Following up on the last post about Arsenal’s declining defensive prowess I wanted to have a discussion about Nketiah and my impression of the role he plays for Arsenal. Since it’s this year’s theme to suggest Martinelli should play through the middle instead of Eddie I’ll also talk about that topic. And along the way, we’ll see just how incredibly good Gabriel Jesus is.
The data shows that Eddie doesn’t make as many tackles as Jesus, doesn’t have as many touches, doesn’t have as many key passes, and doesn’t have anywhere near the same number of overall passes. My initial reaction to this was that the least he could do is tackle more, harass more, and maybe he could give more effort there. But I think his touches and tackles are related because Jesus’ defense is triggered off him either losing the ball or helping to try to win the ball back when it’s mispassed to him. In other words, since we press from the top, because we trigger our first line of defense off losing the ball up top, and Jesus is far more integrated into the attack for Arsenal than Eddie, then Jesus’ defensive numbers are going to be higher than Eddie’s. This also explains why Arsenal’s defense and attack have dropped a bit in the last few weeks. It’s not just simply about effort.
So, what is the solution? Well, that’s a situation where it’s either nothing can be done or it’s on Arteta to find a solution. On the first thing, I think we just need to accept that Eddie is doing the best he can. He’s the guy we have and I don’t see lack of effort or commitment on his part. He gets a lot of good chances (especially the last two games) and is just a little bit off with his final shot, either rushing it or trying to hit it too hard.
Some folks like to say that THE skill for a striker is just getting the shot and while that’s important, it’s obviously simplistic reductionism and not the entire skill for a striker. Ian Wright talks about learning to finish and the hours and hours that he and guys like Bergkamp and Henry put in to learning how to control the spin of the ball, how to see the ball, the goal, the keeper, and learning different ways to put the ball into the back of the net from the same situation. That way when they got into that position to get that shot, they could finish. They practiced finishing because finishing is a skill.
With Eddie, you can see that he gets into the positions: 1.6 xG over the last two matches, 1.9 xG against Man U, 1.4 against Spurs. He only scored 2 goals in those 4 matches (both against United) and there have been quite a few chances which I think he’s wasted with poor shot selection. I assume he’s practicing, that the coaching staff are working on this with him, and that this will get better over time. Or maybe it won’t and he will turn out like many other strikers but for now, he’s the player we have and I’m choosing to support him.
The other thing, about his involvement in the buildup play is also an issue. Jesus is a ball to feet type of forward. He loves the ball, he wants to turn and take on defenders, force them into a bad challenge and either get buy them or draw the foul. When he collects deep, he’s adept at turning defenders if they get too close to him and that gives him a little extra space to receive and then to turn and find forward options (usually on the left).
With Eddie you don’t get hardly any of that. When he drops deep to offer an outlet it’s almost always for a back pass. When he does hold the ball up high he rarely turns and attacks. I have seen him take on defenders and I’m impressed when he does but it’s not nearly as effective and dangerous as Jesus.
I think there’s a little bit of hesitancy on his part at times. Arsenal play an ambitious type of football and maintaining high possession is super important to our game. And the stakes are incredibly high right now for Arsenal, we are in 1st place and trying to win our first League title since 2004. It’s natural for an inexperienced player to be wary of trying to do too much, of making mistakes which will put his teammates under pressure and potentially hurt his own chances of starting. Asking him to get more involved in the attack might blow up in our face, or he could just take the opportunity with both hands and run with it (literally!). It’s just going to have to be something that him, the team, and the manager all work out.
One thing to notice is how often he gets fouled. Since center backs aren’t as afraid of him turning them, they are getting touch tight with him whenever he drops to collect. For now (until the refs decide to stop calling it) this results in a lot of fouls from behind. He’s a tough player and he’s taking those kicks and getting up and going again, time and again. It’s no small feat. Imagine Tyrone Mings kneeing you in the anus 10 times a game*.
He’s also unpredictably good in the air (he’s not dominant, but he’s not terrible) both with his physical leap and his intelligence to know when to leap. Because of this and his ability to take punishment, when Arsenal need to go long, he provides an outlet. And because of his intelligence in the air, on corners and crosses he gets chances (he’s 3rd on the team behind Jesus and Gabriel in headed shots).
Like the way he gets chances and the kicking he takes, these are important factors when you think about whether or not Arsenal should just drop him and pick a different player to try in that position.
Suggesting Martinelli should start in the CF role over Eddie has a solid logical foundation: Martinelli is a good dribbler and is relied upon to collect and attack in the wide areas where he was effective earlier in the season. These are two of the important qualities that Jesus brings to the party and against the low block defenses it makes sense to pick a dribbler who can cause chaos. There have been several matches this season where Eddie was basically blanked because the opponents were able to double-team the players on the wings, deny him service, and he wasn’t aggressive enough collecting and dribbling at them (Bodo Glimt, Everton, Brentford).
Martinelli is also more creative than Eddie: Nelli has 39 key passes (none from corners yet), Nketiah 6. So, not only can he collect and dribble, he can also find a teammate. And Martinelli is an active presser and high-pitch defender. Because he’s higher-touch than Eddie, he could help start Arsenal’s counter-press more effectively. That could be super important going down the stretch.
But Nelli isn’t as strong as Nketiah in the air and on the ground, and doesn’t get himself into scoring positions as instinctually as Eddie does. It’s also true to say that Arteta tried Martinelli in the middle against Chelsea last year and it was a disaster (0 shots, 11 touches in 78 minutes), that doesn’t mean that you should never try it again, but rather that you can see why Arteta is hesitant.
That’s how crazy good Jesus is. He’s not only Arsenal’s best dribbler, taken the most shots, and created the most chances, but he also leads Arsenal in headed shots (and goals), takes the most fouls, and is an incredibly active forward defender. He can drop deep to collect, he can fight in the air, he can be an outlet higher up the pitch, he can turn and dribble, he can pass and move, he can get himself chances, and he can create for others. He would be the whole package if he was a better finisher. Replacing Jesus is impossible with just one of the guys we have. What we have are two guys who do parts of what he does but no complete single guy.
That said, things have grown stagnant these last few weeks. What I think might work well is to mix it up a little bit. Arsenal are fairly predictable in our attack and our defense is a bit lax over the last 5 games. If Arteta is hesitant to start Nelli at CF why not use Trossard? He has experience as a CF. You could start him there and have him swap with Martinelli in the middle to get some experience and throw the opponents some curve balls. And if that’s not working bring on Nketiah for his strength and poaching? Or even vice-versa.
Bottom line for me is that I see the value Nketiah and Martinelli bring to the team. Neither player, however, is the second coming of Jesus. But I do think we need to look at some different formations because I think we’ve become slightly predictable in our attack again.
Up next, Arsenal play Leicester in the League and it’s a must-win game if we want to stay on top. Brendan Rogers gets a lot of stick from us supporters but he’s an intelligent coach who will have seen what Brentford and Everton did and have a good game plan against us. I wonder if Arteta might try something slightly different in this match?
*I believe the full quote is “If you want an image of the future, imagine Tyrone Mings kneeing you in the coccyx over and over again, forever”.