Today’s blog comes after the news that Pepe has become the second Arsenal player to voice their frustrations over their lack of playing time and opportunities. William Saliba, the other.
“My goal is to play more. Have a little more playing time,” said Pepe. “A player who plays is happy. For me, I would like to play a little more to find a smile again. He [Arteta] wants me to be 100 per cent focused during the 90 minutes of the match. Afterwards, I see during training that I will be a substitute the following weekend.”
Pepe’s game time has been sporadic at best, and it seems as though it comes down to the opinions of his performances.
Performances. What a player comes out and does on the pitch. What they present to the fans, the club, and most importantly their manager. It’s what they have to offer, it’s what they are paid to put on, but it also acts as their priceless currency. Exchangeable for more opportunities to play, support from fans, and at some point down the line larger contracts, bonuses, and… you know…real currency.
A performance in different matches, with different opposition, within different competitions obviously carry more value. That’s a given. It makes sense. But what’s hard to understand and see from an Arsenal supporters perspective, is the current value of a great performance — or possibly more frustrating, the price of a poor one.
We know Mikel talks about performances; every manager does in their own way. Some talk about individual players, some keep it focused on the team, many willing to do both. After Aston Villa, Arteta talked about the team performance being below standards, although he took the brunt of the blame as many believe he should.
When it comes to player performances, it gets a little more complicated. Arteta wiped the metaphorical slate clean for players like Granit Xhaka and Shkodran Mustafi when he arrived and they reaped the benefits of their performances. Toward the end of the last season, Arteta repeatedly complimented Mustafi on his performances. David Luiz likewise, but that makes sense. There were very few options for the center back role at that time.
This year is different. There are quite a few options in certain positions which makes it a more competitive squad to break into for players. But the value of a great game, or a poor game, is very confusing. I even question if it’s all that consistent.
Take Pepe for example who was praised for his performance against Sheffield United when he came of the bench and scored. “I demand on matchday to be completely focused and determined to make an impact and that’s what he’s done,” Arteta said about Nicolas after the match. Pepe was rewarded with a start against Manchester City, a tough team for any player to start against, and then reduced back to Europa League duties after the loss.
On the flip side, Pepe’s direct competition, Willian, has struggled through each of his performances this year, after his debut. It may be harsh, but even his debut with two assists could be downplayed seeing as one was from a set piece and the other was an immaculate finish from Aubameyang. A bit cynical, but since that match, the Willian we have seen has been even further below the level of play that his harshest critics would have projected when the deal was complete.
Against Molde, both Pepe and Willian played. Pepe found the back of the net for Arsenal’s third goal while Willian looked like a player that felt the game was beneath his efforts. Yet after the match when Arteta has called for more consistency from the attacking players he had this to offer about Willian.
“I can see a development in the last two games, the understanding of the things I ask them to do, it’s probably different from what he’s used to. He’s getting better and better, we all know the quality he has, and he’s a great option to have on the pitch.”
That was followed by Aston Villa. A match in which Willian looked more frustrated than we have ever seen him and his performance was objectively horrendous.
Switch gears to Joe Willock, a player that has had immense success with every opportunity that is given to him this season. It’s all within the Europa League group stages where, yes, the opposition is below the Premier League, I think that goes without saying, but after three very impressive displays, he has yet to make a Premier League match’s 18-man squad. Reiss Nelson likewise.
At the beginning of the piece, I mentioned William Saliba as another player that has voiced their anger and been rightfully frustrated at the lack of playing time and clarity that surrounds his immediate future. His situation is possibly more frustrating than Pepe’s.
He was on the cusp of being loaned out for the season to St. Etienne, a club he was familiar with, and one he would almost certainly be given match minutes. That deal fell through. During the hectic transfer window, when there was also speculation of a potential move to a Championship side, Europa League registration was due and Saliba was left out of the 25-man side.
With playing time not an option for the Europa League group stages, domestic cups limited in quantity, and a few rather tough fixtures, and rumored personal issues — Saliba has been left to try and garnish some favoritism through his performances with the U23 team. But is that even possible?
If Reiss Nelson, Joe Willock, and even Pepe are struggling to get a sniff of Arteta’s Premier League starting lineup after performing in cup matches and the Europa League, what is the value of a youth match versus Gillingham with Arsenal’s U23 squad?
It’s confusing matter at this point in Arteta’s tenure. Each of them can only go out and perform against the teams they are given the opportunity to play against. Be that Molde, Dundalk or Gillingham, they are asked to go perform against the opposition in front of them. Yet the quality of their opponent seems to be held against them when it comes to justifying the decision to withhold their reward, while first team players have the quality of their opposition used as a reason to justify their subpar performances.
So, what is the value of a quality performance? How many do you need to give before you’re given a look in? It’s clear there are early signs of frustration which is something Arteta will want to avoid. He has done a very impressive job of garnering favor from the squad early on. Losing it at this juncture in Arsenal development will only prove to exacerbate the attacking and transitioning issues the squad are trying to overcome.
Something about Arteta’s unwillingness to extend opportunities to the players that demonstrate value in the appearances they are granted doesn’t sit entirely well with me. Will it change? We will see. When teams struggle to perform, coaches often look to others in the squad. In the meantime, we will search for more clues as to what type of value these non-Premier League matches hold with Mikel as the youth seek their reward.