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Arsenal substitutions cause Gunners to lose momentum

Rather than turning the game, Arsenal’s subs did little to change momentum.

Brentford FC v Arsenal FC - Premier League Photo by Stuart MacFarlane/Arsenal FC via Getty Images

Arsenal’s first sub during the 1-0 defeat to Aston Villa was, on paper, quite reasonable. While Gabriel Martinelli had been getting behind the Aston Villa defense with some regularity, his final ball wasn’t there—as it hasn’t been all season, as Martinelli’s npxG+xA per 90 has dropped from .59 last season to .31; essentially, turning Martinelli from a player who could expect to create or score about a little over a goal every two games to one in three. Leandro Trossard, on the other hand, has been in good form in both the Champions League and Premier League, sometimes from the left 8 position, sometimes from centre forward and sometimes from left wing.

Yet, the substitution had the opposite effect. While Arsenal had been getting in behind down the left hand side with some regularity before Martinelli came off, that essentially disappeared when Trossard came on. Now, this is also down to Aston Villa—Matty Cash is a better right back than Konsa—but it’s also about the profiles of players. Martinelli makes runs off the ball, and looks to stretch defenses. Trossard wants the ball, and wants to come inside to create. Yet, that wasn’t what the game was; and Trossard didn’t have the impact to turn that into the game that Arsenal were playing.

That wasn’t Arsenal’s only change; Eddie Nketiah came on, as did Reiss Nelson, very late. By that point, it seemed as if Arsenal were trying to push Villa back rather than exploit the space that they’d left behind all night: Havertz was pushing forward as a second centre forward, while Nketiah was trying to occupy the penalty box. It didn’t work, and wasn’t really the game on offer. Yet, it was the game that fitted the substitutes that came on.

If there is a weakness in this Arsenal squad, it’s that the backup players don’t always match the profile of the starters. In a squad, you want different profiles, but you also want analogues. With Arteta seemingly unwilling to use Reiss Nelson, Arsenal do not have an analogue for Bukayo Saka or Gabriel Martinelli, a point made clear today with Trossard’s inability go beyond Matty Cash. Trossard is a very good player, but tonight, he wasn’t the right one.