There has been much talk this season about Arsenal finessing the formula this season to prioritise greater control over games and whether there has been a trade off in terms of their attacking threat, where their numbers are down significantly this season.
In short, after a series of helter skelter games in the second half of last season, Arsenal really needed to tune up off the ball. They have done that, in part through the acquisition of Declan Rice, we are also seeing Takehiro Tomiyasu preferred to Oleksandr Zinchenko in certain types of game, while Arsenal are starting games more slowly and building attacks more deliberately.
All of this makes them more serene but perhaps less dangerous. Last week, I wrote about disruption in Arsenal’s spine and how it has probably contributed to a loss of devil in the attacking detail too. Arteta is considering games marathons as opposed to sprints this season and the season must be considered that way too to prevent the burnout we saw at the business end of the last campaign.
Part of the disruption in the spine of the Arsenal team has revolved around the number 9 position with Gabriel Jesus already nursing his second injury of the season. This has led to a reliance on Eddie Nketiah upfront with Eddie starting nine of the Gunners’ 11 Premier League games so far.
Nketiah is one of Arsenal’s most inconsistent players, veering wildly between efficiency and ineffectiveness from game to game, much of which is probably informed by the fact that the player is 24 years old now and this is by far the best stretch of regular football he has ever had. It has led to a discussion as to whether Arsenal ought to source a more reliable number 9 in the market.
In isolation, Nketiah is a fine ‘back-up’ striker, probably markedly better than what most clubs in the Premier League serve up in the same role. Of course, the conversation moves on when the back-up becomes more than a back-up. In 2011-12, for instance, we didn’t need to have a lot of conversations around Marouane Chamakh’s suitability, or lack thereof, as Robin van Persie’s deputy because in that campaign, van Persie (remarkably) stayed fit for once.
Sometimes a club has to take a decision and we saw that in January when Arsenal signed Jorginho. Effectively, they decided that Thomas Partey was too unreliable for a project player like Sambi Lokonga or a back-up quality player in Mo Elneny to serve as his understudies, so they bought in a safer bet in Jorginho.
What they also tried to do in January was bring in Mykhailo Mudryk and this is where the conversation around the forward line becomes really interesting. Mudryk is an astonishingly rapid wide player, very similar to Martinelli in style (if not, yet, output). Chelsea hijacked the Mudryk move and Arsenal instead brought in Leandro Trossard, a solid recruit but one who, in a way, fudged the issue of what Arsenal need in their forward line.
Trossard was a signing similar to Diogo Jota at Liverpool, someone who can play diligently across the forward line without being first choice for any of those roles. Liverpool bought Jota, and it was a smart move, but it didn’t stop them signing Luis Diaz, Cody Gakpo and Darwin Nunez, all of whom are specialists.
Jota can do a bit of what all those players can do but he doesn’t have a superpower like those players. Trossard is very similar, his versatility is a great strength but it also means we sort of don’t know what he is. What Arsenal really wanted in January was another rapid wide player.
The Mudryk ship sailed, Arsenal allocated some of that resource to Trossard and then signed Reiss Nelson to a new contract over the summer. The issue is that Arteta still doesn’t really trust Reiss Nelson in a serious way, so Nelson is not removing any of the burden that exists on Martinelli and Saka.
Bukayo Saka is averaging 87.3% minutes played in games he has appeared in this season and that number is only as low as it is because he has been injured and forced off a few times now. For Martinelli it’s 63.9% and, again, that would be far higher were it not for the fact that he was injured in September. Last season, Saka played 93% of minutes for games he started and Martinelli 81%.
Reiss Nelson averages 5.6% of minutes played so far this season. Emile Smith Rowe is no longer considered a wide player at all, so Arsenal have Saka, Martinelli and Trossard and seem to have made the decision that Jesus is their fourth wide option, which increases their reliance on Nketiah centrally.
I think what we are seeing is some redundancy and, in an ideal world, Arteta would replace Reiss Nelson with a forward option he really trusts to take some of the load from Martinelli and Saka who are, undoubtedly, being overburdened. It also makes it far easier for opponents to single out Arsenal’s young wide boys for ‘special attention’ shall we say. Both have struggled with knocks and niggles this season.
Last season, Manchester City won the league with a rotating cast of wide players including Bernardo Silva, Mahrez, Grealish and Foden, who shared minutes. This season they have sold Mahrez and bought in Jeremy Doku. City have four starting quality wide players. There is a complication, of course, in the fact that Saka is still better (in my view) than all of City’s wide players so he is clearly going to play pretty much every game for Arsenal- much as Mo Salah still does for Liverpool.
The issue for me is that Arsenal are a trusted forward short. The question for Edu and Mikel Arteta is whether they spring for another striker, move Nketiah on and trust Jesus to be another Trossard style ‘sometimes wide, sometimes central’ player. Or whether they trust Eddie, buy another rapid wide forward and pack Reiss Nelson off.
Manchester City ultimately made the decision to sell Cole Palmer and buy Jeremy Doku this summer and Arsenal are probably facing a similar call on one of their academy products. The equation is further complicated by the fact that Kai Havertz has not added the end product Arteta had probably hoped for (the fact that he was given a charity penalty against Bournemouth shows his contribution is being significantly viewed through the prism of attacking threat).
Many favour a move for Ivan Toney, which I understand. He is a very good player and he has meshed very well with Bryan Mbuemo, who is a killer on the outside. It is not difficult to imagine Raya hitting Toney and Toney feeding the ball to Saka and Martinelli on the exterior of the pitch.
I am not sure the sort of money Brentford will be demanding, multiplied by Toney’s age, divided by Arsenal’s FFP position is an equation that adds up. Brentford will want main man money for Toney and I am not convinced that is the status he would or should get at Arsenal. (For Chelsea, for instance, it would make more sense).
Having a big striker gives fans comfort, in English football parlance, “Plan B” can be directly translated as “a big man to hit long balls to.” I think Arsenal potentially have a version of that with Kai Havertz if they need it. My personal preference would be another quickfire wide player. For Arsenal, the time is probably coming where they have to call time on either Eddie Nketiah or Reiss Nelson and that will probably inform their need.
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