Wednesday, May 22, 2024

The next step

At the Etihad on Wednesday evening, Arsenal were ruthlessly taken apart by the team that, at the time of writing, they still lead in the Premier League table. Writing this on the train back from Manchester, that lead feels a little illusory at the moment and it is almost certainly temporary now.

Manchester City are almost certainly the best team in Europe and stand an excellent chance of winning the treble, they have resources and advantages that we can all comprehend and understand. I am minded again of Juergen Klopp’s quote while coaching Borussia Dortmund.

‘We have a bow and arrow, if we aim it right we can do good things but Bayern has a bazooka.’ City have essentially turned the Premier League into an English Bundesliga and though Liverpool did an excellent job of providing a stiff challenge to their premiership, we can all see now how unsustainable that effort proved to be.

There probably is a need for honesty- usurping City in the Premier League is going to be close to impossible for the foreseeable future. However, that is the level and I am sure that Arsenal already knew what the next steps of their squad build would be well before de Bruyne and chums cut a team depleted of key personnel and confidence to ribbons on Wednesday. So how do they best use their bow and arrow now?

Any club sizing up their summer business has to start by looking at their first eleven. I think the midfield was probably always the next department earmarked for a nip and a tuck- the respective ages of Xhaka and Partey make that a necessity if nothing else. I find the links to Declan Rice both logical and exciting.

One of Partey’s great strengths is his ability to buffer the defence by striding onto loose balls in the midfield, gobbling them up before regurgitating them to his teammates. Rice is a ball-winning machine who carries the ball brilliantly and I think he is tailor made for this role. If that is a signing Arsenal can make I think that would represent a Gabriel Jesus like uptick in a key department.

I still have a feeling that Arteta would like to add one more explosive wide player. The toll on Martinelli and Saka has been too great this season. We know that Arteta wanted both Raphinha and Mudryk and i think therein lies a clue as to the type of wide attacker Arteta would like to have in his tool belt. Call it a Reiss Nelson upgrade if you will.

Almost as important, however, is to thicken out the level below the starting eleven. This season Arsenal more or less surrendered the Carabao Cup, FA Cup and the Europa League- personally I was totally fine with this level of pragmatism but it has to be a one-season only deal. Arsenal will not have the liberty of putting out scratch elevens in the Champions League and next season, I would like to think Arsenal could back themselves to take on a domestic competition too- or at least not write the possibility off.

That means a few more Trossards, Tomiyasus and Jorginhos. We all understand, I think, how the ‘cluster injuries’ to Saliba and Tomiyasu depleted the team because the drop off to players 18, 19 and 20 was too large. Last season Arsenal really only had 12 first team ready players and were carrying a below average striker.

This season they have pushed that number up 15 or 16 and Saliba, Zinchenko and Jesus increased the quality of the starting team. This summer it needs to push again towards 18-20 trusted players. There will probably be some churn at that second layer, players like Tierney and Smith Rowe, who are good players who have either lost the manager’s trust or else just don’t fit any longer probably need to be sold and replaced by players that Arteta would happily rotate in and out of the team.

With a greater pool of trusted players, I think Arsenal could push onto the next tactical level which is to be able to tailor their approach slightly when necessary. These things take time and a team has to walk before it can run. But one of the notable things about Manchester City is how they have been able to wear different outfits for different parties.

They can pass, run or just batter their way through you, they can slightly adjust player positions (Bernardo Silva at left-back anyone?) when they spot a weakness in an opponent. Kevin de Bruyne spoke after the game on Wednesday about the adjustment that City made in midfield to expose the specific space Arsenal leave in the centre of the pitch.

This season, Arsenal have established a firm template for how they want to play and you have to do that in the earlier phases of a team’s footballing journey. The team has to establish its muscle memory before it can comfortably make those adjustments and become more fluid in approach.

That familiarity was Arsenal’s ally earlier in the campaign but, if we are honest, it has become a bit of an enemy in the second half of the season as teams have discovered where the frayed edges are- absence of key personnel make those edges more apparent. You can only move to this level of fluidity through familiarity and options.

We all saw how Leandro Trossard was able to solve a key problem in the winter when Arsenal’s attack became too predictable and stodgy without Gabriel Jesus. ‘Sign a few more Trossards’ is easier said than done, of course, but that is, somehow, what Arsenal are going to have to do and they ought to be able to bring in good money this summer by selling some used goods.

Wednesday evening was chastening and likely spelled the end of an unlikely title challenge but it can be useful as a learning experience. I have to admit that I am pessimistic about the prospect of anyone other than City winning the league for the next 3-5 years but Arsenal as a club cannot think like that.

I don’t think Wednesday told us much that we didn’t already know but it ought to bring the club and the manager some clarity as to what will be needed to compete on a regular basis. The atmosphere will be different next season too, there will be a level of expectation and less an air of pleasant surprise. Again, I am sure Arteta et al know this but how they prepare for that will be fascinating.

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