Monday, May 20, 2024

To the left

Bukayo Saka has 41 starts in all competitions so far this season, Ben White has 40 and Martin Odegaard 39. Last season, Saka made 42 starts and Odegaard and White had 39 a piece. That virtuous triangle stationed on the right of the Arsenal team has been a consistent corner stone of the last two seasons.

In 2022-23, Gabriel Martinelli started 40 games on the left wing, Granit Xhaka made 43 starts, all as a left eight and Zinchenko started 28 games at left-back. While Zinchenko’s fitness meant he could not match Ben White’s numbers at right-back, Arsenal’s left side still had a consistency to it that has not been matched in this campaign.

Xhaka started 37 Premier League games in the left eight position, while Martinelli started 36 on the left wing- only missing the final two games of the season. This season, Kai Havertz, Declan Rice, Emile Smith Rowe, Fabio Vieira and Leandro Trossard have all started league games as a ‘left eight’. Martinelli has started 29 games on the left wing with Trossard, Jesus and Reiss Nelson all getting Premier League starts on that flank.

At left-back, the picture has shifted too but not into a settled groove. Zinchenko has 24 starts and 11 sub appearances, Jakub Kiwior has 17 starts (16 of them at left-back) and 10 sub appearances and Takehiro Tomiyasu has 11 starts and 14 sub appearances. Jurien Timber started the opening Premier League fixture at left-back.

In Kiwior, Tomiyasu and Zinchenko, Arsenal have three left-backs who have different attributes but none of them offer the absolute solid gold all-round game possessed by Ben White, for example. That Arsenal have fielded different left-backs in each of their last three games could be considered an example of depth and flexibility and that is true, but what it demonstrates the most is that Arteta does not have the ‘game for your life’ player there.

I listed the number of sub appearances for the left-backs because Arsenal very often sub their left-back. Zinchenko and Tomiyasu tend to suit different game states and have not yet proved they can regularly play 90 minutes in any case. Kiwior has suffered a few difficult games in the position too. I am certain that Arteta doesn’t really want to ‘burn’ a substitute at left-back in every single game due to unsatisfactory options. The need to do this has probably cost players like Vieira and Smith Rowe a greater number of minutes this season.

I think it is likely that a lot of this moving of chess pieces on the left side has had a knock-on effect for Gabriel Martinelli. The Brazilian is averaging 0.48 goal contributions per 90 minutes in the Premier League this season, which is not bad going but represents a drop-off compared to his 0.65 goal contributions per 90 last season.

Injuries will have played a part in that, of course and an elite player cannot be the Goldilocks type who needs everything around them to be juuuuuuust right forever. But I certainly think the shifting around at left-back and left eight is the principle cause of his diminished returns this season.

It feels like Arsenal are going to have to make some decisions in these areas over the summer. On one hand, the squad might be building a good level of flexibility and resilience on the left side of the pitch with a lot of different players having experience on that axis. You imagine an injury to any one of White, Odegaard or Saka would have knock-on effects on the two remaining members of that trio.

There again, their qualities are not inextricably combined, they are all elite players in their own right and they would be missed as individuals as much as they would be as a three piece. While Arsenal should not aspire to having a firm first choice eleven and should bake rotation and resilience into their formula, the left side feels more like a case of having a lot of ‘nearly’ options.

Does there have to be a firmer decision on who and what Declan Rice and Kai Havertz are and where they play? Have we crossed that rubicon between a pleasing amount of flexibility and ‘we haven’t quite worked it out yet’? The fates of Rice and Havertz do feel much more linked and with Jorginho and Thomas Partey’s futures uncertain and their age profiles out of step with the bulk of the squad, it does feel as though decisions will be made.

Fabio Vieira seems to have drifted into the Smith Rowe, Nketiah and Nelson squad category of not being trusted for significant minutes and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if a left-back featured highly on the shopping list this summer. It strikes me that Arteta would probably like to have a Tomi-chenko or Ziniyasu type who can move the ball confidently without looking like a fish up a tree every time a winger faces him up.

Maybe Arsenal could splice Zinchenko and Tomiyasu and keep the smooth passing, shut down defender for themselves and sell the average distributor / average defender with horrendous injury issues to Spurs? Whatever happens this summer I think we can see that the left side of the Arsenal team is probably in need of a spring clean.

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