Friday, March 24, 2023

Arsenal show impressive strength in depth as they ease win over Bodo/Glimt in Europa League

LONDON — As Arsenal hurtle into the teeth of a brutal fixture list, Mikel Arteta can rest relatively easily knowing that he has all the depth he needs in a vital part of the pitch.

It is not easy being a full back for Arsenal. Your manager will not settle for players who can just charge up and down the flank; the tactical demands placed on those who occupy wide areas extend far beyond what they did before Arteta made this squad his own. In one match you might be expected to join Thomas Partey in central midfield, the next crash towards the byline to provide cutbacks.

Arsenal’s build up through wide areas is an intricate machine, one Gabriel Martinelli laid out in impressive detail in an interview with The Times of London this week. “Arteta always tells us that when a full back comes into a wider position, Xhaka should attack his opponent’s back, and I would have to find the right moment to roll inside,” the Brazilian said. “I did it several times against Crystal Palace. Zina [Oleksandr Zinchenko] gets the ball wide, Xhaka attacks someone’s back and I carry the ball to the inside.” 

This is just one example, on Thursday night Takehiro Tomiyasu took up a deeper spot further from the touchline, a release valve if Fabio Vieira and Marquinhos needed one.

Happily for Arteta, he has a quartet capable of doing whatever could be required. Kieran Tierney, one of the standout performers in Thursday’s impressive 3-0 victory over Bodo/Glimt, is the closest Arsenal have to an orthodox full-back in their ranks, all front-footed runs and energy reserves for days (when he is fit). Tomiyasu, who started across the pitch from him tonight, is a model of versatility, as at home functioning as a third center back as he was combining with Marquinhos down the right. He was even trusted to switch to left-back for the final 20 minutes.

It says everything about the depth of quality in this position that these two, nobody’s idea of weak links last season, have struggled to get into the strongest XI for the Premier League this season. Ben White has moved out from his center back spot with aplomb and might have had a case to be Arsenal’s man of the match in Saturday’s north London derby. Then there is Oleksandr Zinchenko. In Ukraine colors the 25-year-old looks like a top-tier midfield playmaker, with his club side he can often function as the fulcrum of their build-up play.

One might argue that not since Mauricio Pochettino was rotating Kieran Trippier, Kyle Walker, Danny Rose and Ben Davies has a Premier League manager had such strength in depth at full-back (even Pep Guardiola tends to keep this group low in number but sky high in quality). There is even Euro 2016 winner Cedric available in a pinch.

Tonight he had the right players for the task. Tierney crackled with intensity in his running from the kickoff, after just nine minutes he had driven to the byline, cutting back for an off-balance Fabio Vieira to clip the ball against the bar. His assist would come soon after. As Gabriel Martinelli charged upfield on the counter, drawing four players towards him, his left back held his run out wide. A touch to steady himself and Tierney was rather unlucky that his shot flew out rather than in off the inside of the post. As is his way, Eddie Nketiah was on hand to convert the rebound. He may have expanded his game into build up and possession plays over recent years but this is the purest distillation of Nketiah, a player with a sense for where the ball might land that you simply can’t coach.

That set Arsenal on course for what was a swiftly secured win. Five minutes later Rob Holding was rising to flick home Vieira’s unerring cross from the right, the 5,000 Bodo/Glimt fans quelled into brief silence. Only on occasion did Arsenal supporters fill the void, perhaps saving their voice for Sunday’s mouth-watering clash with Liverpool. For their part, the hosts seemed happy enough to sit on their two-goal advantage until late on, when substitute Gabriel Jesus sent defenders crashing to the floor down the left byline before rolling the ball across for Vieira to get his second goal since arriving from Porto this summer.

As the game coasted along in second gear Tomiyasu seemed determined to win himself a spot in that starting XI. Always free for a pass, the Japan international was strong in the air and resolute when the Norwegian side upped the pressure in the closing stages. That he completed 90 minutes augurs well for a player who has struggled with injuries since arriving from Bologna. It is another encouraging sign for Arteta in a season bursting with them.

Top of the table in the Premier League and Europa League, it is too soon for Arsenal to start thinking about title contention, at least in the former. But in their quartet of top-tier full-back options, they have all the depth they could need for a season where it looks like there will be plenty of stake throughout the year.

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