Earlier this week, Jon Mackenzie at Tifo produced an excellent video entitled ‘Are Arsenal Worse This Season?’ His conclusion was not so much that Arsenal were worse but that they were different, producing less attacking threat while looking far more secure defensively.
Jon went into some excellent detail about how Arsenal are struggling to attack through the centre of the pitch this season with a lower proportion of their chance creation coming from that area. I thoroughly recommend watching the video because Jon goes into a lot of detail and a lot of hypotheses on why this is happening.
I think the truth is that Arsenal’s spine has been disturbed this season, as it was at the end of last season. During Arsenal’s peak last autumn, Zinchenko would invert alongside Thomas Partey at the base of the midfield with Xhaka to the left of them and Odegaard to the right.
When Zinchenko was required in his ‘natural’ left-back position, Xhaka would slide across next to Partey and Arsenal retained a solid base. Clearly, there has been some upheaval in the central areas of the team this season. Thomas Partey has started three games for Arsenal this season, all of them as an inverting right-back.
The signing of Declan Rice during the summer was a significant one for reasons that do not require rehashing here. However, his arrival has required some form of accommodation. Rice is excellent off the ball and that was an attribute the Gunners badly needed after the second half of last season saw a proliferation of helter-skelter games.
15 – Times Declan Rice lost possession, tied for the most with Arsenal.
He has added a TON of running and really good things but he passing was a bit loose today. Hopefully, he can clean that up. pic.twitter.com/XdDmGCdDIO
— Scott Willis (@scottjwillis) October 24, 2023
Arteta needed to fix the off-ball vulnerabilities in Arsenal’s spine and the combination of Partey and Zinchenko gave the team a solid technical base but not a solid athletic base. Both players have, shall we say, very twitchy muscles prone to a twang and a twinge and neither recovers into space behind them very quickly.
Granit Xhaka, whose forename almost looks like nominative determinism, provided that sense of physical stability. The left eight role suited Xhaka because he is an endurance athlete. You didn’t want him engaged in a foot race in the final third but asking him to run up and down in straight lines in that left channel of the pitch suited his athletic capabilities perfectly.
This season, Arsenal no longer have Xhaka and the Kai Havertz experiment is, if we are being kind, yet to reap rewards. Arsenal have chopped and changed in that position, sometimes asking Havertz to play there and perform his lamppost impression and sometimes putting Jorginho at the base of the midfield and asking Declan Rice to be Granit Xhaka+ in the left midfield role.
In his video, Jon highlights how Rice, exceptional player though he is, is still more effective slightly outside the central block. He has yet to develop that ability to collect the ball from a centre-half, turn smartly and punch the ball through the lines. This is Thomas Partey’s superpower.
Partey is not remotely the athlete that Rice is but on the rare occasions that he is fit, he will sit at the base of the midfield all day long, turn, pass through the lines, turn, pass through the lines, turn, pass through the lines. That repeatability has been missing. Jorginho can do a passable impression of that, albeit at a slightly slower tempo.
However, the mix of Jorginho at the base of the midfield with Zinchenko inverting still looks a little awkward and as though it produces redundancy. It’s not a coincidence that Zinchenko and Odegaard both look out of sorts and both could probably point to the absence of Thomas Partey as a factor in their recent declines.
Allied to this, Gabriel Jesus has either been injured or asked to fill in on one of the flanks, which means Eddie Nketiah has started upfront in eight Premier League games. Nketiah is probably Arsenal’s most inconsistent player from one match to the next and there are games where it feels like you need a helicopter to find him.
The mixture of Nketiah and Havertz is an especially unsatisfying one, even in the garish, highlighter yellow away shirts at London Stadium on Wednesday, I had to squint to find either of them. (Then again, I was in Row 64…) Allied to the instability at the base of the team, Arsenal haven’t had their Brazilian flare gun at centre-forward often enough.
PSV at home and Sevilla away in the Champions League have been two of Arsenal’s best performances of the season so far and both were supercharged by Jesus at centre-forward. In short, Arsenal have lost Granit Xhaka and not had a stable solution in his position, they have lost Thomas Partey, however predictable that may be and they have largely played without Jesus at centre-forward.
In addition to that, superb as Rice is, there is probably still a question as to whether his best role is in Granit Xhaka’s old position, just wide of the opposition defensive block. Odegaard was rested for the Sheffield United game last weekend, which made plenty of sense given his form and fitness, but there is just no way an on-form Odegaard would have been rested in my view.
Likewise, Zinchenko has gone from a totem pole player to someone whose status is diminishing. He started at West Ham because it is very likely Tomiyasu will be preferred to him at left-back at Newcastle on Saturday and, assuming my theory is correct, Zinchenko was still hooked after 57 minutes in East London.
Last season, pretty much any and every game was considered a Zinchenko game. Partly through Tomiyasu’s performances and partly through Zinchenko’s mixed displays, we are in territory now where certain types of games are not considered Zinchenko games any longer.
I still think he is somewhat a victim of the chopping and changing in central spaces and trying to develop new relationships. It is all very well pointing to the absence of Thomas Partey as a kind of midfield glue but we have long since reached the stage where Partey’s availability should be treated as a surprise- like finding a crumpled fiver in an old winter coat.
Medium term, the question is whether Arsenal become accustomed to being able to field different combinations in midfield and use that flexibility as a strength as the season goes on, or whether new partnerships begin to foment and overtake old ones. Maybe Tomiyasu at left-back and Rice as the left eight, for example, will mix very nicely. For now, it still looks like Arteta is finessing the formula in the spine of the team.
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