Very rarely do I write my blog title each day before I actually start typing my usual daily thoughts. Normally I just spill out on to the virtual page a selection of what I’m thinking about, then I try to put some kind of link between the headline and the waffle I’ve just written. But today is a different day. Today I wanted to start with that challenge question about Arsenal’s meritocracy and go from there.
That’s because I am starting to look ahead at the game this weekend, whilst also still having half an eye (and mind) on the result last weekend. The defeat to Liverpool was a bit of a battering and when that happens at a team like Arsenal there should absolutely be repercussions. Forget about ‘killing’ the confidence of some players; this is a big football club and at a big club you perform or you are out. We are not a creche. We are not a place – well I hope not any more – where players putting in average performances can just be overlooked because the options aren’t there to be replaced. Because I believe that we do have options to replace players who have maybe under performed.
This isn’t to say that you torch a players career. Nuno Tavares and Sambi Lokonga had poor games at the weekend. Everyone acknowledges that and I’m sure they do. But the idea that you should keep them in the side because maybe they need to be ‘played through it’ is far fetched and not what we should be building at The Arsenal. We should be building a culture of success, of winning, of accepting that you are somebody at an elite club that should be challenging towards the top end of the table and for trophies. And unless you are delivering those outstanding performances each week, sometimes you just gotta sit it out.
So that’s why I’m asking whether there is a true meritocracy at Arsenal right now, because I think this weekend is a good opportunity for Mikel to say to some players “you’ve done well, I’m pleased with the form you’ve shown, but after last weekend we need to try something different this weekend”, which is why I am hoping he makes a few changes. I hope he brings Tierney back, for example, which I think he will. The Scot has returned to fitness and if Arsenal is a meritocracy then Arteta couldn’t just bench Tavares after some impressive games. So this weekend he has to be saying to him “well done, but it’s Tierney’s turn”. The Scot, in turn, knows he has to turn up and put in a good performance to ensure he keeps the journey the following week. That’s how you build competition and that is how you get the best out of players.
In midfield I believe that despite the fact Ainsley is probably gone in the summer, he should be starting this weekend. Again, we need to be praising Sambi for his performances, telling him to get his head down and the next time he gets a chance – maybe because of a poor performance – he needs to be ready to win that jersey back off of Maitland-Niles.
Let’s have Lacazette drop out too. Odegaard has sat patiently on the side and seen Laca in good form and he has rightly kept his place. But the fact that it didn’t really work out at Liverpool should mean we try something else and that’s why I’d want the Norwegian in.
I also think that these days Premier League football is so nuanced in terms of the way teams set up to nullify their opponents, that changing things up is a good thing. Football these days feels like from a tactical perspective it’s about mixing it up and then when you find a formula, sticking to it, but when teams start to get wind of how to counter that approach you set up, you need to switch up your gameplan again. Teams have gotten wind of the way Lacazette is approaching matches in that pocket of space and arriving in to the box as we build the ball out wide. So perhaps now is time for the next evolution and a switch in style to catch our next opponents off guard. Then you stick with that formation and tactical approach until teams start to get wind of it again, before evolving your style once more.
I believe you can only really do that if you have a squad of players who are competitive (i.e. they know they can win their place back and keep it) and believe they are in a true meritocracy. I do believe Arteta is trying to foster that in his team, but to me this weekend feels like an ideal time to rubber stamp that amongst his players by getting a bit of a switch in personnel going. Pepe, for example, hasn’t exactly been in great form and has barely played in the last few matches. But maybe it is time we give him a start and see if his end product can ignite him and the team? He is a player who is full of end product – if not quite frustrating – but if he continues to basically play zero minutes for Arsenal, it is going to feel like his Arsenal career is on the scrap heap. We don’t need that, he doesn’t need that, so from my perspective I think he should also be in contention for a start this weekend. Let’s see if his time away from the team has lit a fire under his arse. And if it hasn’t and he doesn’t play, then it’s back to the bench you go mate, because this is a true meritocracy and there’s another player who will fight to keep that shirt if you aren’t going to.
But we do need to give those players a chance. Will Arteta do it this Saturday? We shall see.
Catch you all tomorrow.