Gunner Thoughts

Testing, Testing, 1…2…3

Well, Arsenal at Bodø/Glimt goes in the books… to probably never be thought about again. A great evening for Bodø/Glimt who by all accounts were ecstatic to welcome Arsenal to Norway and see their Martin Ødegaard play. But…I mean, I watched it, the game occurred, Arsenal won, and that’s probably all that needs to be known.

After the match, Arsenal tweeted out “job done” and coincidentally that feels about the maximum amount you can say on the game. I mean, it might be the most you can say about what was a pretty horrible game of football. But Arsenal leave with 3 points, another win, and no clear injuries to anyone, so… job done.

For a team that has been putting on mostly fantastic performances, it felt off, but we talked a little bit about this after the home leg of Bodø/Glimt. When you rotate that much of a side, the performance is likely to suffer. Yesterday, it felt like not only a matter of rotating players, but rotating in players that are regular starters in the Premier League and really looking to manage their minutes and fatigue.

Playing these strong lineups seems like a double-edged sword for Arsenal. On one hand there is so much of a talent gap that on paper Arsenal should waltz through these matches, but on the other hand, those talented players know they are better than their opposition, know they have a bigger game in three days, and know they don’t really need to get out of second gear in order to beat their direct opposition leave with a win. And in Arsenal’s case yesterday, they didn’t need to.

Arseblog commented at half-time that Arsenal didn’t really get out of 0th gear, and he’s right, they really didn’t. Yet, somehow, the second half may have been worse from an Arsenal perspective.

Arsenal managed to go into half-time up 1-0 after a nice bit of play from Saka, followed by a nice bit of fortune to get the ricochet to go his way, but the second half probably went in the favor of Bodø/Glimt. If not for some really nice goalkeeping play by Mat Turner, the pretty clear Man of the Match in my eyes, Arsenal would have found themselves in a tough positions. Fortunately those saves were made, Arteta made the 60 minute substitutions that seem to follow same ideology as last week’s Europa League match, and the jobs was done. Which allows to focus on something that Arteta may be using these games for: testing.

The priorities for these group stage games are pretty clear:

  1. Win the games and the group
  2. Keep players fresh and sharp, but uninjured
    • 2a. Keeping players fresh includes those that are often on the bench for Premier League matches

But the third significant use of these games seems to be as a testing ground for a few different potential tactical goals, most intriguingly, Fabio Vieira and Martin Ødegaard within the same midfield together. There are other aspects of these games that have been helpful. I think Kieran Tierney has used them to get more experience at that inverted fullback role with its technical demands, I think Turner has been put to the test with his distribution, but mostly it seems that Arteta is using these matches as a way to see if his two, arguably, most promising attacking midfielders can form a bond — no disrespect to Emile Smith Rowe.

And I believe, if you are going to set out a strong lineup of 5 regular starters and a few fringe backups, rather than rotate completely, you need to be testing these sort of things out.

With this lineup deployed, Arsenal had the usual right-side of their lineup on the field which should have offered a good platform for testing this bond and supporting its growth. Unfortunately, Arsenal were off — I know the artificial pitch didn’t help — but Vieira also looked a little more lost in his spaces than last week. Perhaps it is because he was the left center midfielder yesterday, rather than his more comfortable right center midfielder, as he was last week, or simply because Arsenal were struggling to find him the dangerous areas he often threatens from.

While Odegaard was on the ball less, he managed to still create 4 chances, but Vieira suffered and produced little in the way many would have been hoping. But these processes can be baby steps to the finish line. One of these players will have to play in slightly uncomfortable spaces, and both will be anchored by Sambi who played within himself and put together a decent showing, but is not the anchor that Thomas Partey is.

I know there were a handful of fans that were irritated by the selection. Most didn’t like seeing Saka, Ødegaard, White, and Saliba selected. They were probably further annoyed when Arteta used his substitutions to bring in Xhaka, Martinelli, Tomiyasu, and sweatiest of them all, Partey. But we has fans have to adjust our thinking as well and remember what a normal Thursday without matches for these players would still be.

Likely, they still involve a pretty comprehensive training sessions that’s likely equal to about a half worth of football, and it’s still important that these athletes work themselves every day. The concept of a total “rest day” might not exists in the same form as we believe. Even those players that don’t get off the bench in these games often are seen doing sprints and fitness drills after the match. The Arsenal Vision Podcast has a really interesting chat a few weeks ago about this topic and Tim Stillman (@Stillberto on Twitter) talked about modern day fitness demanding that these players have their muscles fatigued most days if they are going to be playing in the near future. This in contrast to the idea that it’s simply best to rest in order to be ready for peak performance.

These two ideas — testing tactics and keeping stars sharp even midweek — and how they have been foreshadowed likely suggest this is something we will continue to see from Arsenal throughout the group stages. Perhaps if they seal the group up after 5 matches, they will rotate more heavily, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Arteta has dedicated himself to a lineup like we saw last week or the one we saw yesterday and then uses his subs to a few additional regulars.

I would say: expect it, embrace it, and see if you can pick out the direction this team may be heading. It should be no surprise that Arteta dreams of a reliable lineup consisting of both Ødegaard and Vieira after his comments earlier this year about wanting more “firepower”.

The firepower wasn’t on display last night, far from, but as Arteta said in his post match conference, “Quality-wise, in terms of dominance and how we want to play, obviously there are a lot of things to get better than what we done today, but it’s another win, move on, now it’s Leeds”.

Job done.

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