Sunday, September 25, 2022

It’s Going To Be A Big 2022-23 For…

2022-23 gets under way on Friday evening and, as is now traditional, I have decided to pick three players for whom this coming campaign feels especially pivotal. I’ve written about a lot of the players individually already this summer so at the risk of turning this into an itinerary, here are articles already published about individuals during pre-season.

Eddie Nketiah
Emile Smith Rowe
Gabriel Jesus
Gabriel Martinelli

I’ll spare those particular players from the scalpel for this particular article (I am sure they will all be relieved to learn that). Here are three players for whom 2022-23 represents something of a crossroads.

Martin ODEGAARD
The Norwegian playmaker has now been confirmed as the new club captain. My position on captaincy is that it largely doesn’t matter other than in specific circumstances. I think you can give it to the wrong player for the wrong reasons and Arsenal have done that plenty of times in recent years, increasing the uncharitable scrutiny on certain characters.

I also think you can give it to the right player for the right reasons. I am thinking of when Cesc Fabregas was appointed the Arsenal captain in the winter of 2008. He relished that responsibility, it was the final confirmation that the keys of the team belonged firmly in his washbag. Sometimes that dependence was unhealthy but the player himself undoubtedly warranted it and rose to it.

I think Odegaard is a superb player who enjoyed an excellent season in 2021-22- particularly after briefly losing his place in October of last year. Seven goals and four assists was a decent return for his first full Premier League season. However, I think Martin Odegaard is significantly better than ‘decent.’

I think there is a good argument that he is Arsenal’s most naturally talented player (Saka and Gabriel Jesus might wade in on that argument). I want to see more from Odegaard this season and I fancy that making him captain is one of several avenues of juicing all of his talent.

The more obvious avenue for that is an improved attack. Gabriel Jesus has been described as a rising tide in Arsenal terms and Odegaard is one of the boats that he can help to lift. Mikel Arteta referenced this himself in the wake of the victory over Sevilla, “I think he makes Gabby better and he needs a threat in front of him because he’s a player that can find the last pass at any moment. When he’s in close or open spaces, we need someone to make him look better.”

Aubameyang and Lacazette were static caravans in their own way- Jesus’ engine is always revving. His movement ought to create the ability for players to swap positions in attack too, with the likes of Martinelli, Saka and Smith Rowe able to interchange and orbit around him. All of this ought to excite and activate Odegaard’s radar.

The Norwegian’s early career promise stalled due to an ill-advised move to Real Madrid and the lack of routine that brought. With 18 months under his belt at Arsenal, he now finds a more settled environment, in a team where he is now not only a main player but now he is the captain of this young group. I think he is absolutely the right choice but the proof has to be in the pudding.

Kieran TIERNEY
Arsenal spent some time courting Lisandro Martinez this summer, a player who plays at left-back and centre-half. Having failed in that pursuit, they moved onto Oleksandr Zinchenko, who plays at left-back and in central-midfield. There is one position that links those two targets.

You have to assume that the ‘left-back’ part was the deal breaker for Mikel Arteta. Kieran Tierney has been a really popular recruit since arriving from Celtic in 2019. He has also been an oft-injured one. Last season, he wore the captain’s armband when Alex Lacazette was subbed but has been overlooked for the full-time appointment.

There are reasonable explanations for all of these things, most of which come down to his fitness. He is not available for the beginning of the season as Arsenal seek to ease him into full fitness (and with Zinchenko on board, they can afford to make such a call), which forms part of the captaincy decision. His injuries in the springs of 2021 and 2022 have helped to derail Arsenal’s respective seasons, it makes sense to build better contingency at left-back.

In many respects, Tierney’s biggest challenge is his own body. He has to be available in April and May 2023 and maybe he has to listen to his body a little more and eschew the ‘grin and bear it’ philosophy. More worryingly for him, I think there is an indication that Arteta just wants something different from his left-back.

Tierney is a left-back who plays like a converted winger. Zinchenko is a left-back who plays like a converted central-midfielder. Martinez is a left-back who plays like a converted centre-half. In other words, Arteta has clearly sought another left-back who can be effective in the half spaces, whereas the touchline is Tierney’s preferred hunting ground.

It could be that Arteta is trying to create greater tactical flexibility and, to some extent, that is certainly true. However, there is a nagging feeling that maybe the team is evolving away from the Scot’s main attributes. Ultimately, we’ll never know for sure unless he is fit to play. That is his first challenge this season, the rest will be realised in the fullness of time. If he suffers another injury-ravaged campaign, Arsenal might be inclined to slash and burn next summer.

Aaron RAMSDALE
Chronology is an under-valued factor in football. When Arsenal signed Ramsdale last summer, there were plenty of doubts over his ability. The Gunners already had Bernd Leno, who fans were happy enough with between the sticks. The need for a goalkeeper did not seem especially high on the transfer wishlist and Ramsdale already had two Premier League relegations on his CV.

Sometimes you cannot see what a team is missing until someone comes in and shows you. Ramsdale’s extroverted character was needed in an Arsenal defence high on technical acumen but perhaps low in the clenched jaw stakes. His long distribution immediately gave Arsenal another gear in their exit strategy from the back.

Most of all, Ramsdale quickly convinced fans with his more routine goalkeeping duties, crowned by a gravity defying stop away at Leicester City last October. From there, Arsenal fans were queuing up to admit hasty judgement. You usually find that this sort of phenomenon snowballs very quickly, England fans might recall the incredibly swift reversal of public opinion on Owen Hargreaves in 2006. Once the machine whirrs, it really whirrs.

Ramsdale tailed off at the end of last season but escaped harsh scrutiny because the dye of public opinion had been cast. As politicians will tell you, you can only publicly u-turn once, otherwise you are just going round in a circle. Changing your opinion once shows an openness to critical thought; changing it again makes it look like you don’t know your own mind.

Had Ramsdale’s form last season been traversed, a slow start followed by a strong finish, I am sure we would have seen the opposite result occur. Many would have felt vindicated by a slow start and would have been slow to change their vista as the season progressed. The question is whether Ramsdale’s slight tail-off was down to fatigue- physical or mental- the overbearing sense that the team just suffered too many injuries and he was a victim of a deteriorating unit, or….

…Did he just regress to the mean? I am more convinced by the former explanations than the latter but, again, that theory remains unsubstantiated until we are into the bump and grind of the season. Ramsdale needs to show that the form we saw in the autumn and winter was his true self and that the spring model had some bags under his eyes that a restful summer has been able to dislodge.

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