Gunner Thoughts

Thomas at RB: Break Glass Only In Case of Emergency

No news yet on Saliba, but a glimpse of a potential option at right back if Arteta wants to play White centrally. Is Partey the option?

Arsenal’s loss to Sporting was a perfect storm of Ten Hag, juju magic meets Arsenal nightmare. After (falsely) claiming that Arsenal have suffered so few injuries, the Gunners would have two crucial players go down in the opening twenty minutes.

Tomiyasu and Saliba both limped off and Arsenal fans are left to see what damage — or at least implications — this will have on the remainder of the season.

Immediately after the game, Arteta admitted that things didn’t look good for Takehiro Tomiyasu, who has been plagued with injuries all season.

On Twitter, injury analyst Ben Dinnery said:

Leaked Lineups responded: 

While neither player has confirmed news from the club, even less news about Saliba has emerged. He too walked off the field versus Sporting and missed the match this weekend versus Crystal Palace. Saliba backed out of his international call up from France and instead, I’d imagine, will be working on back rehab. 

We know back injuries can be really difficult, especially for athletes — ask Mesut — and they have a tendency to reoccur. Hopefully this is not the beginning of a career-long battle with back ailments. 

In his stead, Arteta made the obvious selection — especially considering turnaround time — and played Rob Holding. Holding was absolute fantastic alongside Gabriel and demonstrated that ‘next man up’ mentality that Arsenal have shown all year in the face of injuries to Jesus, Zinchenko, Partey, and more. Get lost Ten Hag! 

But it’s understandable that some fans were considering what could changes with the lineup of Saliba’s injury turns out to be lengthier. L’Equipe vaguely stated their belief that it could be ‘several weeks’, but that could be two or three, or it could be seven! 

The immediate urge from many — myself included — was to brainstorm ways in which Ben White could slide back to his central defensive role. But with Tomiyasu injured, the ability to deploy a different right back is a tricky subject. O Cedric where art thou!! 

I joke. 

But if Arsenal are to go without Saliba for three, four, five weeks — does Arteta need to find a solution beyond Rob Holding at center back? Even if he sticks with Holding, does he need to find a player to rotate with Ben White down the stretch?

The answer isn’t clear, but we got a glimpse of one option: Thomas Partey.

Partey has played 11 matches and 807 minutes as a right back in his career. For reference, thats more minutes than Kieran Tierney, Tomiyasu, Fabio Vieira and and handful of others have had this season in the Premier League

Admittedly, it’s an ugly comparison because it happened across 3 seasons but a little idea of where 800 minutes would put him within this current team’s minutes, nonetheless.

Out of curiosity, I went back and watched his, roughly, 11 minutes at right back to see if anything stood out or fascinated me. Partey was:

  • Willing to stay quite wide and hug the touchline
  • Willing to get around Saka and overlap to get to the endline
  • Really willing to play the exact Ben White role
    • Kieran Tierney still the more inverted player in that first phase and as Arsenal build up play
  • Definitely in need of a learning curve in how he transitions up and down the line and marks his man
  • Providing clean technical play on the ball to evade defensive presses and find Jorginho’s feet

I was quite surprised that he did not invert. Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising, one imagines the team has put very little time on the training pitch with Partey at right back, but I thought we might see him come much more central. Instead, the team tactics stayed the team tactics. I even thought about Tierney’s dangerous play as a left back that LIKES to stay wide. Is there an opportunity to flip the script a bit in that capacity?

Perhaps that would change if this “solution” became a more regular feature of the side, considering Arsenal can’t afford to stick a midfield talent like Partey in the back and not involve him on the ball, centrally. But does that mean Zinchenko cedes his spot to Tierney? Is that overcompensating? Is sticking Partey at right back, just to keep Rob Holding off the field and move White — a very good right back — central, even worth it?

There’s so many questions and these simply scratch the surface. But to answer them myself: not really. At least not moving Partey back.

But what are Arsenal’s options back there? There’s a handful, although none as good as Ben White:

  • Ben White
  • Rob Holding played RB with Bolton
  • Kieran Tierney
  • Zinchenko
  • Reuell Walters (highly regarded, but this would be a HUGE ask)
  • Thomas Partey

Jorginho has shown he is a fine midfield option, but Partey is unarguably better. He just is. Which means the cause better be pretty dire, or Arteta better have a real stroke of genius if the team is removing Partey in some “Xhaka at left back” type of desperations-driven midfield alteration.

The team will have the ability to rehearse a few options over this international break — again, assuming Saliba’s injury IS a longer term than anyone wants. You have to imagine Rob Holding feels confident that his performance warrants him serious consideration, but it’s not entirely unwarranted to have some fears about how he contends with an 6-week, April onslaught including:

  • Leeds
  • Liverpool
  • West Ham
  • Southampton
  • Manchester City
  • Chelsea

Everyone will wait with bated breath to hear the official news on William Saliba, but it’s hard not to feel Partey at right back should be a “break glass in case of emergency only”. Yet Arteta trotted it out onto the field pretty quickly. Perhaps it truly is a sign of Mikel’s mind.

If I had to guess, Arsenal’s lineup will look a lot like it did for Crystal Palace and Partey at right back will be reserved for rest, rotation, and Ben White relief. But given the role Arsenal fullbacks play, there’s no denying Partey’s fit and ability to play it. We know Arteta almost dreams of finding ways to get more midfield players onto a pitch.

Could we see a defensive three in the midfield or Zinchenko, Jorginho, and Partey to support the attacking five? It would be a bold move fr0m Arteta to get more technical and passing ability from the back. It comes with the negative side of removing Partey from many central areas, but if it’s rehearsed well, it could force a lot of team’s to adjust to a “new” Arsenal.

For now? I think it’s Rob Holdings spot to hold.

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