A new balance
Much has been made over the last few days of the injection of youth and enthusiasm into Arsenal’s attack, reversing their recent fortunes with deserved wins over Chelsea and Brighton. Both games provided very different challenges for the Gunners and, in many ways, professionally eking out a 1-0 victory at Brighton was the most impressive result of the two games, if not the most impressive performance.
Arteta’s Arsenal have shown an aptitude for games against Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester City already, breaking down obstinate defences while keeping the back door closed has been more of an issue during the manager’s reign. The improved displays have coincided with the introduction of Gabriel Martinelli and Emile Smith-Rowe into the attack, while Bukayo Saka has won consecutive man of the match awards playing from the right.
This has, understandably, led many to conclude that blooding ‘the kids’ has revived the club’s sagging fortunes but I think that is a tad reductive. It is quality and balance that Martinelli and Smith-Rowe have added, their youth is not particularly important to the equation. Joe Willock and Edie Nketiah did not start either of the last two games and Reiss Nelson wasn’t even on the bench.
As I wrote a fortnight ago they are squad players and that is absolutely fine and what the academy should be used for. Arsenal shouldn’t be spending big money on a third choice number 9, a third / fourth choice right winger and a rotational central midfield / number 10 option.
Smith-Rowe, Saka and Martinelli are a level above in terms of quality and that is what we have seen in recent games. Smith-Rowe hasn’t been especially outstanding in either match, he has been very highly competent and his involvement has improved the team’s results because they don’t have another player in the squad with his qualities.
Anyone that has watched Arsenal recently can see there has been a real issue linking the midfield to the attack- even Alex Lacazette has been tried as a number 10 in an attempt to escape the horseshoe passing patterns in front of opposition defences. Smith-Rowe is also a rarity in the Gunners midfield because his technical level is high, he can look after the ball in tight spaces and accept the ball on the half-turn.
However, he has shown other valuable and intelligent qualities in the role. For a start, he attacks the penalty area when he doesn’t have the ball, supporting Arsenal’s number 9 with a run from deep. He was nearly rewarded in the first half against Chelsea, just failing to connect with a Bellerin cutback inside the area. It is the kind of run that the likes of Elneny, Ceballos and Xhaka just do not make.
His presence has also led to improved contributions from Alex Lacazette (admittedly across a small sample size). Having an actual number 10 behind him has shrunk the space Lacazette is being asked to operate in and has limited the amount of pressing that he is asked to do. As I wrote last month, Lacazette has often been an island in the 9.5 role and it is not always clear who he is being asked to connect to. Smith-Rowe’s presence has given him a linking player.
It’s the 83rd minute and Lacazette is sprinting to close players down….
— Tim Stillman (@Stillberto) December 26, 2020
I also like Smith-Rowe’s positional intelligence. He plugs gaps when Martinelli or Saka look to move inside, often drifting out to the flanks in the way that Mesut Özil often used to. This has led to greater fluency in Arsenal’s attacking movements with players swapping positions more freely. Bukayo Saka created both of the Gunners’ clear-cut chances against Brighton, one from the right flank and one from the left.
Smith-Rowe’s willingness to interchange made this possible. I am not quite sure why Arsenal thought Willian could play this drifting role from the flank, moving inside to help create overloads centrally. The Brazilian is possibly the most old-fashioned, belt and braces, chalk on the boots winger we have seen in the Premier League for many a year.
His willingness to stick to the right flank provided a valuable counterbalance for Chelsea, who allowed Eden Hazard to wander in from the left and for Brazil, for whom Neymar does something similar. Arsenal seem to have acquired Willian in the hope that he can execute a role he has never performed before.
Smith-Rowe can execute that drifting role and it has helped to lubricate a previously stodgy attack. Possibly the most interesting development over the last few days have been Bukayo Saka’s man of the match performances from the right flank. He has played notably better than either Pepe or Willian have from the same vantage point.
One of the most underrated attributes for a young player is their ability to create partnerships. We saw Saka and Martinelli strike up a fantastic mutual understanding last season when Saka played as a left wing-back. Saka has already forged a synergy with Smith-Rowe too, with the players swapping positions because they are both comfortable playing inside and outside.
Martinelli’s qualities are less subtle and easier to appreciate, his relentlessness puts one in mind of Luis Suarez or Alexis Sanchez. The young Brazilian says that Cristiano Ronaldo is his idol and one can see why. Martinelli certainly brought the best out of Kieran Tierney against Chelsea, with the Scot pushing right up the pitch to supplement Martinelli’s ferocious pressing game.
Martinelli’s presence also reduces the significance of Arsenal’s low technical quality in midfield. Arsenal are not a team that can play quick combination passes through midfield- they have a collection of touch hungry players reticent of playing a first-time pass. Martinelli’s willingness to run after lost causes means that Arsenal can just play first time passes over to the left flank.
They can play these passes without looking, frankly, because Martinelli will absolutely run after it like a bull terrier chasing a stray tennis ball in the park. He enables Arsenal to be more direct if required. The big question facing Arteta for the remainder of the season is how to integrate Martinelli and Aubameyang into the same forward line.
All of the Brazilian’s breakout performances have coincided with Aubameyang’s rare absences. They are both relatively low touch players who like to run into similar spaces. To play together, the remainder of the Gunners front four needs to be made up of technical, ball hungry players. Saka and Smith-Rowe broadly fit this bill.
Against Brighton there were signs of Auba and Martinelli dovetailing and swapping positions, which is promising but will require further work on the training ground. The combination of both players hasn’t worked yet but that doesn’t mean it cannot in perpetuity. Clearly there is a need to protect Arsenal’s trio of young attackers from burnout or recurring injury but, for now, Arteta at least has something to work with in the attacking sense. It might just save his job.
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