The countdown feels like it truly commenceth today, my good friends. We are on T-minus three days and counting after today until the North London Derby and with the players all starting to make their way back to London Colney to be assessed on their fitness ahead of what is feeling – as always – like a vital North London Derby, my stomach is starting to churn ever more heavily every time I think about what lies ahead.
The club has released some images of the players in training but, as you’d expect, there isn’t really much to take from them. There’s the nice news that Reiss Nelson is back in training, although how much that impacts the first team I’m not so sure. Nelson is a guy who can play wide right or left and you’d have to say that in the event that either of our first choice players in those positions – Martinelli and Saka – were injured, Arteta would probably call upon some different players ahead of Nelson if he was forced to. On the right he might opt for Fabio Vieira, fresh from a stunner of a goal against Brentford and an all round impressive performance, or alternatively he’d probably opt for Marquinhos after his impressive display against FC Zurich.
Marquinhos is an interesting one. We can’t say he’s had the same impact as Martinelli and his trajectory is the same, but he has surprised a lot of people, me included. When Martinelli arrived on the scene as a teenager I think we all thought “decent money for an 18-year-old, but he’ll probably not feature for a couple of years at least”. Then, much as Emery put his faith in Guendouzi early on in his tenure as Arsenal manager, he also started giving Europa League minutes to Gabby Martinelli, for which the young Italian repaid with goals and all round impressive performances. He never looked back and now is a regular feature in our team. The data and intel we have on Marquinhos is little and we aren’t really able to make any kind of proper projections just yet on the player, but his first appearance was good and if it did nothing else, it made us all sit up and take note.
And we are all taking note. His body shape looks good; he’s well built and looks to have a bit of pace about him, but in addition to that, what we saw was the performance of a guy who didn’t look like he was out to overly impress everyone in that Zurich game. He did the simple things well, he did the difficult things well, he provided a calm and composed performance with a sprinkling of magic when the time was right. His decision making on that night – I thought – was spot on. It was like a guy who had been a first teamer for ages and didn’t really need to worry too much about getting back in to the side, because he knew he was part of the squad, that he’d get minutes. That calm assurance was not unnoticed by a lot of us Arsenal fans and suddenly many of us have gone from the position of thinking “a decent young player, but we probably won’t see him for a couple of seasons”, to “hey, this guy can be an option from the bench or relief cover out wide if we need to rest Saka”.
That’s pleasing to have as an Arsenal fan i.e. another option, but it probably doesn’t help Reiss Nelson. In fact, looking at his opportunities right now, you’d have to say that fighting to be Martinelli’s understudy is probably Nelson’s best bet right now. The persistent injuries and niggles of Smith Rowe might afford him that opportunity. There has been talk of growing pains for Emile, but nothing concrete has come out and we haven’t really had any detail from Arteta or the club about the length of absence for Smith Rowe. The hope would be that we’d have a date on which he’d return, but if the club aren’t sure about when that is, that is a real worry for me. I remember Vermaelen and Rosicky having injuries in which the club never really diagnosed a return date and we all know how that turned out, with them missing large chunks of seasons. We have to just cross everything and hope that for Emile it isn’t too serious and that he’ll be back soon.
That’s because I think we need him. As much as I like Nelson, it was great to see him burst on to the scene under Wenger as a 16-year-old all those years ago, his career has stalled somewhat and I think the level of this team has been elevated. Smith Rowe has the quality and ability on the ball – when fit – to challenge Martinelli for a starting position on the left. There was a time last season in which it was difficult to pick between the two of them. But as it stands because of injury Emile has fallen behind and now has to bide his time. But when he is back, I’d have no worries about him providing the quality wide left, if Martinelli needs resting, for example. Does Reiss Nelson still have the quality, but also the confidence, with which to properly challenge Martinelli? I’m not so sure.
Maybe he can build up some confidence by playing in the Europa League, but if Smith Rowe comes back in, that’s who you want to be giving the minutes to. He’s got a longer contract, he has a higher ceiling, the manager is clearly more invested in him, so it would make sense. So if we get wind that Smith Rowe is back and in training within the next week, I have a feeling that Reiss Nelson won’t even get the possibility to get more time on the pitch to build that confidence.
Nevertheless, as a fan, what you want to see is more players all showing availability. It isn’t our responsibility to worry about those players who are third choice in a certain position. It is on those players to seize their opportunity when they get it. Marquinhos got one chance and proved he’s an option. Could Nelson do the same if given the same opportunity?
We shall have to wait and see.
Catch all of you wonderful people tomorrow.