Monday, August 15, 2022

Left Eight

As far as I am concerned, the fun of the transfer window is trying to figure out what the coach is trying to do with the team ahead of the new season. The window is, well, a window into the coach’s thoughts and the reporting is at a level now that we know pretty much every player that Arsenal are interested in and to what extent.

Fabio Vieira felt like a bolt from the blue but there were still five days between the story breaking and the player awkwardly holding the shirt for the cameras. We didn’t know about the deal until its final stages but the announcement, when it arrived, was no surprise. Arsenal have locked in Gabriel Jesus, Fabio Vieira and Matt Turner so far this summer.

What happens now is the most fascinating part, for my money. To some extent, Raphinha and Lisandro Martinez are surprise targets because they operate in areas where Arsenal don’t have glaring gaps. If last season taught us anything it’s that 13-14 trusted players isn’t enough for an entire season, even when you don’t have the distraction of Europe and you are eliminated in the FA Cup Third Round.

However, there is understandable speculation around the interest in Martinez and Raphinha. Are Arsenal really laying down £50m for rotational players or are there a couple of senior players in line for a demotion of sorts? Maybe even a sale? Maybe not but it would be very un-Arsenal to pay those sorts of sums for players who are anything other than regular starters.

However, the position of greatest intrigue, for me at least, is the “left eight” position which Andrew wrote about on Monday and Andrew and I discussed it a little on the Arsecast Extra earlier this week as well. Tielemans makes a lot of sense as a midfield target if you discount the fact that he has mainly operated on the right of Leicester’s central midfield.

He is probably one of the better Premier League experienced options on the market and you can see why the move would be attractive for the player too. I still believe that transfer will go through, even if the reporting suggests a cooling in interest from Arsenal. In the event that my hunch is incorrect and the club do not restock in that position, I would be intrigued to see other options who could potentially develop into the role.

There are some candidates and I don’t believe them to be in the “why don’t we try Thomas Vermaelen at DM?” brand of ‘could-do-a-jobbery.’ In effect, Arsenal were already fielding a slightly misshapen peg in that hole last season via Granit Xhaka. It’s to the Swiss’ credit that he performed it well enough, he certainly wasn’t any kind of liability.

However, a career six playing as an eight puts a ceiling on the role, especially from an offensive perspective. I think it is clear that Arteta would like and could use somebody with a little more devil in the attacking detail. Manchester City dominated the Premier League with David Silva and Kevin de Bruyne as dual eights.

Martin Odegaard is far more a right eight than a ten, drifting over the right flank to form an alliance with Bukayo Saka. That is very much the creative hub of the Arsenal team and, I think it’s fair to say, that Arsenal’s left side does not really match it for imagination. There are some interesting internal candidates for the role.

Bukayo Saka
Saka is so good that he can play anywhere in the midfield, forward line or at full-back. Anything that involves getting the ball from moderate value areas to high value areas would suit him down to the ground. Saka could play that role absolutely no question. He shares a lot of the same qualities as other progenitors of the role.

Think Angel di Maria at Real Madrid, or Clarence Seedorf at AC Milan. Saka’s ability to turn away from opponents in tight spaces has made him a constant threat from the right flank. He could use the same skillset as a left eight without worry. The question is whether taking him away from the forward line would potentially reduce his impact in the penalty area.

Just because he can play as the left eight it doesn’t necessarily mean he should. He has excelled on the right flank. That said, I think we assume that Saka chose the right flank when it’s just as likely that it chose him. Arteta was not getting what he needed from Nicolas Pepe on that side, in Smith Rowe, Martinelli and, formerly, Aubameyang, he had plenty of firepower on the left.

There is a good to fair chance that Arsenal have fielded Saka on the right because that was where they had the most glaring weakness. In a world where Arsenal are able to a) afford and b) attract Raphinha, arguably that no longer becomes the case. If they were able to secure a right winger with very strong goal threat, I would not complain at all if Saka were then fielded as a left eight. While his end-product numbers might reduce individually, he would probably outstrip Xhaka to that effect from the role, ending in a net positive for the team.

Fabio Vieira
I would imagine that Fabio Vieira will be considered as an option for the position, it’s just a question of how far down the pecking order he is. I would be surprised if he starts there ahead of Xhaka, put it that way. I do think we could see him start some Europa League games there potentially and we could definitely see him enter the fray for Xhaka if Arsenal are chasing a goal late in a game- especially with the increase in substitutions allowed from next season.

My suspicion is that Vieira will be a versatile rotational option capable of covering for Odegaard, Saka and Xhaka, without really starting ahead of any of them. It makes a lot of sense to have versatility beneath your core players. Let’s face it, if you buy specialised back-up for Saka and he doesn’t operate in any other position, if Saka stays fit, this individual simply won’t play.

The same goes for Odegaard. By backing up more than one role, your squad players stay closer to the team and are less likely to accumulate rust while they sit in a tracksuit in the dugout. My best guess is that Vieira is primed for this kind of role. Some adaptation will be required because he is new to English football and still pretty green overall.

I know there are misgivings about his physique for such a role but I don’t think that when we refer to the “physicality” of the Premier League that we are talking about size anymore. The clubs certainly aren’t, they are talking about stamina, repeatability of sprints, press resistance and ability to press. I don’t know Vieira well enough yet to assess whether he already has that.

Albert Sambi Lokonga
Lokonga replaced Xhaka from the bench during the final game of last season. The Belgian had largely played as a six during the last campaign but my suspicion is that we won’t see him there again very often. Elneny’s renaissance served a purpose during the spring in redefining some of those midfield roles.

I think Elneny will be the Partey replacement at the base of the midfield from now on with Lokonga considered a rotational / back up option for Xhaka. Sambi does not have the craft of Vieira or Saka but he does offer excellent ball carrying abilities. He is a good progressive passer but when young players are looking to develop in big teams, it pays to develop a superpower- especially if it is not easily matched elsewhere in the squad.

Alex Iwobi’s ball carrying abilities from the middle to the final third were a moderate value attribute but one that not many of his contemporaries possessed. He made 100 Arsenal appearances across four seasons. It’s a good trick to develop and Sambi Lokonga has it in his toolbet. What’s more, I think he will get the Europa League group stage to get a feel for the position and see whether he can develop into a more long-term option there.

Emile Smith Rowe
I still view Smith Rowe as more of an exterior player who arrives late and gets on the end of moves. I don’t think that is set in stone though, he broke into the team as a number 10 with his Rosicky-like ability to lubricate the team’s possession play. (Move arse, get ball, move ball, move arse again). I don’t think he’s a hugely imaginative passer, he is much more of a short combination player but a short combination player can absolutely be used in this role.

There is also a sense that this season Smith Rowe should be looking to nail down a proper identity in this Arsenal team. He got into double figures for goals last season but, if you’re being mega harsh (and you should have high expectations of talented players), you would say that Smith Rowe needs to become a player that Arsenal definitely miss when he’s not there.

Much like Lokonga, that means developing a superpower, an attribute you offer that leaves your teammates in the shade. Now, Smith Rowe could do that in the left eight role and allow Arsenal to squeeze Saka, Martinelli and ESR into the same starting eleven. I have to say I don’t think that will happen but it’s not totally outside the range of possibilities.

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