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Last season Arsenal had a starting lineup for the first game of the season of
- Aaron Ramsdale
- William Saliba
- Ben White
- Granit Xhaka
- Olexsandr Zinchenko
- Bukayo Saka
- Martin Odegaard
- Thomas Partey
- Gabriel Jesus
- Gabriel Martinelli
That starting line up remained the same for the opening three games until in the fourth game Tierney came in for Zinchenko and ElNeny came in for Partey.
But now I suspect that change, game by game, might be what we see in the future – not just because of injuries, but as a way of keeping the opposition guessing and nullifying their own approach.
And indeed “guessing” in two different ways. One, of course, is which Arsenal players will be on the pitch – which is revealed one hour before kick-off, giving the manager time to adjust his formation according to information from the opposition. The other however is a much greater way to challenge the opposition: the question of where they will be playing, not only at kick off but also as they swap around during the match.
This is perhaps part of the reason why Arsenal recruitment is of younger players – they tend to have the extra flexibility in terms of where they play, while older players may have played 10 years in one position and will find that routine so ingrained that they have difficulty adjusting to new ways of seeing the way the game is played.
In fact we can see the continuity of starting players last season from the simple observation that seven men played between 34 and 38 league games while another four played between 24 and 28 league games. This of course gave continuity and growing understanding by the players of the manager’s wishes. But it also gave the opposition a lot of insight into what Arsenal would do.
Manchester City on the other hand had only three players who played 33 to 35 games, but 11 who played 21 to 28 games each in the league, last campaign. In short, they had a core of 14 players who were playing very regularly, while Arsenal had a core of 11 players. The difference is only three players, but that is over a quarter of a team.
And those extra three players meant more cover for injuries, more time for rest, including the fact that only three played 30+ games.
Plus there was the issue of yellow cards. Arsenal got just eight more yellows than Manchester City – but Manchester City’s yellows were shared between a bigger selection of players.
As a result, Manchester City had just two players who got five or more yellows, and no players on four cards, while Arsenal had four players on five yellows and three players watching their step as they were on four cards.
My expectation (which of course I should add is often wrong, but doesn’t stop me from pondering) is that part of this season’s plan is not only to mix up the formation and indeed the selections to make it harder for the opposition to read Arsenal’s game both in advance and during the match, but also to reduce the impact of cards on players.
And in relation to cards we must remember that a player who has been yellow carded in a game either has to be substituted or has to change his approach to avoid getting a second card.
And we should perhaps also notice that the two players who got the most cards (six each) were not Arsenal’s defenders, but rather Arsenal’s attackers: Gabriel Jesus and Bakayo Saka.
This in turn shows the outcome of the revolution that happened after 2019/20 when the club moved from being the most carded team in the league (with 86 yellows) to one of the least carded teams the next season with 47. We might also note that last season Arsenal did not get a single red card and were the third-lowest team in terms of yellows.
So what we can expect is for the team and its formation to vary from game to game, and quite possibly within games as well, in order, as Arteta has said, “To create bigger problems for the opponent than the ones they are creating for us… to do that we have to pick the right players to win the game every week.”
As a result of this new approach, seeing who has been dropped from the starting XI is not an indication of who is injured or who has had a row with the manager, but rather how the team is playing both to beat and to bamboozle the opposition. If one of the opponents has been briefed in the hour before the game begins to mark one specific player, and he is playing somewhere else, that causes confusion.
This can work particularly well, because whatever re-arrangements the visitors make they will know that they still have to contend with Saka, Martinelli and Odegaard who look capable of scoring from anywhere. Now throw Kai Havertz into the mix and it gets even more bemusing. Oh yes and don’t forget that Saka and Martinelli have agreed contract extensions, and Gabriel Jesus should be back shortly.
There was a time in the Graham era, when the only question about the team sheet was who the substitute was going to be. Now we are seeing new versions of Arsenal several times within a game. It makes it all rather interesting.
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