Saturday, March 2, 2024

It’s all right on the right (mostly)

Morning all.

There was some Monday night football last night as Crystal Palace went to Anfield and came away with a 1-1 draw. I realise every game is different, and Patrick Vieira’s side had a very different game plan for this one than for our game, but it demonstrates the quality in this league and for me it highlights how good our 2-0 win was there last week.

I mentioned in the post-game blog that I was a bit bemused at the idea that Ben White struggled against Wilfried Zaha, and the Palace man showed what he’s capable of with a cracking finish last night. Two things occurred to me: one was that I thought Virgil van Dijk was a bit half-hearted in his defending (although maybe he was worried about being turned or conceding a penalty if he’d gone in for a challenge); and the other was that Zaha didn’t have anything close to that kind of time and space against us, and that was in no small part down to the performance of our right-back.

As yet we don’t know the extent of the problem which forced White off against Leicester on Saturday, but hopefully it’s not too serious. It’s great to have Takehiro Tomiyasu back, but right now we’re not necessarily sure how he’s ready to cope with 90 minutes, or successive appearances, and what’s clear from the opening two games is that a right-back with the profile of White/Tomi suits this team far better than the alternative.

I’ve seen people worrying a bit about the right side of our attack, and with Oleksandr Zinchenko having a big impact on the left, there are some concerns that we might not be as potent on the other side. I don’t really think it’s got anything to do with the full-back situation though.

Against Palace, Martin Odegaard was untypically quiet, and his connection with Bukayo Saka wasn’t quite where it usually is. However, between them they had five shots in that game, and it was Saka who forced the own goal to give us some very welcome daylight in the final few minutes.

Odegaard was much better on Saturday against Leicester, helping glue together many of our best attacking moments, while Saka created a good chance for Granit Xhaka, and it was his shot that was saved to create a glorious opportunity for Gabriel Jesus to secure his hat-trick – but unfortunately for him he put it wide.

Obviously the left-hand side has been more effective in the first two games, but it is just two games. It’s far too early to make definitive conclusions, and it can take some players a little while to get going when a new season begins. There will come a time when things don’t quite click on the left, and we lean right (in footballing terms). For me, it’s encouraging that we’ve won both our games so well while knowing that players like Odegaard and Saka are capable of much more than we’ve seen in both those 90 minutes.

I think it’s human nature, and certainly among football fans, to look at what’s good and then worry about what we might do better, but with regards this left v right scenario, I’m pretty chilled at this moment in time. Saka and Odegaard were two of our most productive players last season, and I don’t see why that would change drastically this time around.

If I were to venture into Concern Country though, it would be the depth on the right. Reiss Nelson is out for some time with an injury, and I don’t really think he was high up the pecking order anyway. Then there’s the Nicolas Pepe situation which remains our most problematic departure issue before the window closes. I don’t really know what might have changed between the end of last season and now that would give Mikel Arteta any more faith in a player he clearly didn’t have a lot of trust in just a couple of months ago.

Pepe played just 681 Premier League minutes last season, and did not start a game after he played the 2-2 draw with Crystal Palace on October 18th 2021. Nothing tells you more about what a manager thinks of a player than how he uses him, and I’m sure on all sides there would be an acceptance that his time here hasn’t worked out the way everyone would have liked, and that it would be better to go in different directions.

The problem is we have a £72m player, on wages commensurate with that transfer fee, who has completely stagnated. Who is going to buy him? At this point the idea of a loan + obligation clause seems pretty reasonable, but I don’t even know who might be interested in that. I suspect that the arrival of the right-sided attacker is dependent on Pepe’s departure, but then we were going after Raphinha while he was still here, so let’s see.

Emile Smith Rowe came on for Saka on Saturday, and it’s possible that Fabio Vieira could slot in there too as and when needed. The Pepe Redemption Arc is also possible, albeit highly unlikely in my opinion. However, with just two weeks left of the window, we might see things start to move as the market itself will drive plenty of business before the deadline on September 1st.

Let’s leave it there for this morning. There’s podcast action over on Patreon as Phil Costa and I discuss episodes 4, 5 and 6 of All Or Nothing, check it out here.

Till tomorrow.

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