Monday, November 28, 2022

Saka, wing-depth, and October …

Morning all.

I didn’t watch England play Germany last night, but my Twitter timeline was awash with Bukayo Saka chat, after he came on and helped England overturn a 2-0 deficit – although ultimately the game finished 3-3. It always helps when you play him in the position in which he’s most effective – although I can understand why, to some extent at least, he’s used elsewhere.

It’s because he is exceptionally good, and we have seen him play well as a wing-back, as a left-sided attacker, and I still wonder if, at some point, he might play more centrally. He’s definitely got the quality to do it in my opinion, but that might be a decision which depends on what it does to the balance of the team. I had a slight suspicion that the pursuit of Raphinha this summer was the precursor to that happening – but ultimately that didn’t happen and we need Saka on the right.

I’ve seen plenty of discussion about Saka’s form this season, and while I cannot agree with any kind of assertion that he’s been poor, I wouldn’t argue against one that says we’ve seen better from him. All the same, he has a goal and four assists in seven games so far, and I think he could have had more in each section too. Perhaps a little more conviction with one or two chances, better finishing from one or two passes, and we’d be looking at VERY healthy numbers instead of just quite decent ones.

The interesting thing about Saka now is the level of expectation, coupled with that importance he has on the right. He has become both fundamental to the side and very productive – especially when you consider he only turned 21 at the start of September. He was our leading goalscorer last season, but I think that was as much down to our lack of firepower at centre-forward for most of the campaign. This time around, I suspect Gabriel Jesus will outscore him, but people still look at the numbers he did last time around and use them as a kind of benchmark.

In total he had 19 goal involvements: 11 goals and 7 assists in the Premier League, plus 1 EFL Cup goal. Regardless of how many of each he gets this time around, we’re going to need similar numbers again if we want to continue our progress, and unfortunately there’s a bit more of a burden on him right now because we’re missing what Emile Smith Rowe brought last season too. Gabriel Martinelli is doing very well on the left, but October is going to test this squad to its physical limits and one of those positions is a bit of a problem.

On the right, Marquinhos might well be an option we didn’t really think we were going to have, but we’re basing that on one, admittedly very good, performance. What was striking about the team selection against FC Zurich, was the fact that Martinelli started on the left and played the full 90 minutes. We can’t play him for 9 games in 30 days, so it’s important Arteta finds some kind of solution.

Hopefully, Smith Rowe can regain some fitness quickly, because that’s the most obvious answer to this particular problem. Beyond that, I’m looking at the squad and thinking we’re going to have to put more minutes into players we’d much prefer to be resting. Using Eddie Nketiah in the middle and playing Gabriel Jesus out wide is far from ideal, but there’s not much else unless the manager puts some genuine faith in an Academy talent. It might be a case that the best solution is using the 5 subs rule as best we can to manage the minutes we put into the players during this hectic period – while keeping fingers crossed we don’t pick up any more injuries. Let’s see!

Finally for today, the Raul Sanllehi interview in The Athletic came up for more in-depth discussion on the latest Arsecast Extra, so you can check that out below for more. Just to say briefly though, it was amusing – to say the least – that he was critical of the current set-up which is now working, albeit after going through some turbulent times, while maintaining his was preferable.

The confirmation of what I’d long suspected, that Sanllehi was the man who drove the Unai Emery appointment, was the most interesting part, and with all due respect to the former head coach, he was absolutely the wrong man at the wrong club at the wrong time, and there are still lots of questions about the involvement of certain agents in that decision. Not to mention his reluctance to make a change when it became so obvious that needed to happen.

Sanllehi’s Arsenal was a Frankenstein’s monster, a club going nowhere with no plan or no direction. We’ve come quite a long way since, through some difficult periods no question, but there’s no doubt in my mind if Raul was still here, we’d be floundering and much, much further away from where we need to be. Criticism of Arteta as ‘manager’ only stands up if what you were doing was beneficial, and for Arsenal football club at least, it was anything but.

Listen to the pod below, as we also discuss Thomas Partey, the Interlull, the dodgy graphics in FIFA 23, and much more. Till tomorrow.

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