During approximately the middle of Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal reign, Arsenal fans and the wider football landscape developed a shared sense of what “an Arsene Wenger player” looked and felt like. Usually they would be a reasonably small playmaker who preferred to play as a number 10 but would likely be pushed out wide because of the proliferation of small number 10s already available to Arsenal.
At the beginning of the 2014-15 season, Wenger struggled to shape a midfield out of Cazorla, Ozil, Wilshere and Ramsey (the latter was probably not quite the same prototype) due to a lack of variety. In my view, this was the main reason that he opted not to re-sign Cesc Fabregas in the summer of 2014- he already had too many similar types of players to assimilate.
During this period, Ozil played on the left wing, much to the disgruntlement of many fans and pundits. In 2007-08, Wenger judged the alchemy rather better, he was able to indulge the creative talents of Rosicky, Hleb and Fabregas in midfield, buttressed by the steely underbelly of Mathieu Flamini.
Players like Hleb, Rosicky, Cazorla, Nasri and Arshavin came to define that mid-Wenger period. Midfielders who had primarily been considered creative number 8 types like Denilson and Mikel Arteta were repurposed at the base of midfield. For better and for worse, the manager had a ‘type.’
We are now just over three years into Mikel Arteta’s Arsenal reign and, I think, we are beginning to develop a sense of what ‘an Arteta player’ looks and feels like. There are themes and tropes that bind a lot of the players he has brought in since the summer of 2021, which I view as a kind of break point when the Arteta project really hit the right track.
Ben White is a centre-half that now plays at right-back having also played in defensive midfield at previous clubs. Takehiro Tomiyasu is a very two-footed player who you can plug in and play across the back four (though, curiously, he has yet to feature at centre-half for Arsenal).
Fabio Vieira’s Porto career was defined by his positional nomadic-ness. He has already featured as a right eight, a right winger, a left eight and a false nine during his inaugural Arsenal season. Oleksandr Zinchenko is a left-back who only frequents that corner of the pitch on a freelance basis.
Gabriel Jesus is the striker who pops up absolutely everywhere and is world class in just about every aspect of the game except finishing- which you would expect to be the archetypal trait of a centre-forward with the number nine on his back. One of the key principles of Arteta’s tactical philosophy is that players play in areas rather than positions.
For the team to remain unpredictable, especially in an attacking sense, that positional play relies on a sense of interchangeability. Martinelli swaps with the striker, Xhaka swaps with Zinchenko, Saka and Odegaard often blur the margins of their positions in a flurry of flicks and wall passes.
Sometimes Ben White overlaps on the right, sometimes he tucks in into midfield. Zinchenko has a license to roam previously associated with a luxury playmaker. Fluidity and rotation (the front five players) held into place by a solid defensive structure behind the ball (the back five players).
During the first half of the season, it was increasingly clear that Arsenal needed another forward to add to their carousel, particularly with Emile Smith Rowe’s injury. In January, having failed to add Ukrainian wonderkid Mykhailo Mudryk, Arsenal unleashed Plan B and bought Leandro Trossard from Brighton.
I submit that Trossard might just be the first signing of the Arteta era that made me instantly think, “yes, that is an Arteta player.” His attacking versatility, technique in tight spaces and two-footedness ticked all the boxes. (Arteta often fields five left-footed and five right-footed players in his starting line-ups).
I viewed the signing of Trossard as similar to Liverpool’s purchase of Diogo Jota in September 2020. Liverpool had a very settled front-line but struggled to acquire good support to that famous front three. Jota was a Premier League ready signing who could comfortably play across the front line, which made him the ideal support player.
yeah I would like the sound of this, I think the best way for "depth" players is to be able to play a few different positions so they stay involved, as much as anything.
— Tim Stillman (@Stillmanator) June 10, 2022
Trossard is a very similar acquisition for Arsenal. To date, his most precious contributions have come at centre-forward, though I do not rule out him playing just as effectively on either flank or one of the eight positions when needed in the future. Not least because Trossard is not really a player who plays in a position, he plays in areas.
Even before Eddie Nketiah’s recent injury, Trossard came into the centre-forward position and freshened up a forward line that had begun to look predictable and containable. Trossard didn’t facilitate this by being a good centre-forward, per se, but by being a good forward.
He intrinsically understands the fluid nature of Arsenal’s forward line and adding the Belgian to the Arsenal symphony has really got a tune out of Gabriel Martinelli again. With Nketiah upfront, Martinelli looked isolated and predictable. With Trossard in the forward line, well, just look at the goals the Brazilian has scored.
His header against Fulham and his close-range finish against Everton weren’t exactly scored from the left touchline. At Craven Cottage, Trossard peels into the left channel and scoops a cross into the area where Martinelli is primed in the six-yard area like a modern Mark Hateley.
Trossard’s ‘area’ has, broadly speaking, been that inside left position and that was the exact area where Arsenal’s productivity had begun to dry up. I wouldn’t rule out the possibility that Trossard could do something similar in any of the other forward positions if and when required.
Trossard’s pliability makes him the archetypal ‘Arteta player’, like a plumber for Arsenal’s forward line, fixing leaks and keeping the water flowing in the right direction. Being this kind of tactical freelancer for a team or a squad is a delicate balance too.
Some players can get lost in the fug of versatility, like Ainsley Maitland-Niles, his career defined by a lack of definition. Emile Smith Rowe might be looking at the current squad and beginning to wonder whether he is in danger of submitting to a similar malaise. There is a fine line between being everywhere and being everywhere and nowhere.
If Arsenal were playing in the Champions League final tomorrow and all their attackers were fully fit, Trossard probably wouldn’t start the game. He would certainly play a part in it, however. In the event that any of the front four were unavailable he would be the prime candidate to step in for any one of them. In this sense, he is every inch an Arteta player.
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