A mid-season break of this magnitude is almost unprecedented in top-flight English football. The covid enforced break from March until June 2020 might have given some clubs an inkling of how exactly to re-heat players who have been thawing for a little while. For those returning from Qatar, from a very different environment in both the geographical and football respects, clubs have less of an idea of what to expect.
How quickly can they re-adapt to their club environment? How fit will they be? How will going from playing in temperatures of 30+ degrees to the low single digits in swift succession impact them? What about the psychological impact of playing at the World Cup? If Arsenal have some World Cup winners in their ranks come December, would those players find it difficult to recalibrate, as Per Mertesacker confessed that he did in 2014?
What if there is a big trauma? At least when Bukayo Saka missed the crucial penalty in the Euro 2020 Final, he was on the beach quickly afterwards. Gabriel Jesus, for instance, was enormously impacted by the criticism he faced back home after failing to score at the 2018 World Cup? What if Arsenal welcome losing finalists back into their midst in December?
There are so many unknowns but one of the things that Arteta and his coaching staff will have to entertain is that the second half of the season is likely to be more of a squad effort than the first half was. Arsenal made the fewest starting line-up changes of any team in the Premier League in the first 14 games and that is a significant part of the reason they are top of the table.
That continuity is likely to be disrupted. If Arsenal have finalists at the World Cup, it seems inconceivable that they could be available to play at home to West Ham eight days later, for instance. That means some squad players are almost certainly going to be required to play a big part in the season from now on, especially if the team go deep in the Europa League and continue to top the table.
Emile Smith Rowe
Arsenal both have and haven’t missed Emile Smith Rowe since he underwent surgery on a troublesome groin issue in early September. They haven’t as far as the results go but they have because his absence has led to an over-reliance on Gabriel Martinelli and Bukayo Saka, which I wrote about here a few weeks ago.
Given that the club made a very big play for Raphinha during the summer, we can assume that Arteta felt his squad was one top-quality wide player short even before Smith Rowe’s injury. Arsenal have some “player 12” types who are currently high-level squad options, like Tomiyasu and Tierney and Smith Rowe very much falls into that category.
He was the club’s leading scorer last season and rotated frequently with Gabriel Martinelli on the left flank, in fact, it was the only area of the team that didn’t feel fixed down in 2021-22. It’s not just a question of numbers in terms of starting games, Arsenal haven’t really had a lot of attacking options on the bench to change the course of a game.
Eddie Nketiah has fallen out of the rhythm he discovered at the end of last season and Fábio Vieira is still adjusting to the team and the league. Smith Rowe can do more than just help Saka and Martinelli to rest their weary legs, he can challenge and compete for a role and he has the potential to be able to change games from the bench too as one of Arteta’s “finishers.”
Arsenal have only trailed twice in the Premier League so far this season; they haven’t really needed to transform the pattern of a game too often. That pattern will not hold indefinitely, however. Smith Rowe will be an absolutely crucial player for the squad during the second half of the campaign.
At the moment, the writing feels as though, if not exactly on the wall, like the stencil is being primed. He is firmly behind Oleksandr Zinchenko at left-back and, even more troublingly for him, Takehiro Tomiyasu has moved ahead of him in the pecking order. I went into detail about why this is a few weeks back.
The question is whether Kieran Tierney can become the sort of left-back that Arteta really seems to favour, or whether his more natural style will come back into Arsenal fashion. Essentially, the manager largely wants both his full-back to be behind the play. Maybe the return of Emile Smith Rowe as an option for the left-side could boost his profile.
Smith Rowe likes to dribble inside and that potentially makes room for an overlapping full-back. Martinelli doesn’t seem to need this kind of facility. For Scotland, Tierney has learned to co-exist as a more restrained presence with Andy Robertson and for Arsenal, having three incredibly trustworthy left-backs is a very nice position to be in and a stark contrast to last season.
If Arsenal advance in the Europa League, Tierney won’t want for overall minutes, as he hasn’t really so far this season- it’s just a question of whether they are the minutes he really, really wants. Overall, it’s difficult to escape the conclusion that Tierney might represent Arsenal’s first “cash-in” option for an attractive player for some time. It remains to be seen whether he can alter that path in 2023.
Nketiah was one of Arsenal’s star players during the run-in to the 2021-22 season, earning him a new contract and a new squad number. He hasn’t been able to replicate that form going into 2022-23 and that shouldn’t represent a big surprise. I admit to expecting the Europa League group stage to be more bountiful for him than just the solitary goal, scored in the opening group game.
I think his run of scoring form in the spring surprised most people but the distinction between then and now is two-fold. Firstly, we were watching his performances through the eyes of a set of supporters who had become accustomed to Alex Lacazette’s increasingly lumbering presence. To both his teammates and the supporters, he looked positively electric in comparison. He breathed fresh life into a stale and tired attack.
More pointedly, he was playing regularly with the ‘first team.’ He was flanked by Saka and Martinelli and in front of Odegaard. The Europa League group stages haven’t offered him the same luxury and, sometimes, not even the same position as he was asked to operate on the flank on a couple of occasions.
The group stage has offered some of the back-ups a less disjointed schedule of football with the calendar so compressed but it’s very different playing with a far less creative and disjointed ‘B Team.’ Arsenal’s ‘A-Team’ are going to need Nketiah at some point- possibly in their next game. This time our eyes and expectations will be more attuned to Gabriel Jesus and stepping into his shoes will be a stiffer challenge than dislodging Lacazette’s clunky Timberlands.