here and there.

Only the very best teams can play in exactly the same way all the time and that level of understanding takes years to develop. There are several other factors in play here. Firstly, we are at the business end of the season now and only results matter. If you offered any Arsenal fan nine eye bleedingly bad 1-0 wins they would be silly not to accept.

Secondly, there are some injuries to key players. Arsenal were always in a precarious position given the lack of squad depth this season. The lack of European competition rendered that a calculated gamble. It was necessary to clear the squad of players who had probably been around for too long and were carrying hangdog expressions.

It will be necessary to beef the squad back up again but some timber certainly needed clearing. It did mean they had to cross their fingers and hope that key players stay fit but, in truth, that is the situation for every team bar Manchester City. Few teams could sustain the loss of two or three crucial first teamers without bearing some scars.

At left-back, Nuno Tavares has looked incredibly raw. Even at his best, the Portuguese has a rawness about him, he plays a little like a bike with no brakes rolling down a hill. When it works it looks spectacular and when it doesn’t, well, an ambulance is required. In his last two appearances Arteta has had to throw in the towel early and send for the blues and twos to whisk him away.

With the news that Kieran Tierney will miss the remainder of the season, Arteta has a serious decision to make now. Make no mistake, if Tavares doesn’t start against Brighton on Saturday, his Arsenal career is probably over. It would be difficult for him to recover from that and it would be the ultimate sign that the coach no longer has faith in a player who always had the air of one of Arsene Wenger’s low cost lucky dip signings.

The question was, and still is, whether he would turn out to be another Kolo Toure or another Amaury Bischoff. If he takes a seat in the dugout on Saturday, he is headed straight towards the Amaury Bischoff memorial departure lounge. Arteta doesn’t have many superior choices either. He could move Granit Xhaka out of a midfield already bereft of Thomas Partey or else switch Cedric to left-back, start Rob Holding and move Ben White to right-back.

That’s a lot of upheaval and if the coach is willing to do that, we can assume Tavares’ Arsenal race is already run. I fancy that he might give Tavares one last chance and if the coach needs to beckon the fourth official with the electronic board again, that may well be that for the Portuguese. The question is complicated by the likely absence of Thomas Partey too.

Partey is arguably the player that Arsenal can least do without. Albert Sambi Lokonga has the potential to reach that level but he’s a distance from it at the moment. It is difficult to imagine that Arteta will be willing to overburden Lokonga as a one-man midfield force of nature in the manner that he has Thomas Partey.

It will probably mean a return to a double pivot of sorts with Xhaka playing less as a left eight and more of a dual six. That might suit Tavares to have that resource more immediately available to him. Arsenal also have a serious situation in the number 9 role with Alex Lacazette looking more like Alex Lackathreat.

His inability / refusal to make runs in behind defences makes it far easier for opponents to step out from their defensive line and squeeze Arsenal. The Gunners ought to have been out of sight at Villa Park a few weeks ago but in the final 20 minutes, they effectively had to surrender as an attacking force.

The Villa centre-halves knew that they could simply meet Lacazette in the centre circle and crowd him out without fear of reprisal. He simply does not even try to run in behind and seems to regard doing anything other than dropping short and linking play to be someone else’s job. It means that Arsenal’s threat is not especially varied and when they have to chase a game, as they did on Monday, it makes life more difficult.

The option to play Martinelli through the middle must be seriously entertained. But again, the question remains, how much change is too much change? You can look it in two ways, of course. You can argue that with big adjustments already required at left-back and in central midfield, adding another fix to the engine might cause it to misfire.

The more optimistic view suggests that, if you have to redecorate the bathroom and the kitchen, why not just throw in the bedroom at the same time and have all the chaos come at once? If opponents really have sussed Arsenal out, a little tinkering with the foundations may well be welcome anyway. The manager would have a handle on that on the training ground, of course. He would have a sense of whether his players were able to learn three different tricks at the same time.

Ultimately, this is where coaches earn their money. In 2019-20, Arteta’s three at the back adjustment was enough to win the Gunners the FA Cup. Last season, he played Xhaka at left-back and Emile Smith Rowe as a false 9 in the biggest game of the season and it backfired. How Arteta and Arsenal handle this upcoming adjustment will define their campaign and determine whether they play Champions League football next season. The stakes are high, alright.

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