The climax of Arsenal’s season is fast approaching on Wednesday. It’s a matchup with Manchester City and the epitome of a “six pointer”. With first place and second place set to go head to head, everyone is running their numbers around what this match’s outcome would mean for title odds. To keep it brief, any outcome that isn’t an Arsenal win puts them in a tough position. But we knew that was the case.
It also doesn’t mean that Arsenal fans should turn their nose up to a draw. That would mean that the title is removed from Arsenal’s control, but it would keep this title race going the distance.
In the face of a daunting task, all positive news is much appreciated. News broken yesterday by David Ornstein… not so welcome.
While Arteta gave a concerning update last week on Saliba’s recovery from a back problem, there were suggestions that the centre-back could still be passed fit ahead of the enormous trip to City.
However, recent assessments have failed to show sufficient progress and the defender — who has so far been replaced by Rob Holding — will not be available to face Pep Guardiola’s team.David Ornstein, The Atletic
To add a little more clarity, Sami Mokbel wrote about ‘structural damage’ and concerns of long term risks if Saliba plays.
It’s a giant blow, and at this point, Arsenal should pull the plug on Saliba’s season. He is too promising a player, with too bright a future, to risk long term issues or having Saliba spend his career battling bouts of chronic back issues. You just don’t mess with the future of kids, that have the ceiling of potential he has, in the name of a chance at a title when he’s 22.
With it all but officially confirmed that Saliba won’t play Wednesday, Arteta has to make choices about changing the lineup.
Rock the Boat Don’t Tip the Boat Over
Arteta has to get creative. Fairly or unfairly, there is a perception that if Arsenal trot out the exact same team they did these last three matches, it’s accepting a fate of being beaten.
Perhaps I’m in the minority, but there is a part of me that would rather see Arteta try something and get it wrong than trot out the same starting eleven, that makes some of the same mistakes, or have the same gaps and issues, and get beat.
With this in mind, the internet has been filled with suggestions:
- Saka at right back
- Martinelli as a wing back
- 3-3-3-1 formations
- Ultra-attacking, caution to the wind mindsets that bypass the midfield
- Debuts for some players
- Near-debuts for others
- Combinations of a few of the above
Having said that, whatever changes Arteta may make will have to walk a tightrope on a razor’s edge. There’s rocking the boat, changing the look and feel, and surprising City… and there’s going too far with the changes, causing the whole team to look uncomfortable and having it fall apart.
That balance will be struck with a recipe of limited changes to shape and personnel, but the right changes. I don’t envy the job, that’s a shoddy canoe in rapid waters Mikel is trying not to tip over.
What could that look like?
No one can fully speak on Arteta’s behalf but we can speculate at a view things, or at least my own opinions. I will offer a few options, but I think I will start be voicing my belief that these changes won’t be as drastic as some people have offered.
Starts from the back
I don’t think Rob Holding has been directly at fault for all the ramp up in goal concessions since Saliba has exited the team, but it’s hard not to suggest a ripple effect as tweaks to Gabriel and Partey’s role to assist have seen some defensive decay. To add to that, Holding’s ability on the ball is lower than Saliba’s and it’s saw Thomas Partey moved into the backline during build up versus Southampton and removed from the midfield. Neither of these things are ideal, especially for facing Manchester City.
The obvious answer, Arteta has to make the sacrifice and move Ben White centrally. He hasn’t played there this year, which isn’t ideal, but it feels like a necessary evil to bring comfort back to Gabriel and raise the level of control with the ball.
The question becomes what changes to accommodate that. There is some validity to a three-back system, but I think Arteta will look to retain his 4-back formation.
With that in mind, the move is putting in Kieran Tierney and making the decision to play him at right back alongside Ben White or in his natural left back position and sliding Zinchenko to right back. Personally, I like Zinchenko at right back because he is more two-footed than Tierney but Tierney has played right back before.
Two back four options I would pick between:
- Zinchenko – Gabriel – White – Tierney
- Tierney – Gabriel – White – Zinhenko
Solidify the Base
When it comes to this Manchester City match, my mind goes to how you prep this midfield to contest the battle in center with, and more importantly, without the ball. This is the main reason that I am less inclined to stick Partey at right back, as some have suggested, but I see the viability in it.
