Thursday, November 30, 2023

We’re Gonna Need A Bigger Boat

Arsenal’s loss to Brighton on Saturday, for me, came down to one main factor. Obviously, there are other threads to pull at and other sidebars to explore, most victories and defeats are multi-faceted. However, the main theme for me was that there is currently too great a distance between some of Arsenal’s starters and their back-ups.

I am understanding of this situation. Arsenal bought six players in last summer’s transfer window and four of those players- Ramsdale, Tomiyasu, White and Odegaard- were bona fide starters immediately. The priority was upgrading the starting eleven. There are still some pieces to be inserted in the starting eleven this coming summer too.

Two of Arsenal’s summer signings, Albert Sambi Lokonga and Nuno Tavares, were focal points for discussion when it came to naming a line-up for the visit of Brighton. Lokonga came in for Thomas Partey but Nuno Tavares remained on the bench as Arteta opted to shuffle his pack and move Xhaka to left-back and Smith Rowe into a more central role.

Lokonga is a player of great potential and his signing made sense as a back up to Xhaka and Partey. Arsenal had so much other business to do that they could not spend enormous sums on a deputy, it made a sense to buy a player who could develop quietly and maybe eventually take on one of the midfield roles on a more full-time basis.

Arsenal’s lack of European participation this season has proved to be a double-edged sword. On one hand, it has largely enabled them to build familiarity throughout a new-look team due to the lack of need for rotation. On the other hand, it has seen talents like Lokonga and Tavares gather dust then rust on the subs bench.

Had Arsenal been in the Europa League this season, both players would probably have had another five or six games under their belts during the winter. The early exit from the FA Cup has also worked against both players, who have barely featured since November. Arsenal’s lack of goals means their games are often too tight to make mercy substitutions and allow younger players some minutes from the bench.

The crux is that now Arsenal need to rely on young players who have not been exposed to enough minutes this season. However, given all of the work that was required on the first eleven, it would have been a misallocation of funds to spend huge sums on back-ups last summer. Slightly cheaper young players made a lot of sense financially.

It takes a little while longer to build squad resilience when building a competitive set of starters should be the first aim. Buying good squad players is not an easy exercise. Unless you are one of the absolute financial elite, your back-ups either comprise grizzly veterans (who are probably looking for a nice, final contract) or wet behind the ears young players.

It is necessary to churn your squad players too because no player should be satisfied with the role for too long. Arsenal’s last batch of back-ups- Chambers, Kolasinac, Maitland-Niles- had long since reached the rusty stage and needed to move on. I would argue that the next phase of the Arsenal squad build prioritises finding a striker, another central midfielder and then building that squad resilience.

If you look at Liverpool’s squad build, I would argue that it took them several years to find proper squad resilience. They competed on a core of 15 or so players with precious few adequate back-ups to players like Alisson, van Dijk and the famed front three and got the luck they needed with injuries (last season excepted).

Alas, luck with injuries has been in short supply for Arsenal in the last 15 years and, personally, I am incredibly weary of every promising Arsenal concoction lasting all of a couple of months before injury to a key player (Fabregas, van Persie, Cazorla) derais everything again.

In the case of Nuno Tavares, the signing always had the air of one of Arsene Wenger’s Hail Mary transfer gambles. Whether Tavares would turn out to be a Kolo Toure or an Igors Stepanovs was the question, I always had the sense it would very definitely go one way or the other. I couldn’t see a sturdy but unspectacular Gilles Grimandi or Joel Campbell emerging.

It’s worth saying that there are few attractive choices for the manager against Brighton, he is very much dealing in ‘least worst’ territory. There is an alternate universe not far from here where Tavares was selected on Saturday, dropped a clanger and had us all asking why Arteta exposed him in such a way instead of moving Xhaka or Cedric to left-back.

Arteta has a similar dilemma upfront, where Lacazette is only clinging onto his place due to the paucity of other options. Anyone that thinks Martinelli or Nketiah would totally transform the team as an attacking force is kidding themselves, the question is which is the least worst option.

The question of what happens next for Nuno Tavares is interesting. Does the manager reinstate him at Southampton on Saturday? If the player’s confidence is damaged, then being selected for the next game must go some way to repairing that wound? However, Arteta did not call for him from the bench against Brighton, which makes that scenario unlikely in my view.

If that is the case, then Tavares is essentially done as an Arsenal player. We already know that Arteta has doubts (probably justifiably), not selecting him in the aftermath of Saturday would be a clear admission that his injured faith is irreparable (especially given Brighton’s first goal emanated from Xhaka being out of position).

That would necessitate Arsenal bringing in another left-back in the summer and I don’t think that can be a Hail Mary gamble signing any longer. Tierney has missed the conclusion of the last two campaigns due to injury, only the covid delay of spring 2020 prevents that from being a clean sweep of missed run-ins for the Scot.

Tierney’s injury history demands that Arsenal have a much more oven ready solution for the position and with the money required to pay for the much-needed new striker, that will be very tough indeed. It’s true that Arteta has been found wanting so far when he doesn’t have all the available pieces exactly where he needs them.

The blueprint looks firm but Plan B less so. Whether this is an issue of coaching or an issue of available talent is open to interpretation. I think we will find out a lot more about that next season when the squad players are more to his expectations. That said, Runarsson, Mari and Tavares were all bought to be squad players on Arteta’s watch.

It is likely that all three will be sold this summer with two of those players already ushered out on loan. Other players out on loan, like Guendozi and Torreira would look like attractive midfield options to have about now. I do think there is a question over how well Arteta can manage expediently, how he can wring the best from those players who are not necessarily eating dinner at the captain’s table.

It’s why dropping Tavares was such a big call, because it’s very close to a fatal blow to the player’s Arsenal career at this stage. It’s essentially an admission that you called this signing wrong and that you don’t think you can coach the player to improve (and that may well be, and probably is, the correct call).

It does mean that this summer Arteta and Edu will have to revisit the position and there will be no room for error. All the elements that have improved the team over the last two seasons have been procured in the market (or else from the academy). The question, I guess, is whether Arteta can coach to improve? Can he work with imperfect squad players and improve them? We will probably get a better idea next season.

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