Arsenal’s pace of 50 points from their first 19 games was unlikely to be totally sustainable for the second half of the season. The question was and remains whether Arsenal could maintain a good enough pace to stay on top of the table. Dominant performances and deserved victories over Spurs and Manchester United in January made it feel as though the Gunners had the momentum to take the title.
Since then, they have unquestionably hit a wall, taking one point from their last three games. While you always felt Arsenal’s runaway pace would be checked slightly in 2023, ideally you would want the impact of that to be more spread out- the odd draw here and there, maybe taking a bloody nose from one of the bigger teams in one of the more daunting fixtures.
Naturally, this leads us to the question of whether Arsenal have been ‘found out’ by their opponents. The signings of Zinchenko and Jesus and the return from loan of William Saliba transformed the way the team plays this season. Jesus’ extreme mobility gave the attack wings it didn’t previously have.
Zinchenko’s inversion from left-back added numbers in midfield and provided a total contrast to what Kieran Tierney had offered from the position prior to that. Saliba’s ability to defend space allowed Arsenal to commit numbers into more advanced positions.
Granit Xhaka produced a surprise turn as an advanced midfielder, picking up spaces in the left channel that he had rarely plundered before. Xhaka enjoyed a wonderful first half of the season but his productivity has slowed recently, culminating in his ponderousness on the edge of the Manchester City area on Wednesday night which eventually saw City break away to score.
I think even when Xhaka was excelling in that role, everyone could see the left eight role coming close to the top of the shopping list. Xhaka has not been as effective there recently because the ‘left-pod’ of the team has been impacted by the absence of Gabriel Jesus.
I wrote last week about how Jesus’ absence has negatively impacted Martinelli’s game and the situation is similar for Xhaka. The left-pod of the team is a little more static and predictable without Jesus zooming in and out of it like the road runner on amphetamines.
The combinations and the relationships are just not the same and that has made it easier for teams like Everton and Brentford to shackle Arsenal. City have managed it twice in recent weeks too, albeit one of those occasions was an FA Cup game with a rotated Gunners side.
Leandro Trossard was added in the January transfer window to add some depth in that area and I think his inclusion will grow in the coming weeks, as Arteta looks for a spark plug to jolt his team back into life. I do wonder whether the manager will be tempted to try him, at least for the latter portion of a game, in Xhaka’s left eight position.
Xhaka is neither the most deadly or creative midfielder and it’s an advanced role where, at least sometimes, Arsenal need more of a lock picker. I think having Trossard, Martinelli and Zinchenko nice and close together in that area could go some way to amending for Jesus’ absence in that space.
Nketiah doesn’t really drift into the wide spaces, he stays central which means Arsenal have gone from having potentially three and a half players overloading on that side to two and a half. I think Trossard could potentially push the dial up more towards three in that area if Arsenal want to crank the heat up in the final third of a game.
Fabio Vieira still looks to be in an adaption phase and hasn’t really been able to make a claim for that role. As the weeks creep by I am less sure that Emile Smith Rowe has a long-term future at the club due to his fitness issues. The recent purchases of Vieira and Trossard ought to sound alarm bells for him.
ESR has only really played the left central midfield role once, theoretically the manager might consider him to be another game changing option in that position but there is no way of testing that theory while he remains on the treatment table. Arsenal are still building that second layer of their squad.
I am minded of Jurgen Klopp’s quote from his Borussia Dortmund days, “We have a bow and arrow, if we aim it well we can do some damage but Bayern has a bazooka.” Arsenal are in a similar situation up against Manchester City, they can’t hold a candle to City when it comes to squad depth.
To compete, Arsenal were always going to need good luck with injuries. Gabriel Jesus was a significant piece to lose from the team but one Arsenal could just about tolerate in isolation. That Thomas Partey continues to watch the club’s biggest games in a tracksuit is another issue that will need to be addressed come the summer.
I think Arteta will be less inclined to make the mistake Arsene Wenger made in waiting for Abou Diaby and Jack Wilshere to become the hub of the club’s midfield for several seasons. Arsenal’s strength across this season has been consistency of selection- they have made fewer starting line-up changes than any other team in the Premier League.
Teams with that consistency tend to go well in the league but it also brings a danger of predictability and it’s difficult to escape the feeling that a blueprint is forming for quelling a Jesus-less Arsenal. Arteta has a very delicate job ahead of him- to try to find a spark and evolve his team in the coming weeks without throwing out the baby with the bathwater.
As fans, in our heads, when we propose changes, we tend to only consider the strong points of the player we want to come into the team and we just imagine that we only lose the flaws of the player we take out. Arteta could play Kieran Tierney ahead of Zinchenko to give Arsenal greater width on the left side.
However, we have to acknowledge that we would lose the good things Zinchenko brings in doing so. Even in my Trossard for Xhaka example, I have to acknowledge that Arsenal would risk losing some stability in that position- which is why I would only really be keen to see it in the final third of a game Arsenal might be chasing.
There is a fine line between tweaking your team and thrashing around for solutions and that is a line Arteta will need to tread in the coming weeks. In my head, Gabriel Jesus’ return fixes a lot of the team’s current issues but even that simple version of reality (no pressure, Gabi) is at least a few weeks away yet.
This is where coaches really earn their money. Will Arsenal become the sort of team that can tweak and pick at the edges, in the way Guardiola does with City? Do they become a little like Klopp’s peak Liverpool team were and execute Plan A so well that it doesn’t really matter whether opponents know what’s coming? I don’t know at the moment; but I think we will have a better idea in the coming weeks.
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