Thursday, April 25, 2024

Trust

Arsenal played a total of 4,410 competitive minutes in 2022-23. Below is a table demonstrating the percentage of total minutes from the season played by Arsenal’s attackers over the whole season.

PlayerPercentage of minutes played
Bukayo Saka84%
Gabriel Martinelli78%
Gabriel Jesus53%
Eddie Nketiah43%
Leandro Trossard24%
Reiss Nelson14%
Emile Smith Rowe4%

Clearly, not everyone was available for the entire season. Jesus missed around three months with a knee injury, Trossard only joined in January and Smith Rowe was injured for the first half of the season. First choice players will always clock up more minutes than the rotation options, however, I think that next season, Arteta will want to aim for a more equal distribution of minutes.

Saka and Martinelli’s numbers were higher than the coach likely intended but the unavailability of Smith Rowe and Nelson for a good number of Europa League group games meant they had to play. Next season, in the Champions League group stage, Saka and Martinelli will be asked to play more minutes, if anything.

Even given his injury, 4% of the share of minutes for Emile Smith Rowe makes slightly alarming reading when you consider he first returned to the match day squad in January. In the same timeframe, Trossard has been able to clock up 24% of the season’s minutes, bringing him pretty close to the 50% for the time period he was available for.

In short, Arsenal really need a couple of players to take some of the heat off Saka and Martinelli and Arteta will want to be confident in the rotation options available to him- especially if he wants to avoid another scenario where the team fades after Easter. That is why I find the news that the club are trying to convince Reiss Nelson to stay and, per David Ornstein, will not entertain selling Emile Smith Rowe, so intriguing.

This will only be a sapient decision if Nelson and Smith Rowe are able to contribute significantly more than the combined 808 minutes they were given this season. Arsenal’s attack will need to become a little more of a carousel, unless Arteta is banking on the model that sustained Liverpool’s attack for so long- having a very solid first choice front three, with Trossard as a kind of Diogo Jota figure, and hoping that none of them break.

Now, I have nothing against a coach identifying talent he already possesses and backing himself to extract it. Clearly, Smith Rowe and Nelson are very talented players and I will assess their situations individually in a moment. But retaining them cannot be a Hail Mary, it has to be a sign of conviction that both of them can move more to the level of Leandro Trossard (which is clearly not unattainable for either player).

Last summer, Eddie Nketiah was awarded a new contract and I think we all understand there was a level of expediency in that contract, since it was a more economic option than losing the player for free and then sourcing another striker on the market. The mistake Arsenal made, is a similar one to the one they made with Maitland Niles, they lost control of the contract.

Because fast forward twelve months and Nketiah has probably moved down the pecking order if anything. Nketiah didn’t start a single Premier League game until Gabriel Jesus was injured. Even on October 30 at home to Nottingham Forest, the team with the worst away record in the league, in what proved to be the ninth fixture of a congested month for Arsenal, Jesus started over Nketiah.

I think that gives us a clear picture of how Arteta actually rates Nketiah and the problem with hanging onto players that you don’t really want is that it makes your squad smaller. Arsenal need more Trossard, Jorginho, Tomiyasu types, players the manager will use reasonably happily and not just in a total emergency or when a game is totally dead in its dying embers.

With Reiss Nelson, I think there have been signs of life in the spring. Nelson has a lot of talent but, maybe, he was missing that sense of personality and expression on the ball. As he was introduced into games late in the season, that air of expression seemed to come to him. Of course, his 97th minute winner against Bournemouth was the most picture book moment of the season but he performed incredibly well in the lead up to it.

Likewise, against Southampton in April when the game was slipping away from Arsenal, he demonstrated intent from the bench. I am very open minded about the prospect of Nelson signing a new deal because I think he is the explosive sort of wide player Arteta wants on the left-hand side a la Martinelli and he can provide cover for Saka on the right too.

I don’t mind the coach backing himself to juice the player’s talent so long as that is actually what is happening, I don’t want the coach to keep the player because he is clinging on or doesn’t really know what to do with him yet. There has to be clarity, if Nelson is Arteta’s man, cool, but commit to it. Don’t sign him up if, this time next year, he has not played significantly more than the 600 minutes he managed this season (fitness permitting, of course).

I wrote about all the reasons that I felt Emile Smith Rowe wasn’t longed for Arsenal a fortnight ago, so needless to say I was surprised by David Ornstein’s report that the club would not countenance a sale this summer. Given he is under contract until 2026 there is no immediate need to make a decision on his future in an administrative sense but it really has looked as though the writing has been on the wall for some time.

Again, if Arteta has made the decision that there is talent in the player and he has an increased role in mind for him and- crucially- he believes Smith Rowe can meet the challenge to earn that role, excellent. We have all seen ESR’s talent- more so than Nelson’s even. If we accept that Smith Rowe was available for approximately 50% of the season, then he played around 8% of the minutes available while he was fit in 2022-23.

That number has to treble, as a bare minimum next season, quadruple even for this to be a good decision. If next May the total minutes played have not significantly increased, then it simply means that Arsenal denied themselves the chance to make their squad bigger and probably torched Smith Rowe’s value on the market in the process. Squad size is not just a raw number, it’s about distribution of minutes.

Arsenal and Arteta probably have a lot of work to do in midfield this summer which makes lots of sense. I think the defence is close to completion if Arsenal can replace Holding with a more trusted defender (likely another versatile operator like White, Tomiyasu or Kiwior). However, I think the front three really needs a minimum of six, ideally seven, trusted options.

Last season, I really think Arsenal only had four and one of those only joined half-way through the season. The attack needs to grow in size and optionality, which is why I think the increased willingness to try Jesus in wide areas was very interesting in the closing weeks of the season. Arsenal’s attack needs to be augmented to meet the challenges of next season, if internal options are the solution to that, excellent, but it has to be a decision built on strong foundations of trust.

Follow me on Twitter @Stillmanator

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