Sunday, April 21, 2024

The Ghost at the Feast

One of my favourite things about Mikel Arteta’s tenure as Arsenal coach has been the sense that, every season, something about the team is probably going to change in ways that are difficult to predict. I doubt even Arteta himself would have predicted the significance of William Saliba’s impact on the team from centre-half last summer.

His arrival forced Ben White out to right-back, which felt like a temporary move until Tomiyasu was fit again. Saliba and White acquitted themselves so well in their roles that they stayed put until well into March when Saliba’s back problem impacted the team’s spine as well as his own.

When Arsenal signed Oleksandr Zinchenko last summer I think most of us knew we were getting a decent left-back with a high technical level who could reduce the impact of Kieran Tierney’s absences. Few, if any, of us predicted he would transform Arsenal’s midfield by, essentially, playing in a double pivot with Thomas Partey.

In the final weeks of the season, when Arsenal’s season began to wilt under the lights a little, I was fascinated by how the supporters slowly became more disgruntled with Zinchenko. I think it is fair to say his form (and his fitness- the two were almost certainly linked) deserted him a little bit.

However, I think a lot of the angst was borne from, well, anxiety. When results sag, supporters become anxious and when we become anxious, we crave conformity. We don’t want to see the left-back in the centre circle when we are tetchy or nervous, we want him at left-back.

One of the biggest mental challenges for any athlete is having the bravery and conviction to continue taking risks and doing all the things that make you good when the pressure is on- of tuning out that little voice that says, “just get rid” or “just stay back.” Fans and players will always divulge in times of crisis because we do not think like elite athletes.

It made me think of the upcoming season and what to expect. The signing of Jurien Timber is fascinating, not least because he plays in an area where Arsenal are reasonably well appointed with bodies. What is he coming into to do? From where? The versatility Arteta demands of his players, particular in the build-up areas of the team, make the tea leaves more difficult to read.

And that’s a good thing because if we don’t quite know how things are going to evolve, the chances are our opponents won’t either. One area where we know there will be a significant shift in ethos this season is in the position commonly referred to as ‘left eight.’ Granit Xhaka has played there for the majority of the last two seasons.

Xhaka spent seven years at the club, we knew him very well, even if his coaches didn’t always. Though last month I wrote a piece trying to flip the narrative that he learned a new position when he slid across to ‘left eight’ at the beginning of the 2021-22 season. My thesis is that this should always have been his position and we miscast him by playing him as a deep lying playmaker for the previous five seasons.

However, my thesis is clearly not the dominant narrative and that colours how we perceive that ‘left eight’ role. We have seen Xhaka, someone we are very familiar with, executing it. So, psychologically, we still index a lot of the defensive aspects of the position because that’s how we perceive Xhaka, as a player who moved from the defensive half of a double pivot to someone who was given a little more freedom.

By now, it seems obvious that Mikel Arteta wants Kai Havertz for that position. Assuming Sambi Lokonga moves on this summer, Havertz’s understudies for the role are Fabio Vieira and possibly Emile Smith Rowe, maybe even Leo Trossard. What is clear is that Arteta views this as an attacking position.

That means, as fans, we will have to adjust our thinking about what it entails. We no longer have a slightly more defensive guy playing there, now we will always have a player there that could equally play anywhere in the front three. In the piece I mentioned earlier, I described the ‘left eight’ as we know it, as a largely off the ball position.

Xhaka’s on-ball involvements per game dropped drastically when he moved to left eight. Havertz’s off-ball movement is said to be one of his key attributes. In his profile piece on Havertz on Arseblog, Phil Costa pointed to the Opta data in this area, “Only Erling Haaland (349) made more off-ball runs into the opposition penalty area in the Premier League last season than Havertz (334).”

While Havertz is certainly not a blockbuster tackler, nor is he going to bodycheck too many opponents into advertising hoardings, his ability to press, nick the ball from opponents on their blindside and his ability in transition are all also said to be key strengths. Havertz very much fits the ‘ghost at the feast’ role.

Of course, attacking midfielders who make late, off-ball runs are not new to Arsenal fans, we had Aaron Ramsey for 11 years. But it is new for Arteta’s Arsenal and it is new to this setup. As much as I think left eight was a more natural position for Xhaka than deep lying playmaker, it is also clear that he was something of a ‘holder’ for that position.

I think Arteta wanted someone with greater attacking instincts but felt that Xhaka could do a good enough job while higher priority positions were addressed. In Martinelli, Saka, Odegaard and Jesus, Arsenal had four players that managed 15 goals or more last season.

I see Havertz as a fifth player who should be aiming for that 10-15 range and to diversify Arsenal’s goal threat. In short, Kai Havertz can play at centre-forward, Smith Rowe, Vieira and Trossard have all played as a false nine. You wouldn’t put Xhaka in your front three in a million years.

And that should cause us to evolve our thinking about the position. Seven goals and seven assists was a very solid Premier League output for Xhaka because we have regarded him as a much deeper player. Havertz should be aiming to outstrip that reasonably comfortably, fitness permitting.

A lot of fans are aware of this, of course and have some justified anxieties over how Havertz’s defensive output might compare to Xhaka’s. However, Xhaka was far less defensively active when he moved into the left eight role. In 2020-21, as the deepest midfielder, he was averaging 1.07 tackles per game. Last season, as the left eight, he was averaging 0.48.

Again, because we have regarded Xhaka as a deeper player, we probably over indexed the amount of defensive work he produced when he was more advanced and we shouldn’t necessarily conflate Xhaka’s work as a six- which dominates our memory of him- with Havertz’s work as an eight.

All of which is to say, as fans did (and then subsequently didn’t) with Zinchenko, we are going to have to get comfortable feeling uncomfortable. Because Arteta is looking to ramp up the team’s offensive arsenal and there will be times when we feel nervous or unsure about that.

I also think Arsenal pushed the boat out for Declan Rice because he is a player you can ‘over burden’ as a protective forcefield. I am resolved that Arteta wants his team to become braver, bolder and to dominate teams even more than they did last season. I hope they do it well enough to take the fans with them on that journey to greater bravery and boldness.

Follow me on Twitter @Stillmanator

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