Gunner Thoughts

Partey out could open door for MØ: A look at his time versus Villa

A deep look inside Ødegaard’s appearance against Aston Villa as we consider whether Partey’s injury opens the door for a temporary change in the midfield.

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Yesterday the announcement came down from the club like a thunderbolt from the sky to strike a blow to every Gooner’s confidence heading into the weekend against Leeds followed by Benfica.

Partey was ruled out for the match this weekend, and likely out for two full weeks, including Arsenal’s clash with Benfica. It’s devastating news for Arsenal, made worse by the knowledge that Partey never went through these sort of injuries during his time with Atletico Madrid.

Arsenal’s season is at a make or break point. With the likelihood of achieving anything in the Premier League seeming less likely by the match, it leaves the small dream of winning the Europa League as the only hope for season salvation. If Arsenal drop points against Leeds and fall to Benfica, it will be hard to get excited for much the rest of the way in. To reach that point with 13 matches left in the season would be an excruciating blow for Arsenal fans across the world.

In order to avoid that, Arsenal will need to pull themselves together and find ways to win against Leeds and, more importantly, against Benfica across two legs in the Europa League.

One of the people that could have a crucial role to play in that success is Real Madrid loanee Martin Ødegaard, who got 30 minutes for Arsenal as a substitute against Aston Villa. What makes that appearance all the more interesting is the fact that he played as a number 10 in place of Emile Smith Rowe, but finished the match alongside Smith Rowe in a 4-3-3 shape with two attacking midfielders.

Arteta has stated in the past that good players should be capable of playing with one another and that his future goal would be to have Arsenal play routinely in a 4-3-3 shape. While it might not be what we see against Leeds, let’s look at Ødegaard in both formations and the skillset he offers Arsenal as an attacking midfielder.

As a lone #10

Subbing into the match around the 64:45 mark, Ødegaard came on for Cedric Soares in a move that saw him take on the number 10 role, Smith Rowe slide out to the right wing, and Bukayo Saka switch to the left back role. From left back, Saka offers a lot of attacking capabilities, a natural left foot for the side, and is a player comfortable in the spot — even if he no longer plays there routinely.

If you were to summarize Ødegaard’s first 8-10 minutes in one word, it would be “available”. Wherever the ball goes, Ødegaard is there to make himself available as an option. As I talked about in a blog that looked at Ødegaard from a playing perspective, he likes to occupy that inside right channel, in between the lines. It allows him to find a pocket of space to get on the ball; it favors his left foot if he is allowed to turn to his right and drive at the backline; and it allows him to put himself between the ball and the defender. Almost immediately, we see him in this space and on the ball.

While Villa’s low block does a good job of keeping him in front of them here, you can see the spaces he is going to try to get himself into. What made Ødegaard look all the more impressive is how quick he was able to traverse the field and make himself available to the left side as the play switches (As seen in photo 3 above). Whether he was coming deep to help break the press and relieve pressure, or trying to take up those half spaces, throughout his 30 minutes, Ødegaard makes contributions on both sides of the pitch. But it is of course more noticeable that he is effective on both sides when he is the loan attacking midfielder.

His first great moment comes a few minutes after his introduction. Again from that inside right side, he finds space and sits. As Arsenal swing the ball to the right side, Hector Bellerin finds Smith Rowe wide right, now playing as a right winger, allowing ESR and Ødegaard to combine with a one-two and attack that space in behind.

Villa’s fullbacks were pushed tight to wingers all match which meant a combination like that broke the press and gave Smith Rowe an opportunity to get in behind. Unfortunately, Ødegaard doesn’t quite get the weight of the pass right and it allows Villa’s Targett to intervene at the last minute. It still wins Arsenal a corner, but it shows that Ødegaard is capable of sitting in pockets of space and has the wherewithal to combine quickly and push Arsenal’s attack.

Just one minute later, on a similar situation, Emile Smith Rowe and Ødegaard would work together once more to spur the attack on and transition quickly from the midfield into the final third.

This time, Rob Holding pushes the ball forward from the back and we see Ødegaard come from in between the lines to make himself available. This draws Villa’s defender (red) into a situation where he is overcommitted and vacates the space that we see an active Smith Rowe look to occupy.

