Sunday, June 16, 2024

Arsenal need another wide boy to give it large

With a six-week break until Arsenal play competitive football again, Mikel Arteta and Edu have plenty of time to plot Arsenal’s transfer strategy for January. I am not exactly sure how the meetings between the Manager, Technical Director and the Kroenkes are appointed but one imagines that there is a measure of bargaining and compromise.

The Manager and Technical Director’s jobs rely on results and the better the players they can sign, the more likely the team is to get good results. The owners want this too, of course but they hold the pursestrings and we all know the tension (healthy and unhealthy) that exists at the top of organisations over budgets.

From Arsenal’s perspective, I think Arteta and Edu were always likely to want another wide player in January, regardless of how the season unfolded. Essentially, the squad went into the season with three tried and tested wide forwards (Saka, Martinelli and Smith Rowe) and one of those has been injured for the majority of the campaign.

Bukayo Saka and Gabriel Martinelli have started every Premier League game this season. Of the club’s 21 games so far this season, in all competitions, they have appeared in 20 apiece. In elite clubs, the wide forwards are usually among the most rotated and substituted players, due to the physical demands of their position and the fact that they rely less on stability and partnerships than players through the spine of the team.

In short, both have played more football than Arsenal would probably have wanted and that probably would have been the case even if Smith Rowe had been fit. We know that the club made a big play for Raphinha this summer, so they were not blind to this pinch point in the squad.

My read is that Arsenal probably planned to sign another wide player late in the summer, once a little more squad clearance had happened and space freed. Then a couple of events conspired to change their plans. Firstly, Thomas Partey and Mohamed Elneny were both injured in the final days of the window.

That meant that, instead of chasing that last wide forward, they instead spent deadline day on a wild goose chase with Aston Villa and Douglas Luiz. There clearly would have been some expediency in signing Luiz, a good player but not one Arsenal have particularly showed interest in before.

His agent is Kia Joorabchian and Arsenal might have reasoned that, as they did with David Luiz on transfer deadline day in 2020, they could secure an emergency Brazilian through a sympathetic agent. It didn’t happen and, in hindsight, I imagine Arteta and Edu would have preferred to secure that extra wide player late in the window.

Reiss Nelson was also injured in the final days of the transfer window and this probably altered plans a little too. I am certain he would have been one of the players cleared out to make space for a new wide man. Injury put paid to a move and that probably made things a little more difficult.

Essentially, Reiss Nelson and Marquinhos have been “job sharing” that fourth wide-man role. Reiss Nelson has 65 Premier League minutes this season across two sub appearances, 64 of those came in the home game against Nottingham Forest. Marquinhos has a single Premier League minute to his name.

That tells you all that you need to know about a key shortage is in this Arsenal squad. Getting an extra wide-forward isn’t just about protecting Saka and Martinelli and mild rotation, it’s about being able to transform games from the bench. So far this season, the team hasn’t had much cause to do that, only Manchester United and Fulham have led them so far.

At Southampton and Leeds, Arsenal struggled to change the pattern of the games when they weren’t able to control the games in the second half. Occasionally, they haven’t been able to offer enough threat on the counter-attack when leading games either. Just look at the table below which shows you the minute, the score and the player that entered every time Martinelli and Saka have been substituted in the Premier League so far this season.

Martinelli substitutions Saka substitutions
3-0 (75 minutes- Nketiah)4-2 (84 minutes- Smith Rowe)
3-0 (78 minutes- Nketiah)3-0 (88 minutes- Tierney)
4-0 (63 minutes- Fabio Vieira)2-1 (88 minutes- Holding)
1-0 (89 minutes- Holding)3-0 (90+2 minutes- Marquinhos)
3-2 (90+4 minutes- Fabio Vieira)
1-0 (82 minutes- Holding)
1-0 (27 minutes- Nelson)
2-0 (90+1 minutes- Nelson)

In addition to this, it is worth stating that both stayed on v Fulham (it was 1-1 on 88 minutes), Manchester United (lost 3-1), Spurs (3-1 and a man up) and Saka came off in the 94th minute against Liverpool. Those substitutions paint a picture. None of them were about transforming Arsenal’s attacking options in a serious way. They were either about time wasting / result preservation or else just resting some weary legs with the game already won.

That shows us that Arsenal have dealt with an over reliance on Martinelli and Saka so far this season. Smith Rowe’s return from injury goes a long way to easing that but Nelson remains in the departure lounge and Arteta has already talked about a possible January loan for Marquinhos once the Europa League group stage and Carabao Cup were out of the way.

While I think Arteta and Edu (and probably the Kroenkes) were resolved to try for a wide-forward in January, the Manager and Technical Director probably now have greater leverage to up the spend. They could take a calculated gamble that Champions League qualification next season looks likely enough to start spending some of the proceeds now.

They could also reason that Arsenal might not get as good a chance as this to win the Premier League again. With the cash available to clubs like Manchester City, Chelsea and now Newcastle (Liverpool could have new owners soon too) this window might not open again for a few years.

Or else, they could use that reasoning to persuade the Kroenkes to really push the boat out and finance a new midfielder too. Partey- or more specifically the back-up to Partey- is such a single point of failure in the team and his absence during the final few weeks of last season had a devastating impact.

I think we could see how Arteta currently views Sambi Lokonga’s potential by the attempt to bring Douglas Luiz in on deadline day. Remember that Partey was only injured for three weeks (though there would have been justifiable concern about repeated injuries) while Elneny was out for just over six weeks.

Neither were especially long-term issues but it was enough to convince Arteta to re-prioritise midfield reinforcement. Sambi would probably be better off going out on loan in January to get into the rhythm of regular game time again. It must have been difficult for him to go from being Anderlecht’s captain to being a deputy player at Arsenal.

Ultimately, he looks as though he is falling into the Nuno Tavares “not quite” envelope, Elneny’s contract was only renewed for one-year last summer for good reason. Clearly Arsenal have summer 2023 earmarked for at least one heavyweight midfield acquisition and maybe there is appetite to bring that forward too? Either way, I always expected Arsenal to be active in January, the only question, in my view, is just how active they want to be.

Follow me on Twitter (while you still can) @Stillmanator

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