Thursday, April 25, 2024

Forward

With the arrivals of Kai Havertz, Declan Rice and Jurien Timber, I would consider the heft of Arsenal’s incoming business for the summer to be complete. Firstly, let us say that £200m worth of talent walking through the doors at London Colney before the first pre-season friendly is impressive and another indication of raised standards at the club since the arrival of Mikel Arteta.

Now we enter the phase of the summer that will likely be defined by outgoings. In goal, Aaron Ramsdale and Matt Turner with Karl Hein coming up behind means the goalkeeping department likely stays the same as last season. Even if we speculate that Kieran Tierney, Cedric and Rob Holding’s Arsenal races might be run, the defence looks healthy numerically.

Saliba, White, Gabirel, Kiwior, Tomiyasu, Timber and Zinchenko. Perhaps one of Tierney, Holding or Cedric might stay (largely by default, it must be said) to really round that out. In midfield, Granit Xhaka looks certain to depart, if Thomas Partey leaves there will be a need for further bolstering there.

But Jorginho, Elneny, Rice, Havertz, Odegaard, Vieira (maybe Smith Rowe?) plus Partey or A.Nother looks healthy enough. It seems as though the decision has been taken to retain Smith Rowe and Reiss Nelson which provides back up and competition for Saka and Martinelli in the wide positions. (I wrote about that decision earlier in the summer).

Which brings us to the centre-forward position. Gabriel Jesus is figuratively and literally the de facto number 9. Behind him, the Swiss Army knife that is Leandro Trossard- who can also provide depth on the flanks- as well as Eddie Nketiah and Folarin Balogun. The fates of the latter pair are probably dictated by their contracts.

Nketiah signed a new deal last summer, whereas Balogun has two years left on his. Balogun had a taste of being an important first-team player at Reims and has now become the US National Team’s centre-forward. The mood music for him sounds very much like one of a player whose career has slipped onto the highway and he doesn’t want to go back to the garage.

That would leave Arsenal with Jesus, Nketiah and Trossard as centre-forward options. Many supporters consider these options to be a little on the samey side. I get that, I also don’t entirely disagree, but I am not sure that Alvarez as back up to Haaland gives Manchester City variety per se, it just means they have one world class player and one exceptionally good player for the position.

Liverpool thrived on a diet of Salah, Mane and Firmino for several seasons with only Divock Origi in the background. I think it could be argued that Arsenal could do with an option that allows them to go ‘over the top’ of the opposition press. Arteta tried this in the 3-0 defeat at home to Brighton in April and it actually worked reasonably well.

Arsenal went long to Jesus, tempting Lewis Dunk away from the back line. Dunk would invariably win the header but Jesus would fight hard enough to make sure the clearance was not emphatic, allowing the likes of Odegaard and Saka to scamper onto the loose ball. The issue in that game, in my view, was far more psychological.

Once Brighton took the lead, Arsenal just didn’t have the heart or the energy to claw themselves back from one more deficit. Nevertheless, you feel that Arsenal could do with a more suitable option than Gabriel Jesus to go over the top of the opposition press. Trossard excelled in a kind of false 9 role after joining in January.

To my mind, Arsenal are deliberately modelling themselves on an idea of sharing goals around, as Liverpool did with their renowned front three and as City did in the intervening period between Sergio Aguero departing and Erling Haaland arriving. It stands to reason that fans favour a more ‘traditional’ option though.

Traditional options assuage our anxiety. I viewed how the mood towards Zinchenko seemed to alter towards the end of last season. I think that is partly because teams grew a little wiser to the way that Arsenal played. But I also think it was because, when results start to dip, fans become nervous and they want to see their team conform to more traditional norms.

We want the centre-backs to get it clear, the centre-forwards to be big guys who can smash opponents around and we don’t want the left-back in the centre circle. Conformist, traditional interpretations of roles make us feel safe and less anxious. While I view a more ‘traditional’ target-man style striker as a nice to have, I don’t think it is yet viewed as an emergency.

I think this mini anxiety comes down to how we feel about Eddie Nketiah. Nketiah is not really a false 9 in the mould of Jesus and Trossard but nor is he a target man. And in many respects, this is less how we, as fans, feel about Nketiah and more about how Arteta feels about him. There has simply never been a time where Arteta has started Nketiah in a Premier League game under anything other than duress.

We now know that Gabriel Jesus was playing with a slight knee injury last autumn before he went to the World Cup and a slight knee injury became something bigger. Yet even in a home game against Nottingham Forest, who won seven points on the road last season, at the end of a nine-game run last October, Jesus started ahead of Nketiah.

Initially, when Nketiah came in for Jesus after the World Cup and during the Brazilian’s injury, Eddie had a good goal scoring run. But that soon dried up, as did Arsenal’s overall form. Gabriel Martinelli’s season was one of regular end-product, apart from the period where Nketiah started upfront. That is not to ‘blame’ either player, it’s just clear there is a lack of chemistry there.

Arsenal, and Martinelli’s, form both revived when Trossard came into the team as a false 9. My instinct is that Nketiah’s contract extension last summer was a move of expedience. His presence in the squad is by no means a live issue that urgently requires attention. I honestly think Arteta is not overly enamoured with the player but Eddie is very far from the category of player that needs to be shoved out the door.

I imagine the same is true this summer as it was last summer. I think in an ideal world, Arteta would prefer another option but it’s not close to a squad priority and Nketiah’s contract is secure for another season at least. There is no fiscal need to push the button and, clearly, there was more important business to be done this summer.

You simply can’t do absolutely everything that you want to do in one transfer window. That said, I would not be totally shocked if there is movement of some kind in this area later in the window. If Arsenal sell well, keep a tidy revenue column and decide not to move Thomas Partey on, this might be the area that gets some last minute attention.

In short, I think Arsenal will bring one more senior player in and that will be entirely decided by sales. If all three of Cedric, Holding and Tierney are moved on, I think it could be a defender. If Thomas Partey is sold I think it will be a midfielder. If none of those things happen, I would not be surprised at all if Arteta and Edu decide to add another central forward option.

Follow me on Twitter @Stillmanator

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