Thursday, July 18, 2024

Arteta explains new-look midfield and Gabriel Jesus like a new signing?

I’ve got to say, I slept terribly. So I felt a little groggy when I woke up, until I looked at my phone and saw that Tottenham were (as they so often are) on hand to lift my spirits.

Their owner, Joe Lewis, has been charged with insider trading over in the US. The Attorney General for the southern district of New York said:

“We allege that for years Joe Lewis abused access to corporate board rooms & repeatedly provided inside information to his romantic partners, his personal assistants, his pilots and friends.”

I think I speak for all of us when I say the Premier League should come down hard on the club. Don’t kick them out the league — we can’t point and laugh if they’re not around — but make them start all their games with nine players, enforce rugby-like rules where they’re only allowed to pass backwards, maybe allow the opposition manager to select the Tottenham lineup each week. Maybe force them to play inside a toilet bo- never mind, they beat us to the punch on that one.

Can’t smile without you, right?

Whatever happens up the road, we’ve our own things to be getting on with in the meantime and we have a game in the next 24 hours. There were a few interesting bits from the pre-game press conference, where Mikel Arteta was joined by Gabriel Jesus.

The Brazilian talked about fighting for the title again, being in the squad’s leadership group, not having any individual goal targets for the new season and how nerves had an impact as last season came to a close. Most interestingly, for me, he talked about his knee injury, the first big physical setback of his career.

Yeah, comparing with my injury on my foot in 2017 it’s so different. This is my first injury, and I hope it’s the last one on the knee. So now I’m suffering a little bit more than with my foot. So it’s been hard, but I’m working hard to get fitness and then come back strong.

It felt notable that he didn’t talk about the injury as if it’s behind him, but something he is still battling with. That he’s still suffering, still working hard to “get to fitness”, feels really important when you consider how he (and we) played pre- and post-injury.

He was already in the middle of a significant goal drought when he flew off to the World Cup but I think, at that point, Jesus was arguably our player of the season nonetheless. His energy up front, his ability to hold the ball up (and hold defenders off) and his quality in worming away from defenders were all integral in the first half of our campaign. It was also night and day compared to anything we’d seen in previous seasons. Those first few months reminded me a bit of when we signed Alexis Sanchez: we thought we were signing a good player from a world class team, but then you watch the player without those world class team-mates as a direct comparison and you realise just how good they actually are.

Obviously, we got him back quicker than anyone expected, but that doesn’t mean he was fully fit and he didn’t quite look like the same player. You wonder a little if he’d have returned so quickly were we not in the title race. If we can get that Jesus of the first few months of last season back again soon, I think a lot of us will once again be pleasantly surprised by just how good he is.

Mikel Arteta spoke too, of course, and it was his take on the midfield that I was most interested in. That line over the weekend that the midfield will look better after 55 games together seemed to, for some, trigger a little fear. We don’t have time to wait 55 games but I don’t think he meant we’ll have to, I took at as him saying these things take time and it’ll all look great come May, not that it won’t be good until May.

Maybe it won’t look good until May (hopefully that’s not the case) but it definitely isn’t a plan he is going to abandon because of one pre-season outing and I suspect we’ll see the same midfield against Barcelona as Declan Rice, Kai Havertz and Martin Odegaard all learn to play together.

“We’re going to have to find the right balance as well, but a year ago Granit (Xhaka) could never play that as an attacking midfielder. So let’s try to get the work done. It’s the first time we played with four players inside, and three of them had never played for us. So three out of four, they never played together ever. So: tranquilo!

“Day-by-day, keep doing the right things, give people opportunity to settle them into the right things and we will be fine.”

Four players inside — because he’s also including Jurrien Timber tucking in from right-back — not three. It’s clear he sees this as four players in that area. Maybe we will see that sort of ‘box-midfield’ that Brighton used so brilliantly (and Manchester City after them) last season.

I’d also add that Odegaard, by sitting alongside Rice when we didn’t have the ball, has had his own role changed too. So it’s three new players and a new job for the fourth. It won’t click overnight.

Most of the attention has been (and I’m sure will continue to be) on Kai Havertz and how well suited he is for this midfield role, especially as a replacement for Granit Xhaka.

“You use a word that is ‘physical’. So if I put Granit and Kai and I ask you who is more physical? What would you say? Kai is one metre 91, so it depends what you mean physical. Physical is (also) to run, running behind the forward, to tackle. It depends. So we will fit in with the qualities that we have, that’s for sure.

“And the good thing is that we have options as well. When we have a game that is more physical, we can become very physical as well. We have the right options.”

I think Arteta made a fair point at first that nobody expected Xhaka to pull of playing in such an attack-minded way, so let’s not rush to write anyone off. As for the physicality, I think this will be Havertz’ biggest challenge but not because he doesn’t have the attributes needed. He’s tall, he has long limbs, he might need to bulk up a bit but he is not a player who should be considered slight or weak, not with his frame. It’s on him to assert himself and play with the intensity required. He worked hard up front for Chelsea but being physical in midfield (and not just not being dominated, but dominating yourself) is a different kettle of fish and for someone with Havertz’ frame I do think it’s a mental hurdle more than anything else.

Eking out everything the German can be will be on Arteta and on Havertz this season and if the player doesn’t offer the right intensity on the pitch, we can be pretty sure he will lose his place. At least in midfield.

It’ll be interesting to see how the midfield, Havertz in particular, develops over the next while and with Barcelona up next and Manchester City in the Community Shield just around the corner there are a couple of opportunities to make a real mark ahead of the start of the Premier League season. The ball is in his court.

Right, I’ll leave it there for today and I’ll be back tomorrow — even more sleep-deprived and even more groggy, thanks to the 4:30 kick-off time (3:30 for anyone in the UK – please don’t set an alarm and then blame me when you’ve missed the first half!) — to talk about the game.

Until then!

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