Thursday, February 29, 2024

The Spare Man

“I feel like a lot of games I’m facing a double team with two guys on me and it’s the same for Gabi. It’s happening in every game. I keep watching all my games back trying to find a solution, what I can do better.

“In the end I just feel like I need to understand that this is how it’s going to be this season and I just need to deal with it and keep finding a way like I did today. That’s what I need to keep doing.” These were the words of Bukayo Saka after the late 1-0 win over Brentford on Saturday.

Arsenal’s attack is heavily reliant on Saka and Martinelli, partially because both are world class performers, partially because, for all his qualities, Gabriel Jesus is not a regular killer in front of goal and also, because Arsenal don’t have much in reserve on the flanks.

Leandro Trossard is an excellent player but has a very different profile to Saka and Martinelli, while Reiss Nelson is trusted for little more than dead minutes. Arsenal tend to need Martinelli and Saka on the pitch for close to every minute when a game is still alive.

Of course, when teams double up on a player, logic dictates that he will have a colleague free elsewhere. Arsenal’s task this season has been to find that spare player. Kai Havertz was bought, in part, to provide that undetected threat. Because what Arsenal are finding is that the spare man is often in the penalty area.

Following his late back post header against Brentford, Kai Havertz revealed that working the ball to him at the far post is something that Arsenal work on a lot. “We train this routine quite a lot in training. I know Bukayo (Saka) or Martin (Odegaard), love to play these balls.”

The far post is proving to be a bountiful avenue for Arsenal, as Ahmed Walid analyses in-depth in this piece in The Athletic. In his analysis of the Brentford victory on, Adrian Clarke points out that Havertz’s eventual winner and Leo Trossard’s first half strike narrowly ruled out for offside came from near identical situations at the GTech.

Saka finding that slip of space on the corner of the penalty area is very much a worked move for Arsenal and while there are two defenders trying to stop him from finding it, that leaves a spare man and often that spare man is in the penalty area. When you sift through Arsenal’s goals this season, this pattern repeats. Here is Leandro Trossard’s late equaliser at Stamford Bridge.

As Saka shapes up, there are two Chelsea players in close attendance but that creates a defensive imbalance that sees Trossard free on the far post and he takes full advantage. Trossard has struck up an excellent understanding with Saka, all of his Arsenal goals have been teed up by Saka and a big part of that is because Trossard is good at finding himself as the spare man.

“It’s not that I ignore passes from other players, it’s just a coincidence, but I always try to get in the right positions and it’s B who sets up my goals,” Trossard said recently. The aspiration for Arsenal has to be that Havertz and Martinelli appreciate some of those attacking spaces on the far side as well as Trossard has when Saka is doubled up on.

There are burgeoning signs that Havertz is cottoning on. Shortly before his goal against RC Lens on Wednesday evening, he gets a free header on the back post from a Tomiyasu cross which drifts just wide. A few minutes later, he is on hand to latch onto a Gabriel Jesus knockdown from another Tomiyasu cross. There are signs that Havertz and Arsenal are beginning to understand one another.

While Saka talked about the close attention he receives with a hint of lament, his numbers remain peerless in the team. Nine assists and seven goals in 17 starts this season is a very impressive rate of production. His opposite wingman, Gabriel Martinelli, is probably suffering more in this climate of opposition caution.

The Brazilian has two goals and an assist in three Champions League games this season where attention has not nearly been as intense. His performance in the home game against Sevilla was a clinic in what he can do with one-on-one situations. He has had precious few of those in the Premier League and it has impacted him more than Saka.

Martinelli has a goal and two assists in 11 Premier League appearances (though the goal he scored, the late winner against Manchester City, was the most important of the season so far). His XG is down from 0.30 per game last season to 0.13 this. Expected assists are down from 0.29 to 0.18. That has cut his overall expected end product almost in half from 0.59 per game to 0.31.

There are reasons for this, of course. Saka has a network around him on the right side in the shape of Odegaard and Ben White that gives him options and decoy options. Martinelli has less of a networks. Arsenal’s left-back doesn’t overlap but instead tucks into midfield while it has taken Kai Havertz a little while to get the hang of the left eight role.

Martinelli’s game is less about accuracy and more about volume because the plan is to get him into isolated situations against full-backs but those scenarios are becoming increasingly rare. Saka is also a better crosser of the ball and crosses are where Arsenal are finding some of these superiorities.

At Brentford, Martinelli was substituted and Trossard was moved to the left wing and this was, in my view, because Trossard is better at that clipped cross from the corner of the area to the back post. We are seeing Zinchenko do more of this this season too. He is averaging 2.67 crosses per 90 this season compared to 1.57 in 2022-23.

Crossing and combining is not really what Arsenal ask Martinelli to do. The good news for him is that once teams start to detect Zinchenko’s increased crossing prowess, they will have to commit a man to stop him from clipping those deliveries in. If Kai Havertz and Arsenal starts to become a more fruitful marriage too, then suddenly the left side of the attack suddenly looks more like a team effort than Martinelli on an island. (Saka’s goal against Lens emanates from Martinelli and Havertz combining on the left).

It is also well established that Martinelli and Jesus have a strong partnership and Jesus does a lot to take markers away from Martinelli, certainly more than Nketiah does and, in Premier League terms, it’s a combination we have not been able to see enough of thus far. Teams are doubling up on Saka and Martinelli and there are nascent signs that the team are finding the spare players in the penalty area more often.

Follow me on Twitter @Stillmanator

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