As soon at Holding’s pass bypasses Ødegaard, Ødegaard spins to his left and looks to overlap Smith Rowe to get in that space beyond ESR, picking up the ball running at Villa’s backline, cutting across it with his favored left foot. Villa defenders are forced to respect Ødegaard’s dominant foot and commit to closing him down as the more dangerous attacker which leaves all kinds of space on the far left for Pepe to get into before the defense can shift themselves back.

It’s a really nice movement that breaks down on the final ball, but demonstrates quite clearly what kind of danger Ødegaard presents with his movement, drive, and left foot. Not afraid to carry the ball and dribble, Ødegaard loves to make defenders commit themselves to him as he looks to release teammates into space at the last second. A really dangerous quality to have.

One final aspect to Ødegaard’s game that we saw in during his first ten minutes as a lone attacking midfielder is a knack for making the late run into space at the top of the box. It’s important to bring this up, as he would do it once more later in the game at the end of what was probably one of Arsenal’s best movements of the half — if not the whole match.

In the 73rd minute, Arsenal work the ball down their favored left channel. The presence of Bukayo Saka and a technically gift Pepe create an interest combination — albeit a completely left-footed one. As Ødegaard gets into the attack, he is going to look for that late run to get it from Saka and play Pepe past the defender that is forced to step out and commit to him. Unfortunately, once more, the pass is weighted wrong, this time heavy, and Pepe is driven all the way to the endline spoiling the chance for more.

It’s still a really nice bit of combination play from that left side, and another example of Ødegaard’s IQ level and ability to be involved on both sides, not just that right channel. Quick combinations in tight spaces and a desire to be positive with his intent and play; all early signs of someone who could play a big role for the Gunners.

As I said as earlier in the piece, Ødegaard showed a knack for making himself available wherever the ball went which is something Arsenal didn’t have at all before Emily Smith Rowe trotted out against Chelsea. To have another solid option there, one with great vision and drive, as well as the ability to recognize the opportunity to make this own runs or pick out other’s, suggests there is a player that Arteta can work with to great effect even in this short time.

In the 4-3-3

As the 74th minute hit, possibly the most interesting takeaway took place. No, I’m not talking about the introduction of Willian which was an extremely underwhelming substitution choice from Arteta, I’m talking about the fact that Willian’s introduction saw Arsenal switch to a 4-3-3 shape with a midfield-three consisting Emile Smith Rowe (LCM), Ødegaard (RCM), and Granit Xhaka anchoring them.

Unfortunately it was Partey’s injury that spurred on this change, but it provided a glimpse of a Smith Rowe-Ødegaard partnership that Arteta may look to call upon in certain situations. Whether Arteta turns to it against Leeds is another question entirely.

Given Leeds relentless press and the number of clear transition opportunities Arsenal gave to Aston Villa during the final 16+ minutes of this match, it’s hard to imagine anyone trusts this system not to create problems yet. The counter argument to that would be Arsenal having a week to rehearse this system to help Smith Rowe and Ødegaard thrive as outlets to relieve pressure and breakdown Leeds’ press, as well as the fact that Arsenal were clearly pushing numbers into the attack against Villa to get the equalizer.

Unfortunately, in my eyes, the largest flaw in this system was Granit Xhaka as the lone holding midfielder. There were more than a handful of situations in which he couldn’t cover the ground to make the defensive play or was forced to recklessly foul to stop midfielders running past him. But that doesn’t mean it’s not an option, nor that Mikel won’t return to it once Partey is healthy.

In this system we saw Xhaka drop back into the backline quite a bit while the fullbacks got high and wide, almost progressing the attack from the back in a 3-4-3 shape. However, Xhaka wasn’t bound to that defensive spot and would push forward to support the midfield as the ball moved further up the pitch. Smith Rowe stayed quite high on the left with Xhaka supporting that side and covering for Saka when he looked to get into the attack, while Ødegaard was tasked with coming a little deeper and getting into the attack.

Ødegaard wasn’t a box-to-box midfielder by any means, definitely still tasked as an attacking midfielder looking to occupy space between the lines, but in a role very similar to the one he played with Real Sociedad. He would get on the ball a little deeper, look to turn with it, and progress it up the field dangerously.

A prime example of this came in the 81st minute when he got on the ball on the wide right wing, immediately took a positive first touch, and drove at the space vacated by Aston Villa’s defensive block. As he drove from the right, he cuts in on his left foot, plays it to an underlapped Hector Bellerin, and looks to continue his run behind that layer of defense. Another simple, positive play that exemplifies quite a few skills that Arsenal have lacked in their side this year, especially early in the season.

