Wednesday, April 17, 2024

Have you ever played with plasticine?

I have a theory about Bukayo Saka that, essentially, there are various alternative timelines where he blossoms into a world class player for Arsenal but in a totally different position to the one he currently occupies. He broke into the team in early 2020 as a roving left-back because Kieran Tierney was injured.

I think there is an alternative timeline where Saka stays there and becomes the finest left wing-back in the world. Equally, I could have seen Saka as an elite ‘left eight’ and if he were a few years younger, that maybe Arsenal would have developed him into that Angel di Maria / Clarence Seedorf style midfield player upon Granit Xhaka’s departure.

But Xhaka was in situ as Saka broke into the team so he wasn’t really required there. I think, generally, you want someone of Saka’s quality as close to the goal as possible so converting him into an inverted right-winger was the best outcome. However, I think the decision to move him there for a lockdown era game away at Wolves in the summer of 2020 was largely driven by Nicolas Pepe’s unsuitability to Arteta’s football. (Though Pepe did start that game on the left, in fairness).

Saka wasn’t required on the left wing because Aubameyang was still being shoehorned into the position and Martinelli was waiting in the wings, so to speak. I think the fact that Arsenal bought Willian in the summer of 2020 (sorry for reminding you) meant that either Arteta was not totally convinced that Saka would develop into a right winger or that, at the least, he might need a senior player to help him to grow into it.

This is often how it is with youth development, coaches have to be open minded about how and where players will develop. In the end, Willian was even worse than Pepe and, thankfully, Saka’s ascendancy made that an administrative issue but not a footballing one. The TL;DR here is that Saka is so good that he probably would have slotted into several different positions for Arsenal but right-wing became the area where he was needed the most.

Saka is a very adaptable player and adaptability, or versatility, has been the hallmark of Arsenal and Arteta’s recruitment policy. I was very grabbed by something Lewis Ambrose said about Ben White on the Burnley preview podcast for Arseblog patrons last week.

‘Broadly, there are three types of right-back, the overlapper, one that sits in as a third centre-half or one who inverts into midfield. Ben White can do all three.’ This is all the more remarkable since he was initially bought as a centre-half. Alex Zinchenko was bought as a left-back who timeshares the full-back role with a pivotal central midfield position.

Takehiro Tomiyasu can play across the back four, Jakub Kiwior plays either as a tucked in left-back or a left centre-half, Leandro Trossard can operate across the front three as well as in midfield, Declan Rice can play in the deepest role in midfield or else pushed out into the left central midfield role.

Even Jorginho was used as a left sided eight in the recent victory over Liverpool. One of the reasons that Kai Havertz and Arsenal took a while to understand one another is precisely because his actual position, in graphic terms, is difficult to pin down. Following Saturday’s 5-0 win over Burnley, Havertz referred to this.

‘I am not a player who is just in one position. I like to switch, be flexible.’ For Arteta’s vision of positional football, it is more accurate to say that players play in areas rather than positions. A Havertz heatmap looks broadly similar whether he starts as a left eight or a nine, the difference, of course, is how and when he arrives in the more advanced position and what he is asked to do when he gets there.

Having a squad full of adaptable, tweakable players has, to this point, allowed Arteta to keep opponents guessing and react to issues. The most obvious recent example is the use of the ‘ten to the power of three model’. In response to Arsenal’s recent issues with deep block defences, Trossard, Havertz and Odegaard have operated as a central carousel.

It both makes each individual player difficult to detect (all three were on the scoresheet at Turf Moor on Saturday) and it draws opponents away from Martinelli and Saka so that teams are less able to double up on them out wide. That Odegaard, Trossard and Havertz are versatile, adaptable players made this possible.

Odegaard’s ability to drop deep and collect the ball has reduced the reliance on Zinchenko and Partey (though the former was missed in Porto in my view) and made the team less tethered to their fitful availability and removed the reliance on Rice and Havertz to try to be players they are not. Likewise, Arteta has played Kiwior at left-back recently but, crucially, is not asking him to perform Zinchenko’s hybrid role.

Kiwior is playing more like a left-sided centre-half, with Gabriel and Saliba shuffling slightly to the right of the defensive line. Meanwhile, Ben White is considered more able to play the hybrid full-back / midfield role so he has taken that on, allowing Kiwior to play in a manner more suited to his attributes.

Having squad depth and options is crucial for a team with title winning aspirations but the ability for Arteta to move his pieces around the chessboard is arguably Arsenal’s greatest strength. I suppose the next step in Arteta’s evolution is to anticipate issues before they arise, as opposed to reacting to them fairly swiftly. (He left the team unchanged for Porto and the hosts had clearly watched Arsenal’s games against Burnley and West Ham closely).

For all the incredible progress during his reign, Arsenal still have a tendency to spiral for a few games as teams briefly figure them out. Then Arteta and his staff assess the problem and arrive at a solution based on the malleability of his players.

Clearly, Arteta is a very bright tactical brain who has, so far, shown a really strong flair for tweaking and problem solving. This all stems from the recruitment of a collection of plasticine players whom he can remould and reshape at will.

Follow me on Twitter @Stillmanator

Related articles

Share article

Featured on NewsNow

Support Arseblog

Latest posts

Latest Arsecast