Thursday, April 25, 2024

Pre-season observations

Pre-season is drawing to a close with only Sunday’s traditional curtain raiser / first trophy of the season / glorified friendly against Manchester City to play. I think this has been a really intriguing round of pre-season games and there are several aspects that give me pause for thought. For example, defensively, Arsenal have continued to look a little loosey goosey, as they did in the second half of last season.

Clearly, there are new parts to integrate too, with Kai Havertz and Declan Rice to induct into a new midfield structure, while Jurrien Timber looks as though he has come to take someone’s shirt. We can read into the futures of certain players by how they have, and, in some cases, have not been used as Arteta seeks to add depth and variety to his squad. Here are some of my overall curiosities.

Building variety and unpredictability

“The idea is to be more unpredictable every year, to become more difficult for the opponents to stop and nullify what we want to do. That’s what we have now, especially at the back and in the midfield. The options we have, to open up the spaces… we have many more options than we had last year.” These were Mikel Arteta’s words after the 2-0 defeat to Manchester United in New Jersey.

Last pre-season seemed to me to be about establishing and confirming a template. Arsenal established it strongly and took that momentum into last season, setting a ridiculous early season pace. However, that momentum could only sustain them so far. By spring, they had significant injuries, fatigue and teams had time to adjust and Arsenal’s template became a boiler plate.

Investment in January and the summer has thickened Arsenal’s squad and given them greater depth. However, in the consequence free environment of pre-season, it has cost them the sort of fluency and vibrancy we saw this time last year. Now, that will be completely acceptable if Arsenal establish a better, more sustainable pace for next season. As we discovered, peaking in autumn is all very well but if you are collapsing into easter, it is of limited use.

That’s the optimistic reading, of course. There is a very fine line between flexibility and confusion. Arsenal are making structural adjustments in midfield, as well as looking to become a more fluid roster as opposed to a fixed starting line-up. Greater rotation could lead to fewer significant injuries at the business end of the season and prevent opponents from working a tiring Arsenal team out come the ‘playoff section’ of the campaign.

However, if you need something close to 90 points (maybe even more) to win the title, you can’t afford to write too many points off early in the campaign. Last season, Manchester City were coping with structural changes as they adjusted to a big change at centre-forward, it took them some time but it also meant they peaked at the right part of the season. Arteta has to find that incredibly delicate balance.

Jurrien Timber and a Zinchenko alternative

The new Dutch signing has played as a centre-half, a right-back and a left-back during pre-season. Each time, he has inverted into midfield to good effect. At the same time, Arsenal have played the entire pre-season programme without Oleksandr Zinchenko, one of their most important players. The way Zinchenko is able to move into space, receive the ball on the half-turn and kill opponents with “300,000 passes” to borrow an Arteta-ism, is crucial to the way the team plays.

But his fitness record remains shaky, as this summer attests. Zinchenko is one of the players that Arsenal have not had an analogue for. His absence, however, could prove to be useful to Arsenal in finding that alternative. Timber started against Barcelona at left-back and played there against Monaco too. That means that, at least, Arteta’s curiosity was piqued by what he saw.

At the end of last season, Arteta experimented with Partey inverting from right-back, something we saw for a few minutes of pre-season. Tomiyasu has played at left-back before and had some time there this pre-season. Reading between the lines, however, Timber is the player that started two consecutive games in Zinchenko’s role and I expect him to begin the season there too. He can also bolster midfield from right-back or centre-half, he looks an incredibly useful addition.

Legacy squad players

There is a lot of focus on new signings during the summer but there has been a move to re-integrate some players who drifted away from the first team picture at the end of last season. Emile Smith Rowe cut short his holiday after the U21s Euros and he played a lot of minutes in the fabled ‘left eight’ role. That tells us much about how he is seen next season, at least at this stage.

That is a positive for him, that shows he has a clear role. I think he still has to work on his off-ball game if he is going to play more centrally but the extent to which he has bulked up physically tells me this is a player serious about restoring his former prominence. Equally interesting has been the use of Fabio Vieira, who has been deployed exclusively on the right of the pitch in these friendlies.

He has either played Odegaard or Saka’s roles and has not been asked to play the ‘left eight’ position where he spent much of last season. That looks like a conversation has taken place and a firm decision made, that this is a player who looks more comfortable taking the ball from the right and moving in-field with it. It also provides a closer analogue to Odegaard and Saka. (Remember that Vieira’s crowning moment of last season, against Brentford, was when he filled in for Odegaard).

After a pretty quiet first half season at Arsenal, Jakub Kiwior has been more heavily integrated in pre-season. Gabriel has played a lot of minutes over the last few seasons and grooming some competition and support for him is important. Kiwior has also shown a degree of comfort inverting into midfield from left-back too, which further bolsters the Zinchenko back-up plan.

Eddie Nketiah played a significant number of minutes during the summer too, some of them out wide and he was made captain for the Emirates Cup match against Monaco. Maybe that is just as well given the injury to Gabriel Jesus but, to my eyes, this looks like a move to consciously reintegrate Eddie and maybe puff his chest out a little. On the other hand, Kieran Tierney has been a substitute in every game this summer and I think we can all read the writing on the wall there.

A ’shutdown’ team

My final observation is that Arsenal seem to be developing several ‘shutdown’ options to manage games to a conclusion. Players like Tomiyasu, who is an excellent pure defender, and Jorginho, a soothing technical presence at the base of the midfield, seem to be ideal substitutes for when the temperature of a game needs to come down.

I think you could add Leandro Trossard to that list (equally he could comfortably be a starter or an attacking change). If Arsenal are a goal up with fifteen minutes to go away from home, I would expect to see the likes of Jorginho and Tomiyasu called upon. Players who do not change the structure of the team but can help Arsenal to draw the sting when necessary.

Follow me on Twitter @Stillmanator

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