Tuesday, December 6, 2022

Looking forward … at forwards

Morning.

Like many of you I’m sure, I’m still trying to process the last couple of games, through a fog of disappointment and frustration. It was good to talk it out with James on the Arsecast Extra yesterday. Going back to last Thursday, it seems clear we were tempted by the potential of what winning the derby would mean. I can’t even say it’s a hindsight thing because we spoke beforehand about this: the best approach would have been to be a bit more safety first, grind out a point (maybe even nick the win), and go into the last two games on an even keel.

Instead, we went for the win, lost the game, and train was derailed. How we deal with defeat is a key issue for Mikel Arteta to sort out next season. That old adage of waiting ages for a bus then three show up at once kind of applies to us when we lose. We do well for a bit, lose one, then lose another couple before we get ourselves steadied again. If you really want to make progress as a team you can’t do that. Every team will lose games, the teams at the top make those more singular events and that’s what we need to be able to do.

Why it happens that way for us is hard to pinpoint. Some might say it’s a lack of character, and maybe it is, but I think primarily it’s lack of depth and again much comes back to the lack of firepower in this team. You look at single goal defeats to Man Utd, Everton, Man City, Brighton, and Southampton where one or two extra goals in those games would change the complexion of the table this morning. Ifs and buts, I know, but it’s also true.

More on the forwards in a minute, but as we start to look ahead to the summer and what we need to do, building in better redundancy to key positions is key. I realise it’s hard when you have top quality players to have top quality back-ups, but Mikel Arteta must stop and think sometimes how different things might have been if he’d had Thomas Partey and Kieran Tierney fit more often.

I love our left back as much as anyone, but we can’t ignore the fact he’s had significant absences since he joined, and in the last two seasons when his quality and experience would have been vital at the business end of the campaign, he’s been out. Last season we literally had no back-up so played Granit Xhaka there and it didn’t go well. This time around we had back-up but we still played Granit Xhaka there for a bit – and that Brighton game feels like one where the result was very heavily influenced by a game plan which didn’t work.

Partey’s absence from midfield has been huge, especially this year. He missed the start of the season, struggled a bit when he came back after that ankle injury, but by the turn of the year found his form and really became fundamental. Would we have had another point or two from the last few games if he’d been around? Maybe, maybe not, but it’s hard not to think otherwise.

So, when we’re planning this summer, and expanding the squad to the point where it needs to be to cope with European football, we have to think about that. It’s similar to the kinds of discussion that went on around players like Jack Wilshere, Aaron Ramsey and Abou Diaby – if you’re banking on them staying fit all season as part of your plan, there’s a flaw in your plan. If they break down again, and history has shown us that’s a very real possibility, then that’s on you.

To be clear: this isn’t being critical of the players themselves, injuries happen and some players are just more robust than others, but the availability aspect to recruitment might be something to keep a close eye on. To be fair, Partey’s injury record at Atletico Madrid didn’t really give any clue as to what would happen when he joined us, but perhaps there’s something to be said for investigating why there’s such a difference. Is it just bad luck, or something else?

Also, as much as I’m gutted by what’s happened and by the manner in which we’ve let slip a brilliant chance to qualify for next season’s Champions League, I’m also confident that we can bridge the gap – because it’s a small one. We’re not missing out by 10 or 15 points, and you don’t have to work too hard to see the obvious difference between us and the team that will, unless something extraordinary happens on Sunday, finish fourth.

I don’t really buy into the ‘Look at what Conte has done at Sp*rs in less time’ stuff. He has two world class forwards to choose from for every game, and one of them is the England captain which brings some benefit in terms of how their games are officiated as recent generous penalty decisions have shown. I laid bare our stats in yesterday’s post, but to do so again, Son has scored just one goal fewer in 2022 (13) than Gabriel Martinelli, Eddie Nketiah, Alexandre Lacazette, Bukayo Saka and Emile Smith Rowe combined (I can’t bring myself to look at the other bloke’s stats, there’s only so much I can put myself through this morning).

It shows what’s needed. There’s a lot to do this summer, but the priority has to be the right investment in our forward line. It might require doing some business that some people may not care for, whether that’s renewing a squad player or two to give us depth as we face the Premier League/European schedule, or even the dreaded ‘cash in’ option on a player we all like. But it’s clear that unless we significantly upgrade our attacking threat, we’ll stay the wrong side of the fine margin line too often to make the progress we want.

Finally though, that might be a reason to be optimistic, as hard as that is right now. It’s not as if this isn’t obvious, as if it’s something the manager isn’t fully aware of and hasn’t spoken publicly about more than once. Actions speak louder than words though, and after five or six transfer windows without bringing in forwards, this is really the one where Arteta has to put the final stamp on a squad that is very much his, and then produce from the off next season.

Right, I’ve done my head in enough this morning. The Arsecast Extra is below if you haven’t had a chance to listen, I’m off to ease my frustration with the only thing more frustrating than Arsenal: golf.

Till tomorrow.

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