Wednesday, May 22, 2024


Mikel Arteta’s decision to introduce Jakub Kiwior, Leandro Trossard and Jorginho into the starting line-up for Tuesday’s 3-1 win over Chelsea was viewed as an overdue attempt to defibrillate a struggling team. The twin absences of Takehiro Tomiyasu and William Saliba have caused Mikel Arteta a severe headache and while this has been far from their sole issue during a recent poor run, with either one of those players available Arsenal almost certainly pick up more than three points from a four-game blip which will probably cost them the league title.

On Tuesday, the changes worked. Of course, this has amplified the suggestion that Arteta has been slow to react to a clear and present issue. The drop off from Saliba to Rob Holding, with all due respect, is clear for all to see and there is a reason he was on the bench when Chelsea limped into town on Tuesday.

Not only have Arsenal suffered defensively (and, in fairness, their defensive issues pre-date Saliba’s injury) ball progression has been a clear problem. Firstly, the defensive line cannot be as high with Holding as it is Saliba, which pushes the units of the team further away from one another. While Holding is no disaster area in possession, he just doesn’t have the crispness of delivery or the ability to break lines that Saliba does.

Prior to the visit of Chelsea, Arteta made a tweak against Southampton, positioning Thomas Partey closer to Holding to aid Arsenal’s ball progression from deeper areas. However, that solution created another problem, it meant the chasm between Partey and Vieira in midfield was far too wide with Vieira having to drop very deep to get a sight of the ball.

These are the issues managers must weigh up when tinkering with the formula. As Rafa Benitez once said, sometimes if your head is cold, pulling the blanket up over your face simply exposes your feet to the harsh temperatures. When performing post-hoc analysis, we always must consider all the alternative timelines and acknowledge that tinkering with the formula in other ways might not work- in fact, it might make things worse!

Arteta’s selection against Chelsea bore all the hallmarks of a manager that was prioritising improved ball security. The metronomic yet less spectacular Jorginho came into midfield for Thomas Partey, Leandro Trossard for Gabriel Martinelli is a similar type of change and Jakub Kiwior came into defence in place of Rob Holding.

It was essentially the most ball secure eleven Arteta could have played. Thomas Partey’s form has sagged recently but, in truth, he isn’t executing much differently to how he usually does. He has always had a tendency towards a small amount of profligacy on the ball because he is asked to be more bombastic in possession and he takes players on due to his ability in tight spaces. It’s just without William Saliba or Tomiyasu behind him, that occasional profligacy matters more now.

Holding doesn’t have the athleticism Saliba has to cover space when mistakes happen and Holding is ordinary technically compared to the Frenchman. In isolation, the more careful Jorginho in place of Partey would have made sense at an earlier stage of Arsenal’s mini-slump. However, that doesn’t consider that Jorginho, while very ball secure, is not as good at recovering into space.

In short, Holding and Jorginho in the right defensive half-space would leave Arsenal vulnerable going back towards their own goal. That’s why Kiwior came into the team with Jorginho and that is also why, when Gabriel went off injured in the second half and Holding was needed, Partey came on at exactly the same time. The pairing between right central midfielder and right centre half is important, they need to balance one another out.

I really wanted Jorginho to come into the team against Chelsea because the Chelsea press is….not well coordinated. Ball security has been a big issue for Arsenal in recent games and I really wanted to see him and Trossard help to fix that. Both came on as substitutes in the 2-2 draw at West Ham and I think Arsenal essentially killed West Ham’s attacking game with that change, even if they didn’t carry enough threat to then go and win the game.

Newcastle on Sunday will likely be a far more transitional game with an attack that is significantly more intense than Chelsea’s. I would rather see Partey in the team because of his ability to control space. He is also, by no means, bad on the ball at all, his relative profligacy is occasional. Partey averages 84.1% pass completion over the last seven seasons, it’s just that Jorginho averages 88.4% in the same time frame.

When we consider changes a manager might make to a struggling team, we have to consider the wider implications, the partnerships and the whole team network. We can see, for example, that the loss of William Saliba has had implications beyond defending the right-side of the penalty area. A team is a formula and removing one chemical can change how all the other chemicals interact.

For instance, I have seen a lot of fans nonplussed with Zinchenko’s recent performances. I think he has a tendency towards over confidence when Arsenal are leading that he could tidy up. But I also think some of the disquiet is because we feel anxious about the team at the moment and when one feels anxious, we want convention- it makes us feel safe. A left-back inverting into midfield is unconventional and when we feel panicked, we want to remove the elements that don’t feel familiar.

For sure, he can brush up on some defensive basics but what he brings in terms of midfield control is crucial. Where he does it from is also crucial. I have seen suggestion that he should just be fielded as an outright midfielder and while I think he would handle that just fine; it ignores the exact reason that he is so effective in that space.

The fact that he inverts means he evades detection from opponents and becomes a spare player in possession. It is next to impossible to detail somebody to mark him, otherwise it just takes an opponent well away from their own position. (And honestly, you will feel a lot better about it if you consider Arsenal as a back three with Zinchenko + Partey / Jorginho as a midfield double pivot ahead of them).

A team is a complex network of relationships and changes rarely have an isolated impact. Arteta has had to negotiate a balance between ball control and space control in recent weeks and it has not been an easy equation with many attractive alternatives. Such is the lot of a manager in any profession- sometimes there are no good choices, just least worst ones.

Follow me on Twitter @Stillmanator

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