Gunner Thoughts

Arsenal Subs Tell Transfer Window Story

Arsenal have made seven substitutions and it sheds light on a real need in the transfer window.

We have all been in a conversation in which someone, maybe even ourselves, is railing against the boss and his usage of three substitutions… or five subs… or because he used no subs. As a manager that is growing his skill set, he seems to have complete faith in his tactical plans and preparation, possibly to the point of not wanting to stray from the plan or change the formula by mixing in new legs. To make it all more difficult, the depth of Arsenal’s squad in recent seasons hasn’t always provided enticing options, although credit to players like Emile Smith Rowe and Rob Holding for being immense changes at times.

With five substitutions available this season, a bench that suggests Arsenal’s depth ‘stocks’ are rising, and a Europa League competition, Arteta will have to find ways to rotate players and turn games on their head with the ability to change half of his outfield side over the course of a match… you would think.

At Crystal Palace, a hard-fought, slog of an away match, the first substitution came in the 83rd minute — and to great effect. Against Leicester City, 75th minute substitutions came a little earlier in the match this time around. And while fans will continue to look for advancement in how Mikel uses his substitutions to not only bring in fresh legs, but to tactically tweak the team and tip close matches in their favor, today I want to look at a different aspect: player positions subbed in and out.

Bench for Crystal Palace

  • Kieran Tierney
  • Eddie Nketiah
  • Albert Sambi Lokonga
  • Rob Holding
  • Cedric Soares
  • Mohamed Elneny
  • Reiss Nelson
  • Nicolas Pepe
  • Mat Turner (GK)

Bench for Leicester City

  • Takehiro Tomiyasu
  • Kieran Tierney
  • Emile Smith Rowe
  • Eddie Nketiah
  • Rob Holding
  • Mohamed Elneny
  • Albert Sambi Lokonga
  • Nicolas Pepe

Between the two matches, Arsenal have subbed:

  • Fullbacks three times — Tierney versus Palace and Tierney and Tomiyasu versus Leicester.
  • A winger once — Emile Smith Rowe for Bukayo Saka in the 84′ versus Leicester City.
  • A Striker twice — Eddie for Jesus in both games, after 83 and 84 minutes.
  • An attacking central midfielder once – Sambi on for Ødegaard in the 90th minute.

Now, this article is not about questioning the validity or effectiveness of these substitutions, nor the timing. They made a major impact versus Crystal Palace, argue they were too late if you’d like, and they came on against Leicester after Arsenal had the game in control 4-2. What I want to look at is the fact that neither of the games saw a substantial change within central midfield. The closest we have seen is a change to Ødegaard in injury time, despite him having a poorer performance, and many believing Arsenal needed to stamp more control on the game in the central areas.

It begs the question why? Or in my case, does it foreshadow a serious team need?

In a world where we are starting to see this process really come together against Premier League competition, Fabio Vieira remains one giant question mark that every fan is excited to see incorporated. Will he compete and rotate with Saka, with Xhaka, with Ødegaard, all three? Will he be an established starter? Will he be a super sub? The versatility is there and arming Mikel with actual options is exciting.

However, when we look at our midfield, and the depth that it possesses, not only week by week but to handle what could become a 50+ match campaign, we must acknowledge that the central areas will need quality relief and rotation.

What are the current options?

The current two options making the bench: Sambi and Elneny coming in to relieve Xhaka or Partey.

An option yet to be seen: Vieira for Xhaka, although question marks around Vieira’s defensive stability.

Alternate options: Zinchenko steps into the midfield and Tierney plays at left back or Ben White in the midfield for Partey and Tomiyasu plays at right back.

How do you feel about them?

If you’re anything like myself, you feel very, only okay about them. The future of Lokonga still feels bright but up in the air as far as what he offers now. I believe he can do the job come Europa League or a few minutes in a well-structured side, but the ceiling, for now, feels limited. Elneny is a fantastic professional, but wasn’t used in games like Palace where the midfield was struggling, or Leicester where some would argue we could have used a midfielder standing on the ball to slow down and control the game.

Vieira and Zinchenko in true midfield roles are giant question marks. Zinchenko feels the most ‘known’ after seeing what his technical skills have to offer as an inverted left back that joins the attack in more of a midfield capacity. It seems like more of a real option to be considered now that he has played with Arsenal, but he has yet to be truly selected as a midfielder.

Ben White stepping into the midfield as a defensive midfielder feels like a move you’d never want to rely on but maybe, just maybe, if the game state really called for it, Arteta could shift him there to park the bus. He would be a player that theoretically can defend, distribute and still push forward to some extent.

The reason considering these situations is important? It’s a long season with injuries, and the window is still open.

Feeling comfortable with these options over long stretches, weeks of games, should Thomas Partey be unable to without seeing the level of play’s come crashing down is a must. The back up options are, of course, not at his level and would likely require the left central midfield role be adjusted to help cover ground defensively. This immediately would reduce the amount of attacking power we have invested in this summer and likely put us somewhere between where we were last season and the level of play we have seen at the start the season.

The need for another central midfielder exists and is obvious. It’s a real hole that has to be on Arteta and Edu’s radar. An, ideally we see a player come in that is either a left central midfielder capable of playing as a hybrid #6/8 or is a high-level lone #6. This lack of depth feels within our control versus leaving injury fortunes up to the gods. Make your own luck where you can.

Tielemans’ name has been thrown around a lot this window, it’s well sourced that he would be open to going, but by all accounts Arsenal have not yet put in any sort of bid. It’s believed that Edu and Arteta have no desire to make any Band-aid purchases or buys that they don’t fully believe in, something many Arsenal fans can admire, but the hole very much exists. Finding out how big that hole is when it goes unfilled and is too late, would be devastating.

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