In what has been a surreal ride within and outside football so far in 2020, mid-year offers a bizarre opportunity to continue what the 1st quarter of the year was billed to usher us into squeaky bum time in domestic football. While the past few months have rocked the global village in unprecedented ways, it is also worth noting that the six months at Arsenal have also been nothing short of dramatic; especially for the 16-game old Mikel Arteta who has had to grapple with every aspect of mental and health man-management (alongside the little matter of coaching), you could possibly think of within the game and beyond.
Such overlapping events have now brought us to the point where team selection and tactics are once again at the fore of the broad discussion; and unsurprisingly, we have landed at head-scratching decisions to make in the middle of the park. Thank God football is back!
As we head into the restart of the Premier League with Mikel Arteta’s long-awaited return to the Etihad on Wednesday, there’s an aspect of what the former Manchester City Assistant coach is trying to create that is worth shedding an eye on.
Solely judging from what has been observed on matchdays since Arteta took over the helm, it’s fair to say competition has been installed at the forefront of team productivity. Such has been discovered with the reintroduction of the likes of Shkodran Mustafi and Eddie Nketiah into the team, with neither expected to play any prominent role in the side when the Spaniard took over. Add Reiss Nelson into that bracket and what seemed like a worryingly thin squad now looks like one with decent cover in every position, so much that when the players are arranged structurally, the likes of Ainsley Maitland-Niles and Bukayo Saka seem like “floaters” who the boss will use anywhere as he pleases.
Interestingly, the latter two players have drawn much speculation from fans about their best position and to even throw further debate into that, they have both had stints in midfield in a couple of friendlies played ahead of the return to competitive action.
Granted, it could be argued that Arteta was only trying to find a way to replace the numbers in midfield in the absence of Lucas Torreira, hence the decision to give Maitland a go centrally. However, for Saka, a move into midfield seems much more intriguing yet, natural due to the skillets the 18-year-old has in his locker.
Having shown so much composure in possession, the ability to receive the ball on the half-turn, the intelligence to always make himself available, an astute athleticism and a sharp eye for a pass, it’s little wonder why the Academy is being touted for a central spot in midfield in future.
Furthermore, his emergency spell at left-back could turn out to be a masterstroke in the way Arteta wants to play as we saw how intelligently he was deployed there, with Xhaka occasionally dropping into a left-back/left center-back spot and picking out the English man time and again. Such move could still be replicated by the left-sided Swiss, (as well as left-center half Pablo Mari) if Saka moves into midfield, almost acting as an advanced left-back who tucks in, in possession.
It also goes without saying that possessing such skillset only adds to the desperately needed increase in level of competition and agility in a midfield which has been quite underwhelming for long spells this season.
As can be observed with his versatility, the possibilities for the 18-year old remain in abundance and it would be fascinating to see how he develops under a coach who knows how to get the best out of him as Arteta has briefly shown. It is also hoped he resolves the little matter of signing that much-needed contract extension.
Regardless of what happens in the summer transfer window relating to recruitment, the smart use of options that enhance squad depth and dynamism is almost as important as any new signing, and with how much vision the new Arsenal boss has shown in this regard, perhaps it will soon be realized that Arsenal isn’t so far from their immediate rivals than previously envisaged.
Written by @KingHenrythefif
Listen to Arsenal Podcast speaking on the Restart of the Premier League Season : https://canoncrested.com/the-restart-arsenal-podcast/
Amy Lawrence writes on how vital it is for Arsenal to get European Football : https://theathletic.co.uk/1864094/2020/06/15/arsenal-amy-lawrence-arteta-premier-league/