Arsenal are, like other clubs, currently embroiled in the bi-annual transfer festival- the well-sourced noises from London Colney suggest that the Gunners are ready to wield the chequebook in a serious way once more. However, any team needs a series of more organic improvements in alliance with some judicious wheeling and dealing in pursuit of improvement.
In the summer of 2021, Arsenal signed six players; four of them went into the starting line-up. However, they were able to juice some improvements out of existing players- Bukayo Saka, Emile Smith Rowe and Gabriel Martinelli went to another level. Thomas Partey began to find a consistent rhythm in midfield, Gabriel Magalhães nailed down the left centre-back role alongside Ben White.
Those are just a few examples from 2021-22. Where are Arsenal’s most fruitful avenues for organic improvement in 2022-23? There are logistical differences for the campaign, of course, such as the permanent introduction of five substitutions and the mid-season break for the World Cup and the very different physical toll it will have on clubs across the Premier League. Here are three things I will be looking closely at next season.
More from Odegaard
I was really happy when Arsenal made the signing of Martin Odegaard permanent last summer. Here is the receipt to prove it. I was really happy with how he performed last season and he would have been on my podium for player of the season.
He managed seven goals and four assists in the Premier League last season. That was four assists from an expected assists of 6.8 (per FBRef), we can probably see how much a more threatening and suitable centre-forward could help to boost his creative numbers next season.
While I think the Norwegian enjoyed a positive season- especially after November, I think there are a lot more gears for him to find. I would liken Odegaard to some of Arsenal’s “broken eggs” signings from the Wenger glory years. In the US, I believe the term is ‘post-hype.’ Real Madrid pushed the boat out for Odegaard when he was 16 for a reason.
I am seriously convinced of the talent of this player and think there is another 15-20% to juice from him. It’s the reason I would be minded to make him captain. He’s had a season-and-a-half at Arsenal now to feel comfortable and at home, something that has been missing from his career for some years.
Generally speaking, the captaincy doesn’t matter to me, I do think you can give it to the wrong player and I think you can give it to the right player. Now he has found a home, I just have a hunch that giving him that responsibility will help him to find the next level. With or without the armband, I am expecting even more from Odegaard- especially in terms of his own goal scoring prowess.
Thomas Partey as the single point of failure
Arsenal upped the level of their starting eleven last summer and now they need to thicken out their squad with more players that you would trust for an extended stretch on the teamsheet. As supporters, we need to shed the idea of the ‘warm body’ in the squad and focus on expanding the core of players who can flit in and out of the starting line-up on a regular basis.
Arsenal need to close the contingency gap between the starting players and the squad players and make those definitions more fluid. From the well-placed reporting it looks as though the club are looking to address that this summer. However, it still begs the question of how they bridge the Thomas Partey gap.
It’s not just the quality of the player that makes this kind of planning difficult, it’s the burden of his position. As a single midfield pivot, he is basically being given the job of two players but is able to handle it. By definition, it is difficult to find a squad player who can plug in and play the same role.
Of all the injuries Arsenal suffered in the second half of last season, this was the one that cost them Champions League qualification in my opinion. If Partey’s calves are not once again assailed by an invisible sniper at Selhurst Park in early April, then Arsenal finish fourth- there is just no doubt in my mind.
There’s a false Thomas Partey number going around. Here’s the real number. pic.twitter.com/2WE9v4Exu3
— Adam Rae Voge (@adamvoge) June 19, 2022
Arteta responded to the injury by adjusting and experimenting and the team lost the two games immediately following his injury. It’s unlikely that they are going to be able to find another player who can lift that heavy a dumbbell in midfield. Instead, Arsenal probably will have to revert to more of a midfield double pivot.
If they do manage to sign Tielemans, for example, a Tielemans – Xhaka double pivot feels a little more secure than asking Elneny or Lokonga to be a one-man orchestra (even if that particular combination might lack some basic athleticism). This would be a slight mechanical shift to the midfield and it would need to be as seamless as possible.
There is no perfect world when it comes to replacing your most important players but perfect must not become the enemy of the good. Arteta and Arsenal are going to need a contingency plan for a Thomas Partey absence (and he’s had lengthy absences in both his seasons at the club now) and the answer needs to be more convincing and more readily deployable than it was in 2021-22.
ESR / Martinelli competition
The competition between Emile Smith Rowe and Gabriel Martinelli on the left-side of the attack is a good development for Arsenal. Two talented 21-year-olds, both capable of finding the net, vying it out for an important role. Last season it was pretty much the first place your eye was drawn to when the team sheet was released an hour before kick-off.
That’s because it was pretty much the only spot that had a strong sense of competition. This season, Arsenal are in Europe and teams are permitted to use five substitutes. It’s a healthy position for the team, not least because the players have different qualities aside from their goal threat.
The competition also insulates either player from feeling as though they have ‘arrived.’ However, for the players themselves, as individuals, they will want to nail down a more permanent starting spot. Bukayo Saka doesn’t share game time in much the same way that Joey doesn’t share food (though that may change if reports linking Arsenal with Raphinha are to be believed).
For Smith Rowe, the question is whether he can last a full season, physically speaking. He enjoyed a great second half of 2020-21 and a very encouraging opening to 2021-22. Those spells have been bookended by struggles for fitness. Meanwhile, Martinelli is chasing a place in a Brazil World Cup squad that also boasts Vinicius Junior, Raphinha, Gabriel Jesus, Neymar and Richarlison in similar roles.
The competition Smith Rowe faces at international level is similar. Both players will want to finally ‘explode’ this season after a couple of years of impressing as up and comers. It seems difficult to imagine that both will manage that. They might continue this jobshare arrangement, which would be fine for Arsenal. But I do wonder whether one of them might go “supernova” and leave the other trailing in their shadow.
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