That opportunity was created because Villa has defenders occupied by Smith Rowe between the lines and shows the benefit of having those two playing alongside each other, however, there was one moment in Arsenal’s own half that showed a potential problem in having two likeminded, number 10’s playing with one another.

Arsenal are in their own defensive third, and both Smith Rowe and Ødegaard are looking to help Arsenal get out, but end up occupying the same space. This allowed Villa’s press to keep both of them in front and contained while denying a clear outlet option to switch the field and evade that pressure. In the end, Arsenal are forced into an error, Villa transition from within Arsenal’s defensive third, and Mat Ryan is called upon to make another excellent save. One of quite a few in that second half.

If there was one moment you hope Arsenal carry through with them to upcoming matches, it came in the 83rd minute when Arsenal produced their best movement of the whole match, resulting in one of their best chances to score.

A movement that starts with Gabriel and works itself down the left side channel including Emile Smith Rowe, Bukayo Saka, and Ødegaard — all of whom Arsenal fans will hope to see involved in a lot more attacking movements together.

Xhaka plays a little ball to Gabriel beyond the first level of the press which causes Aston Villa’s defender in the second layer to freeze momentarily and get caught between closing down Gabriel, marking Smith Rowe, or preventing the easy ball into Saka’s. The power of the triangle! Gabriel slides it once more to Emile Smith Rowe on the left touchline who takes a great first touch forward to get beyond that frozen defender trying to make up lost ground.

Once beyond him, Smith Rowe plays it into Willian’s feet and underlaps Saka who filters out to the touchline in support of Willian, while Smith Rowe occupies the inside space. Willian gets himself caught in the corner trying to drive toward the endline, but has taken the defender with him. A quick recycle to Saka, opens up the opportunity to exchange a lovely bit of one-two play with Smith Rowe, continue his run, and get beyond the defensive line.

By this point, Aston Villa’s defensive shape has shifted over to close down that side which is leaving Ødegaard in all kinds of space, unmarked centrally. As you can see in the final picture above, Saka’s continued run through means that Villa’s center back is unable to commit himself to closing down Ødegaard until the ball has left Saka’s feet which gives Ødegaard a perfect platform to get his shot off in all kinds of space.

Really it was a beautiful team movement simply let down on the final piece. A summary of much of Arsenal’s match against Aston Villa, especially that second half.

Ødegaard will be kicking himself for not having done better with the ball and at least hitting the target, but it showcases what could be possible if Arteta wants to turn to a 4-3-3 system. Could we see a midfield of Xhaka, Ødegaard, and Smith Rowe with Saka at left back, and a combination of Pepe, Martinelli, Aubameyang, or Lacazette up top?

I talked about a few concerns surrounding Xhaka and how exposed this system could leave Arsenal’s backline, but it’s certainly a possibility!

Arsenal went on to disappointingly lose that match 1-0, but there were some real positive attacking moments, especially in the second half. I still believe there was a hangover from the match against Wolverhampton that was taken away from the boys, but in this league, you can’t get away with that and Arsenal were punished by Watkin’s 3rd minute goal.

Ødegaard will be disappointed with his shot and a few mis-weighted passes, but the scenarios above and some of his stats show the type of progressive, positive, attacking midfielder Arsenal have on their hands.

In his 30 minutes of play, Ødegaard had 353 yards of total passing, 112 of which were progressive yards. If you multiple that by 3 — 30 minutes of play, times 3 to get to 90 minutes — he would have finished the match with the 3rd highest passing distance and the 4th highest progressive passing distance. Likewise, he had 157 yards carried with the ball, 88 of which were progressive. If you run that same equation, he ends with the 2nd highest numbers in both those categories. Defensively, Ødegaard didn’t add too much in terms of tackles, but he did go 4/4 in pressures which is a nice stat to have.

Obviously those are not the cleanest equations, and sadly football matches don’t work out quite like that, but you can get a feel for how he could perform over the course of 90 minutes. We will have to see what Arteta has planned for Ødegaard in terms of role and responsibility with Smith Rowe still being the preferred option — considering ESR’s future is for sure in red and white — but Partey’s injury opens the door for Arteta to get creative.

We just might see many of these aspects against Leeds and Benfica!

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