During Arsenal’s Europa League years, the squad took on a bifurcate look. Generally speaking, there was a Premier League team and a Europa League team with a small collection of players overlapping that Venn diagram. In Arsenal’s inaugural season in the Europa League, Wenger’s final campaign in charge, we saw a collection of players in the departure lounge turning out on Thursday evenings.
Olivier Giroud, Theo Walcott, Francis Coquelin, David Ospina, Per Mertesacker and Jack Wilshere were regularly fielded in that first Europa League campaign and none of them were Arsenal players by the following season. Beneath that, Arsenal used the competition to test drive some of their younger talents.
Bukayo Saka, Eddie Nketiah, Gabriel Martinelli and Emile Smith Rowe passed muster (to differing extents) while Arsenal said, ‘thanks but no thanks’ by building the value of a player like Joe Willock before moving him on. In a sense, the Europa League (at the group stage at least) became an extension of the League Cup.
This season, Arsenal return to the Champions League for the first time since 2017 and the squad has, just about, emerged from the other side of a challenging churn. Arteta won’t be able to get away with fielding a second eleven in the Champions League and that isn’t how truly elite squads work in any case. Manchester City, for example, don’t have as many players as you think they do, it’s just the ones they do have are all of a similar level.
For example, last season they would either field Bernardo Silva or Riyad Mahrez as an inverted right winger. Sometimes Kyle Walker played at right-back, sometimes Manuel Akanji did. Differences in attributes, perhaps, but very little difference in overall quality. That is the level Arsenal are trying to get to and players like Jorginho, Leandro Trossard, David Raya and Jurrien Timber have not been brought to ‘provide cover’ but to compete and to play.
Arsenal’s squad is going to need to be a more fluid unit this season to cope with the demands of a superior European competition and to build the flexibility and unpredictability that deserted the squad last spring. As much as players like Declan Rice and Kai Havertz are intended to push the envelope of the team, Arteta will also be on a mission to ‘rediscover’ some of his squad players.
I wrote a few weeks ago about the coach encouraging Eddie Nketiah https://arseblog.com/2023/08/nketiahs-back-in-the-room/ back into prominence this season. Nketiah’s early season form has now earned him an England call-up and suddenly, the thought of Nketiah starting games for Arsenal draws little consternation when the team sheet drops. In Arsenal’s two most recent games, Fabio Vieira has made a meaningful contribution from the bench.
Vieira’s first season at Arsenal was hit and miss at best, with concerns over his physicality. Though I have to say I didn’t share those specific concerns. Sometimes I think when something ‘becomes a thing’ on social media, there is a tendency for it to become quickly exaggerated. Nevertheless, there was (and still will be) a feeling that Vieira couldn’t endure another up and down season, that some sort of progress will be required.
Vieira was an unused sub for the first two matches of the season but Arteta identified something in the left half space against Fulham on match day three that inspired him to introduce Zinchenko and Vieira for Kiwior and Havertz and it instantly unclogged Arsenal’s play in that area. It was a cameo that saw Vieira win a penalty and provide a peach of an assist for Nketiah and that earned him another cameo against Manchester United.
That’s often how it works when trying to fight your way into a competitive team, one good bit part role earns you the next bit part role, once you consistently produce those strong cameos, it can lead you to greater involvement. I happen to think Vieira has been a good substitute for Havertz precisely because he is so different to the German and has offered a different problem for the opposition. In both situations Arsenal needed goals too.
Havertz’s role is to set play and crash into the penalty area, a role he perhaps hasn’t quite gotten to grips with yet. He is a finisher and a low touch player in the position. Vieira is the opposite; he is a creator and wants lots of touches. That contrast has worked well against Fulham and Manchester United. Eventually Vieira will earn a start and he will have to build his profile by showing he can impact games in different, more settled game states.
However, the last two games show nascent signs that Arsenal are ‘rediscovering’ a useful player for their squad that, frankly, looked a little lost during the second half of last season. Takehiro Tomiyasu is the next player on the conveyor belt who should view this season as a chance to enhance his profile once more.
Tomiyasu is in a slightly different position to Nketiah and Vieira because he has been a regular starter once before. The signing of Jurrien Timber undoubtedly prodded him down the pecking order a little. Timber’s injury offers him a chance for redemption. As a player very capable of playing across the back line, the Japanese should be a very useful player this season- not just as cover but as someone who can challenge for a regular spot and play a lot of minutes.
His performance against Germany this week reminded Arsenal fans of the quality we saw during his opening months as an Arsenal player. Tomiyasu needs to re-establish himself as the sort of player whose presence on the team sheet invites no comment whatsoever. He is probably close to that status, maybe he is already there, in which case his next challenge is to try to push one of White, Saliba, Gabriel or Zinchenko down the pecking order, or at least provide seamless cover if Arsenal loses one of those players.
Reiss Nelson has a kind of super sub moniker and because he provides a decent analogue for Martinelli’s qualities on the left as a one-on-one specialist, he has the mould Arteta desires for that position. Now his challenge is to become more than a 70-80th minute Hail Mary, he too needs to climb one rung up the ladder, to the sort of player that can afford Martinelli rest in a Premier League or Champions League game without coaxing a rise from supporters’ eyebrows.
The likes of Vieira, Nketiah, Nelson, as well as Smith Rowe (who looks more distant from the team than the aforementioned at the moment), can take inspiration from more senior colleagues like Trossard and Jorginho. The Belgian in particular, feels like ‘the 12th man’, the sort of player that could slot relatively seamlessly into three or four positions without anyone losing any sleep.
Coaching and coaxing Arsenal’s ‘second layer’ is one of Arteta’s more intriguing challenges of this season and it serves as an individual challenge for those players too. Changing games from the bench, coming into the starting line-up without anyone unduly noticing, this is what Arsenal require from their squad this season to truly compete on multiple fronts.
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