Before we start anything let’s take a moment to congratulate Arsenal Football Club on their return to the Champions League, a competition I have virtually nothing but shitty memories of us playing in. So many years, so many disappointments, mistakes, and controversial refereeing decisions. I pray to Crom that Arsenal will solve the riddle of steel and do what’s necessary to give us a good chance to win the Champions League, not merely stay in it year after year.
And what does the riddle of steel tell us that we need to do?
Well, for one, we need to keep all the young players that we have and make sure we are paying them appropriately and have them on long-term deals. I’m thinking specifically of William Saliba and Bukayo Saka. I hear from journos on twitter that those deals are in the works so, fingers crossed we don’t run into any impediments on getting those deals done.
The other big thing that Arsenal need to make sure is that we are bringing through top quality academy players. Everyone has their favorites and there’s no point even arguing over whether they are ready or not because they are largely emotional picks. What I hope is happening (especially with Smith Rowe) is something which Man City do a lot of (with multi-million pound players) and that is bringing them along slowly. Jack Grealish, for example, didn’t feature that often for City his first year. Kalvin Phillips is now in his first year and hasn’t played many meaningful minutes. Julian Alvarez comes on to give a breather for Haaland and so on. Getting a pipeline set up like that, of ready-made replacements is part of the entire “process” of rebuilding a club like Arsenal and I believe that Arteta will want to do that and is pursuing that goal.
One thing that shows up in the stats is that Gabriel (two saints) was Arsenal’s most-played player. He played over 3,954 minutes last season, which is the equivalent of about 44 full 90s. I know that somewhere in the past Arteta said that modern players can play 50 matches a season now and maybe that’s true. Looking over at Man City’s stats, Rodri is on 45 and will almost certainly surpass 50 before the season’s over.
But there’s also no question for me that some players CAN play that much and not suffer and others cannot. It’s been pretty plain to see that Bukayo Saka’s form has taken a dip in the last few months. He has just one goal and one assist since returning from international duty. Is that due to fatigue or is that because of Saliba’s injury? We don’t know, because we aren’t privy to his medical reports. But we can ask, who is Saka’s backup?
Many folks say Reiss Nelson and I am one of the people who sing “All we are saying, is give Reiss a chance!” but there is a small problem there: Nelson is right footed. That may seem like a small detail or even insignificant but it just means that on the right – where Saka plays – Reiss ends up playing less like an inverted winger and more like a traditional wide man. That’s why while he does come on for Saka, he’s often deployed on the left side of the Arsenal attack. His heat map for the season shows him playing both sides but it favors the left.
Trossard is more two-footed than Reiss, but he’s still not a lefty. The only two lefty options are Vieira and Øde and I don’t think either of them are viable forwards. So, I think we need to find a solution to the problem of playing Saka too much and also I would say Gabriel (two saints). Gabriel’s played nearly every minute of every Arsenal match at RCB and while the load can be less on CBs than on forwards, it’s still important to have someone ready to come in and take over. Is that Kiwior?
On the left, Xhaka is reportedly leaving. That means either Vieira is going to be promoted to permanently take over that role or Arsenal need to purchase another player to play there. Personally, I’d like someone more robust than Vieira. I would pick Alexis Mac Allister to play that Xhaka role (or Ilkay Gundogan who is also supposedly available) or if you want to go into the European market you could try Enzo Le Fee or Rayan Cherki. I know that many folks love the redemption arc of Xhaka and I will tell my children about his perfect final season but any of the names I’ve mentioned would be an upgrade because they are all excellent with the ball.
The British press are saying that Arsenal are “just waiting for West Ham to set their price” for Declan Rice and that he’s our main target this summer. I’m guessing that what they mean is that we are waiting to see if West Ham get relegated before making our first offer. But if this is true, it’s huge. The TIFO IRL (informative video) guys believe that Rice could play in the Xhaka role but I’m not as convinced as they are. I see him as the natural replacement for Thomas Partey instead.
Statistically, Rice ticks all the boxes so my only hesitation is that when I’ve seen him play against better pressing teams they seem to be aware that he is largely one-footed and they literally show him onto his left foot. He’s broken that move a few times with a creative right-foot dribble but any time he needs to use his left foot to drive forward it looks awkward. In fact, a lot of his dribbles look awkward.
I will also add that Rice has an uncanny nose for defending. So much so that I don’t know if I would want to sort of “waste” it up top in the Xhaka position. Up there, he’s not going to get a chance to show us the full range of his defensive abilities. Though on the other hand, if he did play up there I’d expect that he’d force a lot of turnovers in a more dangerous position.
The other midfielder currently strongly linked is Moises Caicedo. Caicedo is another interesting choice at Arsenal because he hasn’t really demonstrated the ball control and elite level passing that you would typically want to see from a CDM. That’s not to say he can’t pass, he’s good, just not elite. That said, he’s more than just a destroyer. He’s got quite a bit in the locker that would help Arsenal in the DM role but in terms of passing, I think he’s a step down from Partey or Jorginho. So, I’m not sure how Arteta saw him being deployed. I do know that Arteta wanted him, so he had something in mind! I also definitely don’t see him playing in the Xhaka role but what he can offer is the ability to play multiple positions. He played Right Back when Arsenal lost to them this weekend. I don’t know if Arsenal are still interested in Caicedo, however. We balked at Brighton’s absurd asking fee last time and I don’t know why they would lower their ask.
It might seem like I’m naming a lot of players needed at Arsenal and I am. Sorry but we saw all of these problems emerge throughout the season. In a perfect world, we’d be selling on the players we aren’t going to use anymore and I can name a few more that I think we should sell even if we are going to use them. If turnover and money were no problems I would get in a backup keeper, another left back (if Tierney is moving on as rumored), another LCB, another RCB, another RB, a new CDM and backup, replacement for Xhaka, backup for Saka, and another option up top for Jesus. It’s not very realistic, though. In reality we will probably get two or three players in and move a bunch of players on. There will hopefully be a few academy players added to the permanent rotation as well, which is a good thing.
Tactically, there is a weird problem that I can’t figure out and I haven’t heard anyone else identify: why Arsenal’s home form sucks. In away games, Arsenal have the best record in the league (City will probably catch us when they play their next away match) but at home, Arsenal were 3rd best (and will probably drop to 4th when Man U play their next home game). Specifically, it’s goals against which are killing our home form. We are 2nd in the league in goals against in away games and 14th in the League in goals against at home. It’s incongruous to say the least.
That said, in the past, I’ve argued that away form matters slightly more during a rebuilding phase because it shows more of what the potential for a team is. Those away games are the harder matches so, playing well there is a more positive sign. I’m also 110% certain that Mikel Arteta is angry about our home form and will be looking to do something about it. I’ll be surprised if we don’t have the best or 2nd best home defensive record next season.
The other thing I think Mikel needs to improve on is his in game management and the team’s flexibility. Brighton surprised Arsenal by playing man-to-man out of possession. This is normally a suicidal tactic because to defeat it, all you have to do is have one of your players make runs that drags a defender into a weird position and suddenly there will be a ton of space. But it looked like Arsenal were sort of ultra rigid in their positional play and didn’t want to break their formation which made it easy for Brighton to play their man-marking system. Arteta will again be fully aware of this and will want to make sure it doesn’t happen again. Especially because we were playing brilliantly defensively against them with our high press, forcing them to simply go long. If Arteta and the team had been able to react to the man-to-man pressure, (and Kiwior not tried to tie his shoe on a defensive possession) that result could have easily gone the other way.
So, there you go. Lots of work to do this summer for Arsenal. And most of it starts, kinda, now.