To me the midfield selection is only interesting if Granit Xhaka is still ill and misses once again. If he’s back in the mix, the midfield selects itself: Xhaka – Partey – Ødegaard.
My suspicion is that he’s back in the mix and it will be our normal selection, however, if he’s not things get more interesting. The top name on many people’s lips is Leandro Trossard at the left center midfield role. That’s a big no for me.
There is little doubt about what Trossard offers us when we have the ball, he’s a tidy player. The concern I have revolves entirely around what he doesn’t offer us when Manchester City have the ball. He moves like an attacker, he plays like an attacker, he IS an attacker. In previous matches, when Arsenal have played him at the LCM spot, the entire team gets very end-to-end in their play and the control tends to bypass the midfield. Defensively it leaves a hole and a lot of space for Partey to manage by himself. This was a tactic that worked when Southampton switched to a five-back, defensive shell, or when Arsenal were looking to push for goals or knew they would be in control of the ball for 55-60+% of the game, but doesn’t feel like a good idea to leave Partey defensively isolated.
Instead, in the situation of Xhaka being out, I would look to have Jorginho start alongside Partey for at least the first half, in more of a double-pivot, and look to alter the game after assessing the early storm. Jorginho did bring quality control the first time versus City, in Partey’s stead, and is capable of doing it again. He moves like a midfielder, he assists in our level of control, and he offers more Xhaka-like qualities to start the match.
Two midfield options:
- Ideal: Xhaka – Partey – Ødegaard
- Backup: Jorginho – Partey – Ødegaard (to begin with)
Press and Structure From the Front
Gabriel Jesus is taking a lot of heat, but I can’t say I agree with the extent of the critiques. He struggled to convert his 6 shots on frame versus Southampton which has rightfully drawn complaints, but he’s also Arsenal’s best pressing strikers, he has created 13 shot creating actions in his last four matches (compared to Trossard’s 7 in the 4 matches before Jesus’ return), and he’s scored 4 goals in 4 matches.
Even on other fronts this season for Arsenal, Jesus stacks up very well:
- Jesus: 3.71 shots/90; 1.45 SOG/90; 39.1% SOG; 0.13 goals per shot; .32 goals per SOG
- Trossard: 1.62 shots/90; .44 SOG/90; 27.3% SOG; 0.09 goals per shot; .33 goals per SOG
He’s Arsenal’s lead man, he’s the star, and I’m not willing to remove him from our biggest match of the season. Certainly not looking to move Martinelli and Saka from this one.
I think Trossard has been outstanding. I think the shouts for him being the best January signing Arsenal have made in a season — in terms of instant impact — are justified. I also believe our front is a tough group to crack into and this isn’t a game I am changing them from the start.
Front three: Martinelli – Jesus – Saka
It’s not sweeping changes. It’s not an attempt to outright fool Pep and catch him sleeping. I think Arsenal are better off retaining the aspects of their setup have that gotten them here — strong front attacking four, Xhaka and Partey (assuming Granit is fit) — and then tweaking the back to put Ben White central.
There is a risk when it comes to trying something you haven’t done this season. Even if you played it last season, it’s unfamiliar and that will be exacerbated by the pressure of the game and the quality of the opponent. It’s enough risk that some managers might not be willing to try it. It’s enough risk to make me consider the reality in which Arteta selects the same eleven, and when Holding gets booked for being physical with Haaland, he’s subbed off. That Arteta is only willing to get desperate with the setup in the face of no other options. But I think he has to from the start.
Be that because of the external pressure he will face to find a solution, the fact that this setup has not worked the last three games, the fact that underlying defensive stats suggest an issue with the team as a unit, and because the eye test shows a team that looks erratic and struggling across long stretches of matches — he has to come up with a change.
This is the change I would make, but I see plenty of validity in many of the other solutions I have seen online. I think this solidifies the back while retaining our core identity up top. It keeps our playmakers in positions to make plays, and hopefully it lead to a huge result.
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