As we head into the second half of the season, the challenges ahead of us seem pretty obvious.
Keeping winning. Keep Man City at arms length if possible. Keep players fit. Deal with the added physical pressure that could come with a run in the Europa League. Thankfully, there’s a lot of ‘keep’ in there – in that we’re not trying to reinvent the wheel or anything. We don’t need to do anything too drastic, and we should have confidence because the way we played for most of the first half of the campaign has been more than good enough.
The Europa League is an interesting one to consider, because I know for many this is a competition which can … erm … get in the sea, basically. I completely understand why. Even if our European trophy cabinet is smaller than it should be for a club like Arsenal, I don’t think anyone would swap that for the Premier League title this time around.
Nevertheless, I think it could be useful in its own way. There are good players in this squad who aren’t playing as often as they would like, so for them it’s a chance to get minutes under their belts. Competitive minutes too. Players are happiest when they are playing, so on that basis alone it will serve an interesting purpose.
It also means that some of these guys, when called upon for Premier League games, aren’t coming in completely cold. As the season goes on, you can bet your bottom dollar that we’ll have absences through injury and suspension. That’s just part and parcel of a league season, and for the most part I think we have the required depth to cope. I don’t know about you, but I’d like the players who are needed to have some recent football under their belts, perhaps even some good performances, so they can play with rhythm and confidence.
This time around Mikel Arteta’s options are much better, much more suited to the way he wants to play. When you consider the fact that last season’s two first choice fullbacks – Kieran Tierney and Takehiro Tomiyasu – have been ‘second choice’ for most of this season, tells you plenty. You’re not forced to choose someone like Cedric who, with all due respect to him, wasn’t anywhere near the first choice option. Now, as Ben White seems to dealing with a slight dip in form, the manager can – if he chooses – confidently decide to give him a bit of a rest and play Tomiyasu, rather than sticking and hoping he plays his way through it.
This brings me to another challenge, not so much for the team but for Arteta: using the depth to create some variety in selection and approach. For most of last season, and for a good chunk of this one, there has been a consistency of selection which means we can all basically name the starting XI before the game. The benefits of that have been obvious – look at where we are in the table – and you could very well take the ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ route.
Which is fine. Except there will be days when it doesn’t work, as we saw against Everton at the weekend. Days when you have to make changes because of injury and suspension. And, perhaps, days when the element of tactical surprise might actually be a bit useful. Can we give teams something different to think about? Something they’re not expecting? It doesn’t always have to be from the start, but can you implement some in-game changes that present the opposition with difficulties?
When Gabriel Jesus returns, we’ll have a singular player who can give us a lot in the final third. I feel like every time we talk about him we have to make the caveat that Eddie Nketiah has done well, and he definitely has, but Jesus has something extra. That’s not a criticism of Eddie, it’s just acknowledging the talent of the Brazilian. The ability to play the two strikers if we’re chasing a game might be very useful too.
What role can we find for Emile Smith Rowe when he’s fit – and what does his talent allow Arteta to do from the bench? He can play wide, but we’ve got Gabriel Martinelli and Leandro Trossard for that role on the left, which suggests Smith Rowe could well be earmarked for something more central. How does Fabio Vieira start to make his mark at the club? Are there games or scenarios when you could deploy both him and Martin Odegaard as the 8s to give you that high-platform of craft and creativity that might be necessary to break down a team that is sitting deep in a low block? How can Tierney and Zinchenko interchange (although we have seen a bit of that this season)?
I’m sure this is something Mikel Arteta has thought about – but last season he couldn’t change his starting XI because he didn’t have the options, and this season has hasn’t really had to. But form fluctuates, individually and collectively, and I think it’s something he’ll have deal with more between now and May. Like so many things in the months ahead, I’m so interested to see what he does and how effective it is.
Right, that’s your lot for this morning. Have a good one. For a bit of watching/listening, I was on a good chat last night with Tom from The Gooner Talk, along with Clive and Kevin Campbell. Check it out below.