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Gunner Thoughts

Prepped for the Dog Fight

Thoughts on International Break, Saliba, Rob Holding, and this dogfight to the finish.

Mat Turner may want us all to relax, but it’s hard to relax when a dogfight has stakes this high and margins this tight. 

Arsenal are coming back from an international break that saw many key figures play significant minutes — and a few on the receiving end of some serious tackles. Bakayo Saka Zinchenko Granit Xhaka Martin Ødegaard, Kieran Tierney all played their matches while Partey played one before being ruled out with injury concerns before Ghana’s second. 

“Obviously, he [Partey] wasn’t fit enough to play in the second game but hopefully he’s going to be back for the weekend.”

To add to the concerns, this break saw Tomiyasu ruled out for the remainder of the season and William Saliba’s condition is shrouded with a foggy haze of mystery. The ruling on his injury came out much slower than Tomyiasu and that’s likely because Arsenal are still trying to see how receptive Saliba’s back injury is to forms of treatment. 

At the very least, he has been ruled out for the clash against Leeds. 

“He is progressing. He still has some discomfort in his back. We are trying to manage him in the best possible way, but unfortunately, he’s not going to be fit for this game. We are trying – he’s trying to do everything to feel better and get back into training, but not yet.”

Whether his follow up quote adds to your worries or calms the nerves, I’ll let you decide. 

“Back injuries are a bit tricky with how they evolve and the load that you put in certain areas, but he’s very positive about it. The medical staff are positive about it. Let’s push it every day a little bit and see how he can cope with that, and how the pain develops as well.”

On one hand, Arteta’s trying to be positive about it. Backs are tricky. Maybe he will return. Let’s just keep pushing. On the other hand, it clearly sheds light on the injury being worse and the likelihood is that this will affect Saliba’s play over the next 10 matches.

Arteta even says, “I want to be positive and think that he is going to be able to [manage it], but I don’t have the answer today to answer 100 per cent that is going to be the case.”

I can’t speak to the exact injury Saliba has, they aren’t shedding light, but we can talk about the fact that back injuries have forever frustrated some of the best athletes. Mesut Ozil has chronic and constant back injuries, as an Arsenal example, but plenty of athletes that suffer from back ailments spend their careers dealing with these injuries… and frustratingly, they are slow to heal.

Not that I had the expert care of a professional medical team, but when I threw out my back and suffered from a lower back disc bulge in an innocuous footballing play, it was incredibly uncomfortable to play Sunday League through and about 4-6 months before I felt fully confident in it being healed up. My point, not to say Saliba will be out that long, but to say I won’t be surprised if to see him play in extremely limited fashion, or see him try to play and struggle to reach his usual level.

It’s uncomfortable, you don’t move well, it hurts, and it’s constantly on your mind as you try to move in any sort of athletic fashion.

Rob Holding

It seems like the most likely person to step into the left center back shoes is Rob Holding, at least to begin with. I wrote about this team’s ability to adopt and effective “next man up” mentality this season. A quality that has seen their depth rise to the occasion time and time again. Rob Holding himself did this before the international break.

Because of it, and a general belief that this team is undeniably quality, there is a contingency of fans that seem to not see eye to eye with the fans that are bricking it at the thought of Holding playing significant minutes in the run in.

Perhaps some of the confidence is held in the belief that Saliba will in fact find a way to manage his injury and play the critical moments — Liverpool, City, Newcastle — perhaps it’s because of that next many up mentality that has been proved across many positions within this team.

But even I, who believes Rob Holding is capable of going out and playing a great match versus Leeds, has some real concerns. It’s not about one game, and his stint with this team won’t be judged across single performances. Much like Eddie Nketiah faced with Jesus out, his judgement will come in ruling how he does across the span. And as a back up that backs up for a reason, we are well aware of the distance between his ceiling of play and his floor. More importantly, we are keenly aware of the middle ground, where his play tends to fall, and left to wonder if that’s good enough.

It will fall on Arteta to maneuver the situation with grace and agility. Perhaps he intends to operate much like he did when Holding played versus Manchester City in the FA Cup, a la Holding can press tight, win duels, get physical but Arteta is ready to pull him out if he gets a card or looks exposed. The problem with that philosophy — or perhaps the follow up question — is wondering “what then”? Who comes in?

The obvious answer is Ben White to left center back, but who goes to right back? It very much could be Thomas Partey. In fact, if Rob Holding proves to not work out, or Arteta looks to pack his side with as many bits of quality as he can, Partey could be thrust into that role from the start in a week or two.

Right Back

For Leeds, it would seem likely that Arteta stick with the same lineup we saw versus Crystal Palace. But in case of emergency, he may break the glass put in Partey to switch to how we saw Arsenal end the match.

The interesting aspect of this would be an Arsenal team filled with quality midfield players and technical “ballers”, as the kids say. Zinchenko, Partey, Jorginho, Xhaka, Ødgeaard presents a very compelling vision for a coach that almost applies a “how many tidy players can I shove into one side” belief system.

But it would be a huge risk and it removes one of Arsenal’s most important players from their spine.

It’s not as simple as saying “would you rather have Holden or Jorginho play”, but perhaps Arteta believes it is. It wouldn’t be the first time he to slot a midfielder into a fullback position to accommodate injury. Admittedly, it didn’t go that well with Xhaka in the long run.

But Arsenal know they have to exhaust all options, and know that results over performances is a real mantra at this stage of the competition.

Manchester City play Liverpool before Arsenal and it’s probably their most difficult match remaining, besides when they host Arsenal. Not that they cannot drop points to other teams, but in terms of odds, one would be fair to say this is one of the few “good” chances of it. If they manage to roll Liverpool AND come up with three points versus Arsenal, the Cityzens will like their odds.

It’s a ‘dogfight’ out there as Mat Turner would say, and it will be a dogfight every step of the way. Next challenger is a feisty Leeds side in a dogfight of their own. This Javi Garcia-lead side is scrapping to avoid relegation by any means necessary. They are a highly mobile, compact team, but have ceded a lot of goals.

Arsenal struggled to beat them away from home — in a performance that was one of their worst of the season — but it will be interesting to see what tactics Leeds deploy when they walk into The Emirates. They will know that a point could be enough to change their fortunes, so perhaps they look to change things up a little bit and take a page from Everton’s book.

A lot of attention will be on Rob Holding, fairly or unfairly, but it’s the attack that will continue to have to stick the ball in the back of the net down the stretch and unlock teams dying for even a draw.

Arteta says the international break gave them an opportunity to “analyse and think and get away and reflect” on this final push of the season. Time to see if this team can finish the job.

Nervous?

Relax, dog, it’s a dogfight out there.


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