Saturday, March 2, 2024

Questions for pre-season

Pre-season is getting into full swing and, on balance, I think the majority of Arsenal’s incoming transfer business is done for the summer. As I set out a fortnight ago, I think there will be one more senior arrival and it will be governed by who does- and doesn’t- leave the club in the coming weeks. Here are some questions I have as Arsenal get into the nuts and bolts of pre-season.

What is Emile Smith Rowe’s role?
At the beginning of the summer, when Arsenal made clear that they would not entertain selling Emile Smith Rowe, I have to say that I was very surprised (not necessarily unpleasantly so). I felt the writing was on the wall for him in letters so big they were nearly viewable from space. I rate the player’s talent a great deal so I am not upset if Arteta has decided he wants to try to juice this particular orange a little longer.

It does beg the question, however, as to what his role is for 2023-24? Because Leandro Trossard appears to be a blocker to minutes for him and the retention of Reiss Nelson on a new contract crowds the scene a little further. The reporting seems to suggest that Arteta wants to raise some funds for another inverted winger for the right to provide rotation and support for Bukayo Saka.

It could be that Smith Rowe is being primed for the ‘left eight’ role vacated by Granit Xhaka but Arsenal didn’t just spend over £60m on Kai Havertz to be anything other than a regular starter and Fabio Vieira also seems to be considered for that position. If Arteta does indeed want another winger, I am squinting to work out where Smith Rowe figures in the squad building process.

Let’s be clear that at this stage I am curious, rather than frustrated. It is notable to me that the acquisitions of Trossard, Havertz and Vieira have all happened in the last 12 months, as has the new contract awarded to Reiss Nelson. None of these are legacy decisions and I struggle to see why all of them would have been made virtually simultaneously if the coach had a significant amount of faith in the player. I am intrigued to see how ESR’s role in the squad shapes up.

Who drops back into midfield in the 442 press?
As I wrote last week, replacing Granit Xhaka with Kai Havertz ought to increase Arsenal’s attacking potential next season. Odegaard and Havertz as dual 8s calls to mind Manchester City’s recent midfields, where first Fernandinho buttressed David Silva and Kevin de Bruyne and, more recently, Rodri has manned the back door, allowing Gundogan and de Bruyne to roam forward.

Off the ball, Arsenal usually drop into a 442 block, with Odegaard positioned as a second striker, initiating the press. That also seems to be a natural role for Kai Havertz, whose ability to press and pinch the ball from opponents high up the pitch make him more suited for the ‘second striker’ position when the Gunners form their 442 block.

It’s a relatively minor question on the surface but one of Havertz or Odegaard is probably going to be asked to fall back into a midfield pairing with Declan Rice off the ball, which doesn’t appear to be the natural intuition for either player. I suspect Havertz will be tasked with initiating the press while the captain falls back into the pack alongside Rice.

Of course, Arteta might do something hitherto untried. He might press in a different shape, or ask one of the centre-halves to push up into midfield, leaving a back three behind. Whatever happens, it’s going to be different and I am curious to see how Arsenal ‘fall out’ behind the ball.

An alternative to Zinchenko inverting into midfield
Arsenal’s pre-season essentially started around four games before the end of last season with the title dream having withered away. Oleksandr Zinchenko was injured for the run-in and Arteta took the opportunity to experiment. He did this mainly in the full-back roles, he played Jakub Kiwior at left-back ahead of Kieran Tierney and Thomas Partey played at right-back with Ben White moving back into a more central position.

For the first half of last season, Zinchenko wafting in-field from left-back to form a midfield double pivot with Thomas Partey caught teams off-guard. I think it is fair to say that Arsenal surprised teams less and less as the season went on (not just because they had worked out that Zinchenko was asked to be a midfielder more than a full-back).

Arsenal’s crop of defenders are exceptionally versatile and a lot of them are very comfortable moving into midfield with the ball. I saw playing Kiwior at left-back (which has continued into pre-season) and Partey at right-back as an attempt at variance. Partey inverted into midfield in those dead rubber league games, while it was Kiwior who did so against Nurnberg last week.

Add new defender Jurien Timber into the mix and conceivably, Tomiyasu, Timber, White and Kiwior are all capable of playing a hybrid defence and midfield role. I feel certain that Arteta always wants at least one of his defenders to step forward and form a double pivot alongside Rice, Jorginho or Partey. I don’t think he will want to, again, be in the situation that only one of his defenders does this comfortably- especially given Zinchenko’s injury record.

Because let’s face it, when Tierney was asked to invert from left-back, he wasn’t terrible at it, but it did give me the impression of someone trying their best not to grimace while wolfing down one of their nan’s mouldy biscuits. We know that Arteta trusts Tomiyasu to play as an inverted left-back, albeit in a slightly different way and we also know that he wanted to sign Lisandro Martinez last summer.

Manchester City altered the pitch of their season when Pep Guardiola started to field essentially four centre-backs in defence, with John Stones stepping into midfield alongside Rodri. It looks as though Arteta wants the option to ape his mentor again and build greater flexibility into the build-up and defensive phase so that, if and when Zinchenko is not available, or rotated, someone else can pick up that baton.

Follow me on Twitter @Stillmanator

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