Arsenal are in a mini-slump. They still sit atop the Premier League table, but what was at times an eight point lead at the top has been trimmed to three. With a match against Manchester City on Wednesday, the Gunners could find themselves tied for first, albeit with a match in hand. Not the best time for a dip in form.
Part of that is the natural ebb and flow of a season. The Gunners have spent a good portion of the campaign playing at (or perhaps even above) their peak. They weren’t going to go 38 matches there. But is there more to it? That’s the $64,000 question, isn’t it. Will the Gunners bounce back naturally or does Mikel Arteta need to change something up to jump-start his side back to their dominant performances?
Arteta has named the two most common starting XI’s in the Premier League en route to Arsenal’s current place atop the Premier League table. Aaron Ramsdale, Ben White, William Saliba, Gabriel Magalhaes, Alex Zinchenko, Thomas Partey, Granit Xhaka, Martin Ødegaard, Gabriel Martinelli, and Bukayo Saka have started together eleven times. Six of those times, Gabriel Jesus has led the line. The other five, it’s been Eddie Nketiah up top.
There’s something to be said for that level consistency. It’s gotten the club to their current position, after all. I’m not sure Arteta should be making lineup changes heading into the most important match of the season thus far. I could see that backfiring spectacularly. One of the biggest criticisms of Pep Guardiola at Manchester City has been his tendency to “galaxy brain” his lineups, i.e. make a whole bunch of changes to personnel and formation that, with the hindsight of how the match played out, made very little sense.
There are also soft factors to consider. Showing faith in your players and not yanking them at the first downturn helps build confidence. But there is a counterbalancing factor, too — players not getting complacent thinking their spot is secure. And Mikel Arteta has to balance all that with a critical match against Manchester City as the backdrop, amplifying every message delivered to his players. I don’t envy him at all.
Often the best route forward is to K.I.S.S. Keep is simple, stupid. It helps to guard against your own snap judgment and protect against making things worse by overreacting to expected variance. You should never make changes simply for the sake of making them, and the more changes you make, the more risk there is of breaking something else. Choosing not to change things up is as much a part of managing as making changes.
On the other hand, Arsenal feel a bit stale. The attack has lost some of its potency, although how much of that is attributable to Gabriel Jesus’ absence and hence unrecoverable is an open question. There seems to be a blueprint for how to defend the Gunners — send an extra man wide to double team Gabriel Martinelli and Bukayo Saka. Thus far, Arsenal have not come up with an effective answer / counter-tactic.
One of the more obvious changes on current form would be Takehiro Tomiyasu replacing Ben White at right back. White has looked off for three or four matches running, which given his under-the-radar candidacy for best right back in the Premier League in the first half of the season, isn’t terribly surprising. Like I said at the start, we can’t expect every Arsenal player to play at the top of their range for an entire season. But swapping Tomiyasu in for White doesn’t move the needle much in terms of sparking the attack. The current version of Ben White that is misplacing a handful of passes and hitting hopeful crosses quite possibly still offers more going forward than Tomi does.
To the extent the Arsenal attack has a problem, it’s not the right side. The Bukayo Saka-Martin Ødegaard connection is still going strong and creating chances. The issue is either down the left side or through the middle.
The consensus is that Gabriel Martinelli has been less than since the World Cup. I wouldn’t go nearly as far as others have in criticizing the Brazilian. He’s playing better than they’d have you think, but he hasn’t been beating opposing defenders as frequently on the dribble. The attacking spark might come from the simple move of starting Leandro Trossard and bringing on Gabriel Martinelli as a sub.
But I’d like to see Trossard and Martinelli on the pitch together at some point. That would require Trossard playing the left-side #8 role. I don’t know whether Trossard would be as effective as Granit Xhaka on the defensive side of the ball. Trossard also may not fully understand the complexities of the spot in the tactical setup. It’s an oversimpification to say that Xhaka just drops into left back to allow Alex Zinchenko to get forward as a midfielder. There is nuance to the when and how of the shift, and Trossard might not be ready for the added responsibility.
Arteta seems to like the Trossard-for-Martinelli like-for-like change, so I doubt we’ll see the two combine down the left, which is a shame. One of the better ways for Arsenal to punish teams for sending extra men wide is to have a player like Trossard in the inside left channel. He’s more capable of doing attacking damage operating in the additional space left between wide and central defenders / midfielders than Granit Xhaka.
Another way to attack a wide double team is to have the winger tuck in a bit more and overlap the fullback. If Arsenal want to do that, perhaps the swap is to have Alex Zinchenko play left #8 in place of Granit Xhaka with Kieran Tierney at left back. Tierney is more apt to overlap than Zinchenko, and I like the idea of him slipping a ball inside to either Zinchenko or Martinelli for the pair to combine closer to the opposing goal. Or if Mikel Arteta doesn’t want to change his lineup, he could use that same attacking plan and encourage Zinchenko to overlap more frequently.
Part of the reason teams have been effective in double-teaming the Arsenal wide attackers is that Eddie Nketiah, not Gabriel Jesus, is playing through the middle. Nketiah is more a fox-in-the-box type who prefers to stay more central. Jesus roamed from side-to-side, creating overloads, interchanging with the wide attackers, and seeking space even when it’s closer to the outside channels. Teams really couldn’t commit the extra defender to the wing because Gabriel Jesus would exploit the newly created space to receive the ball and dribble into the box in a way that Eddie Nketiah does not.
And that’s fine. Nketiah has been fantastic filling in at striker, better than anybody could have expected. But teams have adjusted to the forced change, and Arsenal have been slow to adapt in response. If Mikel Arteta wants more Gabriel Jesus-like stuff from his central attacker, he might try Leandro Trossard (possible) or Gabriel Martinelli (highly unlikely) through the middle. The issue with either of those changes is that neither of them provide the hold up play or anchor / pivot point that Nketiah does.
And if that wasn’t enough for Mikel Arteta to mull over, he must also account for what Manchester City might do. Will Pep Guardiola copy the defensive setup that has worked against Arsenal recently? I find it hard to believe that Riyad Mahrez and Jack Grealish are going to do the same defensive tracking back that Rico Henry and Mads Roerslev did for Brentford to double the Arsenal wide men. Guardiola, like Arteta, tends to ask a lot of his defenders, often exposing them 1-v-1 situations and expecting them to win the battle.
When the two clubs met in the FA Cup, the Arsenal wide players, particularly down the left side, came out on top. Leandro Trossard and later Gabriel Martinelli made mincemeat of Rico Lewis and Kyle Walker, respectively. That should be a plus match-up for the Gunners again on Wednesday regardless of who plays for City, so it might be best for Mikel Arteta to roll with what has worked for his side all season.
As I said, I don’t envy Mikel at all. He’s got a lot to consider. I guarantee you both the problem (if he sees it as one) and the solution are far more complex than we think.