Thursday, November 30, 2023

The second layer

Leno, Lacazette, Cedric, Pepe, Sambi Lokonga, Martinelli, Oulad M’Hand, Swanson, Patino. That was Arsenal’s substitutes bench when they lost 2-0 at Newcastle in May and the Gunners’ Champions League qualification bid crumbled to dust. Nuno Tavares and Mohamed Elneny were starters that day; Ben White and Gabriel were not fit but were wheeled out due to a lack of alternative options.

Arsenal didn’t add to their squad last January and tried to hold what they had. They didn’t have the added complication of the Europa League at that point either. In the end, it wasn’t enough, injuries to Kieran Tierney and Thomas Partey, followed by knocks and bruises for White, Gabriel and Tomiyasu finished Arsenal’s season.

It wasn’t just the quality drop-off in the replacements that hurt the squad- though that was a significant factor. At Spurs, Cedric conceded a penalty and Rob Holding was sent off and those actions cost Arsenal the game. But games at that point of the season have a different temperature, they just do.

In April 1998, an Arsenal team in the midst of a ten-game winning streak squeaked past Derby 1-0 at Highbury in one of the tensest games I can remember at the old stadium. In April 2002, Arsenal were absolutely flying, but needed a late penalty to vanquish Spurs and further late goals to beat West Ham and Ipswich at home.

None of those teams were especially dangerous and the team came into them in great form but the pressure changed the face of each of those fixtures. That is a reality that awaits Arsenal. In April, the temperature does not just go up due to seasonal factors, we saw that last April when the Gunners lost three in a row in the Premier League.

This January, Arsenal have found themselves in a position that even they didn’t expect to be in. They tried to harness the momentum of their unexpected title charge with big ticket signings like Mudryk and Caicedo. Those are difficult deals to do in January. During the summer, it was the first eleven that Arteta and Edu really sought to improve.

Zinchenko and Jesus were first eleven signings, Saliba’s return impacted the starting eleven. It was much the same in the summer of 2021, Ramsdale, White, Odegaard and Tomiyasu were starting players. In Tavares and Sambi Lokonga in the summer of 2021 and Fabio Vieira in the summer of 2022, the club tried to look after the future a little and to build the second layer of the squad.

Circumstance has dictated that this January, it is the second layer of the squad that Arsenal are building again. Squads do not improve with “could do a job” players. Players who emerge on the pitch smiling in their tracksuits after big victories content enough to be at a club like Arsenal to not worry about a lack of game time.

The first principle of squad building is that you buy players who can, at the very least, challenge for a starting position. With those depth players, always ask yourself, ‘if the main guy is out for six months, am I happy with him playing for an extended spell?’ Once you introduce that level of competition, your main men become your second layer.

The arrivals of Saliba and Zinchenko have pushed Tierney and Tomiyasu, previously indispensable starters, into that second layer of the squad. Tierney and Tomiyasu are better than Tavares and Cedric, last season’s depth players. Had Mudryk arrived, maybe Martinelli becomes the second layer player, maybe Caicedo makes Xhaka a second layer player?

That is what Arsenal tried to do, that was their principal aim for January. However, as Mick Jagger once warbled, you can’t always get what you want. In the circumstances, Edu and Arteta pivoted and thickened out that second layer of the onion. At this moment in time, if everyone is fit, Leandro Trossard, Jorginho and Jakub Kiwior would not start for Arsenal.

If the Europa League Final was tomorrow and everyone was fit, all three of those players would be on the bench. However, if there was an injury and one or more of them had to start, you wouldn’t wince like you did when Tavares, Cedric, Holding and Elneny were in the same starting line-up when the pressure was applied last spring.

Unlike last season, Arsenal are in Europe this spring. They could go deep into the Europa League. It strikes me that in Tomiyasu, Tierney, Kiwior, Jorginho, Trossard, Smith Rowe and Nketiah, the squad has a safety net it didn’t have a year ago. It would have been better to buy players who can improve the first eleven but in the circumstances, the depth did need addressing.

Of course, in some areas of a squad, it’s just not possible to have like-for-like replacements unless you have a nation state bankrolling you. Liverpool have never had a good alternative for Salah or van Dijk. Arsenal have never had a good analogue for Saka and they have grappled with finding a good back-up for Thomas Partey too.

One determination I have come to is that being Thomas Partey’s alternative is not a role for a young man. Positions in the spine of the team require regularity and rhythm. I think you can develop Martinelli, Smith Rowe, Nketiah and even Saka with cameos and rotation appearances initially, the attack is more fluid and more given to flow states. Central midfield, centre-half and goalkeeper are not the same.

In my view, the principle reason that Sambi Lokonga did not develop at Arsenal is game time. When Partey is fit, Partey plays and he plays the full 90 minutes. William Saliba developed out on loan, where he could play week in week out in Ligue 1. Young central defenders and centre-halves don’t develop as back-ups- ask Rob Holding and Calum Chambers.

It’s part of the reason why Arteta pivoted to using Mohamed Elneny as Partey’s deputy, it is a role for a more experienced player. In general, I think Partey’s role is one for a more experienced campaigner but, the club also has to consider that if the Ghanaian stays fit, his back up won’t play and that is more impactful for 23-year-old Lokonga than it is 31-year-old Jorginho.

However, I think Jorginho can certainly play Europa League knockout games, maybe ahead of Partey, without anyone tugging at their forelock. Jorginho also has potential as a ‘finisher’ of games in my view, maybe if Arsenal have a narrow lead in a big game and want someone to aid the ‘300,000 passes in the opposition third’ that Arteta is keen on to maintain control over games.

The attraction of Caicedo, in my view, was that he could potentially fill in for Partey and Xhaka in the short-term and, in the long-term, take over from one of those players. Jorginho will not be executing the latter of those functions but he can do the former and he understands the temperature of an away fixture at Manchester City in April.

It’s Plan B stuff, no doubt but I don’t think it enervates Plan A. I recall the Arsene Wenger days when not doing Plan A often meant doing nothing at all and while no signing is better than making a bad one, that lack of contingency often stung Arsenal at the business end of the season. I am glad that the club has become less risk averse in that sense but without tipping into largesse out of panic.

Follow me on Twitter @Stillmanator

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