Monday, August 15, 2022

The left pod

Last summer, Arsenal made six first team signings and four of them went straight into the starting line-up in the shape of Tomiyasu, Odegaard, White and Ramsdale. Three of those players feature on the right side of Arsenal’s team. By now, we are familiar with the roles that each of them plays. Tomiyasu tucks inside to create a third centre-half / third central midfielder- depending on the phase of play.

He is a buttress. On the right side of the centre of defence, Ben White was procured to replace a lot of David Luiz’s on-ball qualities with fewer of his occasionally whacky off-ball pitfalls. Martin Odegaard was seen by many as a number 10 but, really, he plays as a right eight, drifting over towards Saka to knit play together. Albeit he is positioned slightly higher than the left eight, Granit Xhaka.

Odegaard is certainly more productive in the final third than Xhaka. These players have morphed into the ‘right pod’ of the team alongside Bukayo Saka, who is the go-to pick on the right-wing. Tomiyasu, White, Odegaard and Saka are established and connected and Arsenal generate most of their creative threat from this ‘pod.’

Cast your minds back to the inaugural game of last season at Brentford. Bukayo Saka was on the sub’s bench after his involvement in Euro 2020 and Tomiyasu and Odegaard had yet to complete their transfers. On that evening, Arsenal’s build-up was laughably predictable with Xhaka feeding Tierney and Tierney crossing straight into Brentford’s wall of muscle while Balogun, Pepe and Martinelli looked on forlornly.

Now, the Brentford game is an extreme example since the team had not only not completed their transfer business but because they were also missing Lacazette and Aubameyang. However, the point still stands that the left-side of Arsenal’s team is not as well developed or as well-oiled as the right-hand side.

The links to Lisandro Martinez and Oleksandr Zinchenko, as well as Youri Tielemans look, to me, like an attempt to fix up the left side of the team. Raphinha is a slight anomaly here since he primarily plays on the right. I still think that the ‘left-eight’ piece is a really crucial one in Arteta’s thinking for the season ahead.

While Granit Xhaka performed the role admirably, I think Arsenal- a team that struggles to score the number of goals required to ascend the league- would like for their left-eight to have a little more offensive potential than Xhaka can provide. I still have a hunch that Fabio Vieira will be seen as an option in this position.

I also have an even more unsubstantiated hunch that Saka might have been considered a regular option in the position had the Gunners landed Raphinha. I just don’t believe that Arsenal would have paid that much for a right-winger without the intention for him to be a starter. The chase for Lisandro Martinez appears to be a lost cause and Arsenal have now turned their attention to Zinchenko according to David Ornstein. The position that links Martinez and Zinchenko, both versatile players, is left-back and I suspect that might be ominous for Kieran Tierney.

Whether it’s Tierney’s physical unreliability or his style that is driving Arteta to spend big on a player that can play at left-back is open to question. My theory is that he wants a left-back who operates in a lot of the deep, build-up areas that Xhaka likes so that he can replace those attributes in Granit that he appreciates, while opening up the left-eight spot for someone that can do a little more in the final third.

For some weeks, it hasn’t been quite clear why the club have not pulled the trigger on the seemingly doable Tielemans deal and my best guess is that his signing would be contingent on a different left-back arriving. That is to say that Arsenal would only bring Tielemans in if they can also recruit a left-back with more of Xhaka’s deep build-up qualities.

On the left of Arsenal’s attack, Gabriel Martinelli and Emile Smith Rowe competed for / shared those responsibilities last season. That isn’t an issue, of course, both are very good young players. Though they are slightly different, they largely played a similar role as late arrivers / finishers on the end of moves.

It also stands to reason that, if most of your build-up and creativity occurs on the right, then the left side should be applying the finishing touches. That said, not having an absolutely bona fide first choice probably impacted the level of synergy that either ESR or Martinelli enjoyed with the left-back and the left-eight.

Tierney’s injury woes last season were treated ‘flexibly’ with Tavares, Cedric and Tomiyasu all performing stints at left-back. It perhaps stands to reason that the left pod of the team is not as cohesive as the right pod. I strongly suspect that Arteta is looking to remedy this via the market this summer.

In the ongoing battle for the left-forward role between Smith Rowe and Martinelli, it won’t be enough just to finish moves any longer. A good team has diversity and variety of threat which means Arteta will want his team to be just as capable of building attacks from the left side. In Gabriel Jesus and Eddie Nketiah, Arsenal’s main centre-forward options see it as part of their job description to attack the penalty area, which the team did not always have last season with Lacazette.

Both are capable of dropping and connecting with the right and left pods too and Aubameyang wasn’t as schooled at this. He was quite good at connecting with Smith Rowe and Martinelli on the left but less so with Saka on the right. The point in developing the left side is to make the team less predictable and more rounded.

Increasing the goal threat has to be objective numero uno for next season and while the forward line clearly bears the brunt of that responsibility, the left-back and the left eight are clearly part of that equation as well. If Arsenal do indeed land Tielemans and Zinchenko in the coming weeks, do not be surprised if they are parachuted straight into the starting eleven as White, Tomiyasu, Odegaard and Ramsdale were last season.

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