When we think of squad depth, as fans, we tend to think broadly of three main principles allied to squad depth. 1. Cover for injuries. 2. Competition and some element of jeopardy for underperforming players. 3. Rotation and respite for the players that, in reality, are under little threat relating to the second principle.
Every team has core players who will play pretty much every game that they are fit for. Manchester City do not rest or rotate Haaland, de Bruyne, Rodri or Ruben Dias if they can help it. The Invincibles did not rest or rotate Thierry Henry, Patrick Vieira, Robert Pires or Sol Campbell.
Pep’s Barcelona team did not rest or rotate Messi, Xavi, Busquets, Pique or Iniesta. The current Arsenal side does not rest or rotate Saka, Odegaard, Saliba or Rice. Around the edges of those core players, we can and do talk more about rest, rotation and competition.
However, one thing we often don’t discuss is optionality. Different horses for different courses. Different strokes for different folks. For instance, against Manchester City, Mikel Arteta selected Jorginho to start at the base of midfield. It was his first Premier League start of the season.
Had Thomas Partey been fully fit, he might well have started at the base of midfield, Declan Rice’s ability to play as a six or as a left eight is extremely useful for Arsenal. For big games, it enables them to start with a little more midfield security by pairing Rice with either Partey or Jorginho. (I wrote last week about how we might have to consider Havertz slightly differently as a result).
The point is, Manchester City was a ‘Jorginho game.’ It was a tactical chess match and it required an experienced head- and Arsenal still don’t have an abundance of those. Prior to this fixture, Jorginho has been used as a ‘finishing player’, a little like Takehiro Tomiyasu.
Arsenal now have ‘shutdown’ options on the bench for the latter stages of games. Tomiyasu has come on as a second half substitute for Oleksandr Zinchenko in five of the Ukrainian’s last six Premier League starts, which tells you that this is a very deliberate strategy. It is a strategy devised around the pillars of Zinchenko’s injury history and Arsenal’s desire to ‘close’ games out with Tomiyasu at left-back.
Jorginho has been part of this milieu too, this sense of a team that can close games out from the bench, as much as they can try to change games from an attacking perspective if required. Manchester City was a ‘shutdown’ game from the get go, so Jorginho started. The Italian was Man of the Match during the Gunners’ 2-0 win at Newcastle in April where the requirements were broadly similar.
Those are the games he is suited for. In a sense, he is a big game player. He is unlikely to start against a Bournemouth or a Sheffield United (unless injuries dictate). This is where squad depth serves optionality as much as it serves competition, rest and rotation. Arteta can look at his squad as a tool box rather than a shiny new iPhone while your previous model is stuffed into a drawer as a back-up you hope that you never need to use.
Midfield is the area where Arsenal have the greatest sense of optionality and it looks as though we will see a model where Rice, Havertz and Odegaard are the preferred midfield for games they expect to dominate and one of Partey or Jorginho comes in for Havertz in matches against the bigger sides.
Havertz is also often used as a centre-forward but only for the latter stages of matches. He has only started one game in that position for Arsenal, the Community Shield but, by my count, has finished four games as a number nine now. This is, again, part of the optionality that Arteta is trying to promote, the sense that his squad is a sea of moving parts rather than a series of lead actors and reluctant understudies.
Arteta has shown a greater willingness to use Gabriel Jesus’ ability to play out wide so that Eddie Nketiah can move up the pecking order- not as a bona fide starter, but as a squad player more the equal of Trossard, Tomiyasu and Partey / Jorginho. Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City have done this successfully for a long time.
In the wide positions, Guardiola often had Mahrez (now Doku), Grealish, Foden and Bernardo Silva to choose from and he would select based on the game plan, based on the strengths and weaknesses of the opposition. Kyle Walker has not been a core pick in their defence for a couple of seasons now but when the opposition has a speedy left winger, you can bet your life Kyle Walker will start because his sprinting speed is a very desirable quality in those situations.
Sometimes you need a saw and sometimes you need a chisel. Sometimes you need tools to start a job, sometimes you need tools to plane the edges and finish the job. We have also seen Fabio Vieira used in different game states this season (and sometimes, we haven’t seen him used at all). At Goodison Park, Arsenal’s entire game plan was tailored around keeping the ball on the floor and not launching it into Everton’s back line of NBA lite centre-backs.
For that game, Vieira started ahead of Havertz. That was a ‘Vieira game.’ At home to Fulham in August, Arsenal’s left side became stodgy with Kiwior at left-back and Havertz in the left eight position. Arteta reached for his Yellow Pages and sent for Vieira and Zinchenko to unclog the blockage and Arsenal created two goals from that area soon after.
Arteta spoke, perhaps misleadingly, about thinking of the goalkeeper role in much the same way. He talked about substituting goalkeepers based on the game state and even if it’s unusual, it’s not difficult to follow that thinking. Goalkeepers are increasingly considered the 11th outfield player after all and moving to a model where different goalies are used for different game plans or game states doesn’t seem that far-fetched to me.
As fans, these are the things we might have to consider more and more when we see the teamsheet 60 minutes before kickoff. It’s not just a case of who is playing but why they are playing and which purpose they are serving and what that might mean for the game plan against the opposition on any given day.
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