Monday, May 20, 2024

From band to orchestra

In the 2021-22 season, Arsenal’s starting eleven had ten core players in it. Ramsdale; Tomiyasu, White, Gabriel, Tierney; Partey, Odegaard, Xhaka; Saka, Martinelli / Smith Rowe; Lacazette. Only the wide left spot was subject to any kind of debate. Emile Smith Rowe played 1,921 minutes that season compared to Martinelli’s 1,860.

Outside of that, Arsenal’s core squad players were Cedric, Tavares, Lokonga, Holding, Nketiah, Elneny and Pepe. Nketiah got a run in the team once Lacazette’s form had circled the drain enough times; but the rest only ever played when there were injuries. It was not a deep squad in terms of players Arteta trusted.

The signings of Gabriel Jesus and Zinchenko and the re-integration of Saliba in the summer of 2022 transformed the starting eleven with Tierney falling out of favour and Lacazette leaving on a free transfer. Fabio Vieira provided depth for the bench. The arrivals of Jorginho, Trossard and Kiwior in January 2023 further supplemented the depth of the squad and pushed what was essentially a core of 12-13 in 2021-22 to a core of 15-16 by the end of 2022-23.

Trossard and Kiwior were depth signings, albeit at different stages of their careers. Jorginho was signed because Thomas Partey’s fitness levels were too unreliable not to have another senior option in the midfield anchor position. The additions of Rice, Raya and Havertz in the summer of 2023 were ceiling raisers as opposed to floor raisers (I am sure the addition of Jurrien Timber was intended this way too).

The flexibility of Rice and Havertz has created greater depth by stealth too, Havertz is just as trusted at nine as he is at left eight and Arteta doesn’t seem too fussed whether Rice anchors the midfield or plays a more box-to-box role. It makes Arsenal’s midfield and forward construction more fluid from game to game and in-game.

Slowly Arsenal have pushed more towards a model of having 18 or so players that could feature in the starting line-up without drawing much comment, with ‘The Hale End Boys’ (Smith Rowe, Nelson and Nketiah) forming the remainder of the core group. (However much you rate these players, whenever one of them starts a significant game now, it is a discussion point).

I would say Arsenal, like most big teams, have about half a team’s worth of outfield players who will pretty much always start when fit. Gabriel, Saliba, Rice, Odegaard, Saka (White is still in this group too but once Timber is fully fit that could yet change). Kai Havertz’s recent form might have pushed him into this category too.

The remaining places in the team are then open to a core of players like Jesus, Martinelli, Kiwior, Tomiyasu, Trossard, Jorginho, Partey and Zinchenko. As I mentioned earlier, Partey’s unreliable fitness really took him firmly out of that core group. The same thing probably happened to Tomiyasu too in truth, a member of the 2021-22 core, injuries meant Ben White played at right-back and Tomiyasu has not been able to win that place back (nor been fit enough long enough to mount a serious challenge).

The names that really jump out in that ‘second tier’ list, if you will, are Gabriel Jesus and Oleksandr Zinchenko. When they were recruited in the summer of 2022 they, in Mikel Arteta’s words, ‘changed our world.’ Zinchenko inverting into midfield from left-back took a while for opponents to come to grips with, while watching Gabriel Jesus upfront after a few years of Lacazette’s huffing and puffing felt like moving from a garage into a four bed semi-detached.

Both players have lost a little primacy this season but that is not the same as saying they have become expendable. Both have endured their injury troubles, which has both allowed and necessitated that Arsenal work with alternatives. The recruitment of Jurrien Timber was, in my view, a resilience move since Zinchenko really struggles to stay fit for a concerted period; as does Tomiyasu.

As a result, this season, Arsenal had fallen into a model of Tomiyasu and Zinchenko ‘time sharing’ the left-back role in combinations of 60-30 or 70-20 minutes wise, in various iterations. On the face of it, it seems like a smart use of resources. Zinchenko gives Arsenal so much bravery and security on the ball; but he is not a natural defender, Tomiyasu is broadly the opposite.

But the timeshare arrangement probably emphasises the fact that neither player really gives Arteta everything he wants from that position. He wants a Tomichenko or a Ziniyasu. Having five substitutions makes these ‘timeshare’ arrangements more viable now but it still represents ‘burning’ a substitute which probably denies Arteta the chance to use someone like Smith Rowe or Vieira more often.

Jesus’ injury woes forced Arsenal into playing Kai Havertz further forward and much as Tomiyasu watched Ben White take his job, Jesus could be witnessing something similar with Kai Havertz. The Brazilian’s ability to play wide allied to Arsenal’s shortage of trusted wide forwards has availed him of more minutes recently but I am pretty certain Arteta will want to reinforce in the wide areas this summer.

Which begs the question as to what the future of the centre-forward position will be? Will things go ‘back to normal’ next season with Havertz in midfield? Will it operate on a timeshare arrangement between Jesus and Havertz, who both offer very different qualities? That is a nice conundrum for Arteta, Jesus’ cameo from the bench against Bayern was outstanding and helped Arsenal salvage a draw from that game.

But Jesus left Manchester City partially to emerge from that ‘second tier’ cocoon and become a main man at Arsenal. I think the goalkeeping situation really introduced supporters to Arteta’s ultra ruthless side but a side effect of that is that we think that every player who experiences a slight drop in status is being primed for the exit door.

The goalkeeping position is obviously very different because you can only have one on the pitch and, despite what Arteta said earlier this season, nobody ever subs the goalkeeper. I don’t believe that the team is moving beyond Jesus and Zinchenko, I just think the squad is moving beyond having single points of failure. (Bukayo Saka excepted).

I think there is a part of us that has some leftover trauma from the Ramsdale relegation and we are waiting for the next victim of Arteta’s ruthlessness. Don’t get me wrong, we probably will see that again. But what I think we are seeing is a squad with an expanding and versatile cast. That might mean see a few front men move to the rhythm section but that’s perfectly fine if you are looking to turn your band into more of an orchestra.

Follow me on Twitter @Stillmanator

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