Every coach, probably since the dawn of sport creation, has talked about the need for a competitive team, filled with depth at every spot to push each other forward, offer rotational options, and raise the quality of the team overall. Like clockwork, a new coach or manager comes into a struggling team and talks to the media about creating a ‘winning atmosphere’; one that is rife with competitive juices, and that champion’s mentality.
The words are easy to type, easier to say, but extremely difficult to put into action and bring to life. It’s bred from the manager and his coaching staff, but every team also needs to have the right combination of players, player personalities, and a chemistry that allows them to feed off one another, grow, and compete. A hunger to progress further without settling for what achievements have been earned in the past.
A major component of that is a team filled with enough quality that there is competition driving players to be better than one another and earn their minutes. It’s an aspect that Arteta talked about early in his tenure when he said, “this club needs competition of two or three players in each position to fight. If they are able to fight and compete and they are better than the other ones, they will play. If not, someone else will play.”
“Players are going to start games if they deserve to play and if they perform at the level of this football club.”
“We have some necessities in certain areas, playing some players in positions that are not really their positions. With more time I would like to have specialists for every position to do exactly what we want to do.”
This quote came from the signing of Cedric Soares and Pablo Mari, but also in conjunction with Ainsley Maitland-Niles impressing. Sadly, the Ainsley Maitland-Niles situation has steadily deteriorated, but one year later, we have seen the positive play that Pablo Mari is capable of offering, and we are really seeing Cedric Soares capture form.
As a team, competition throughout the side is beginning to crop up making team selection difficult for all the right reasons. A heated battle is forming as David Luiz, Pablo Mari, and Gabriel all show promise for the starting left-center back role. Luiz is also capable of challenging Rob Holding for the right-center back spot.
Xhaka has a firm hold of the spot next to Partey in the midfield at the moment, but I imagine there is competition from Dani Ceballos coming soon, as well as, competition from Martin Ødegaard who may want to prove to Arteta that a 4-3-3 composed of Smith Rowe, Partey, and himself is a plausible option in specific scenarios.
That’s not the only midfield competition to keep eyes on as Ødegaard gets settled in and really starts to push Smith Rowe. How Arteta balances that attacking mid competition, while ensuring that Smith Rowe gets his minutes to keep growing, is important. But it wouldn’t be surprising to see Ødegaard start against Aston Villa. Not through any real fault of Smith Rowe’s, he has simply played a lot of minutes and looked a little off the pace as the game wore on against Wolves. Throw in the fact that he played 45 minutes with Arsenal down a man, then down two men, and that sort of work takes a toll on an already fatiguing figure.
This is the exact reason that Arsenal were looking for a loan option, but it opens the door for a swoop. It’s healthy competition, it’s great for any side to have.
It’s the other two spots that carry a few other implications: Cedric and Bellerin, Pepe and Aubameyang. Both the current incumbents have been playing some of the best football we have seen from them since they were signed, and Cedric has been doing it from an unnatural left back spot. Arteta said after the match against Wolves that Tierney wasn’t close to a return — which is incredibly worrying — so maybe this decision will get held off, but both Aubameyang and Bellerin carry with them the title of Captain. Whether we like it or not, admit it or not, that weighs on a managers’s mind when making his lineup selections.
The real question everyone is debating at the moment surrounds Pepe versus Aubameyang. In the last three matches we have seen a Pepe really start to click. It started on the left wing, but his two-way presence on and off the ball that shone bright from the left carried through to his appearance at right wing versus Manchester United.
In the past 4 games Pepe has shown himself to be more direct and filled with intent when the ball is at his feet; he is playing in a system that is allowing him to come much more central with and without the ball which keeps him involved in the play; and with 27 duels won in the last three games alone, 5 tackles, and 14 recoveries, Arteta is getting a defensively active Pepe.
With the ball, Pepe is continuing to do, mostly what Pepe has always done — even when his overall performance is poor — getting involved in the attack. 2 goals, 5 created chances, 7/11 dribbles completed, 7 fouls won for Arsenal, and 8 shots is about as great as you can ask for from a winger.
Which brings us back to the state of competition. Arteta has talked time and time again about the need for cometition throughout the squad. To instill the belief that if a player performs in training, they will get their chances to play. And when they get their chances to play, if they perform, they will retain their spot. Now, he is tested with backing that talk up with action, even in the face of leaving his highest paid star and captain out of the lineup.
It could be a real test of who Arteta is as a manager. If you are going to talk about competition and make those statements, you have to reward the production and give the winner their spot. To demonstrate the prize for the fruits of his labor, the reward for stepping into that role and performing, Arteta has to stick with the hot hand.
There is a chance this is a non-factor and Arteta looks to give Lacazette a rest by playing Aubameyang down the middle, but regardless of that decision, Pepe should be on the left wing. For that matter, Cedric should be playing as well — at left back or right back. Both have competed and made the most of their opportunities. They’ve earned this.
We will have to wait and see if Arteta believes likewise.