Mikel Arteta’s decision to start Leandro Trossard over Gabriel Martinelli against Crystal Palace last weekend was surprising. After his team’s 5-0 home win, the Arsenal manager explained that the Brazil international was dealing with “a little issue” and wasn’t fully fit.
The manner of the victory over Palace fuelled the discussion of what Arsenal need from their left flank during the rest of this season.
Like most of the squad’s attacking and creative players, Martinelli and Trossard have lacked the consistency of last term.
Questions were starting to be asked about Martinelli’s goal output in the Premier League before Christmas, with him having only scored twice, but he looked a constant threat in the Champions League. Trossard has been in and out of the starting line-up but has performed at his best when deployed in the front three rather than in midfield.
Both players scoring against Palace would suggest competition will rise before the next game, away against Nottingham Forest on Tuesday, but reinvigorating that left flank does not live and die with Martinelli and Trossard.
Before the reason for Martinelli being benched was revealed, Trossard’s ability to break down deep blocks was considered a possibility for his inclusion on Saturday. He helped Arsenal break down Everton, Burnley and Wolverhampton Wanderers, but those situations did not arise as often against Palace. Instead, the game’s early stages were littered with quick moves that would have been better suited to Martinelli’s speed and ability to play off instinct.
This example from the first minute shows positive play from Oleksandr Zinchenko and Kai Havertz to find Trossard. He takes the ball up the line only to be crowded out, forcing him to recycle possession.
Zinchenko’s initial pass resulted in the corner that led to Arsenal’s goal, but it was hard not to imagine what might have happened if Martinelli had received that ball, not Trossard.
Martinelli’s two goals after coming on as a 69th-minute substitute were proof of what could happen, but one of the main issues the 22-year-old has had in the 2023-24 Premier League is that he has not been afforded the space that Palace offered him.
Defences taking a more pragmatic approach is a factor, but the speed at which Arsenal move the ball is another.
After losing 2-1 to Fulham last month, Arteta said Arsenal “didn’t have enough ball speed, enough movement, enough threat”. It is a valid statement when discussing their season as a whole.
Assessing ball speed is difficult due to the unavailability of those metrics, but the average velocity of Arsenal’s passes has gone down by slightly (from 27mph last season to 26.5mph), according to Premier League Insights. They have dropped from having the Premier League’s quickest passing velocity then to the fourth-highest.
On average, they move the ball slower than most teams in Europe but play more passes to create openings. By the time the ball reaches those in the final third, Arsenal’s attackers have more players to beat.
Which teams play with the quickest passing, compared to their total pass volume? ⏱️
Xabi Alonso’s Bayer Leverkusen #B04 are outliers, having the 3rd most passes per game (after #PSG and #ManCity), and the 3rd fastest passing pace (behind #SheffieldUnited and #AtleticoMadrid) pic.twitter.com/kgi73tHZnL
— Soccerment (@Soccerment_Blog) January 19, 2024
Ten of Martinelli’s 15 goals last season were scored with either his first or second touch. His goals that needed more touches came when he was pushing the ball into space or quickly shifting it to create separation from a defender. Space has not been as easy to come by this term, as seen below, where hesitation has cost him.
When asked last month about Martinelli’s confidence, Arteta said: “Being open first (helps). Working hard and practising the situation you face in the game as much as possible and having the courage to do it time and again; he’s one of the best in the world at that.
“Confidence is not a problem for Gabi. Sometimes, the efficiency and putting the breaks down and lifting your head up; finding that composure or timing in the box is the most difficult thing to do. A lack of composure or timing is not an issue for him.”
That was not as big an issue in the Champions League group games, where the opponents playing in a more open fashion allowed Arsenal’s attack to become free-flowing. Martinelli completed six dribbles by half-time at home against Sevilla in November. At that point, the next highest by any other player was two and he ended the game having completed nine — going outside his full-back and crossing with his left foot on the majority of them.
Arsenal cannot control how Premier League teams defend against them. What they can control is how quickly they move the ball to cause enough organised chaos that more spaces open up naturally.
There have been glimpses of that, which has benefitted Martinelli and Trossard this season.
The latter’s goal against Palace is the most recent example, with just two passes needed from David Raya and Gabriel Jesus needed to get him into the box.
Arteta gave us a glimpse of Emile Smith Rowe in the left-sided No 8 role, which was promising. In his first involvement, Smith Rowe kept the ball under pressure and took a Palace player with him. Martin Odegaard then drifted into the space that was vacated and Arsenal were able to move the ball effortlessly up their left side to find Martinelli.
Later in the game, he was found in a pocket by Odegaard and received on the back foot to turn away from his defender. This opened the pitch up instantly and he then spread the ball to Martinelli, who had Zinchenko in support for a cutback. Smith Rowe and Odegaard were coming onto that pass, but Palace cleared.
Smith Rowe and Odegaard speeding up Arsenal’s play when they have been struggling would not be something new, but the former has barely been seen this season.
Those two broke through at Arsenal midway through the 2020-21 season and despite fears that one would have to play in place of the other, they coexisted well.
Below is an example of how the pair worked, with Smith Rowe drifting centrally from the left wing to combine with a No 10, Odegaard, to unlock defences, although Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang was offside on this occasion.
That was the start of Arsenal’s play becoming more vertical, which is something that needs to return to their game.
The importance of those around whoever plays on the left can be seen in the fluidity of Arsenal’s play when Martinelli and Trossard were used together last season. Trossard took a central berth with Jesus and Eddie Nketiah sidelined and the attack flourished. The Belgium international naturally floats into wide areas, which complemented Martinelli’s tendency to drift infield.
This was best seen in the 1-0 win over Leicester City in February. The goal came from Trossard pulling wide and Martinelli underlapping, but that constant movement kept Leicester guessing throughout.
Those movements helped Trossard claim two of his three assists away to Fulham a couple of weeks later. One was for Martinelli, the other was for Odegaard — after Martinelli slid him through. While Martinelli and Trossard could play together as well as Smith Rowe and Odegaard, the movement and positioning of the now departed Granit Xhaka as the left-sided No 8 tied it all together.
In the passages of play above, Xhaka took whichever position was vacated by Martinelli or Trossard. Against Fulham, his third-man runs helped further exploit the spaces that were being created. The move below, where Trossard and Martinelli receive with time and space, is an example.
Each player in the move had a passing option because of the off-ball movement which has not been as prevalent this season.
That lack of movement hurt Arsenal on last season’s trip to Forest. Martinelli and Zinchenko were injured that day, so the left flank consisted of Trossard and Jakub Kiwior. Neither got into the game due to space being restricted in the middle third during the build-up.
Nuno Espirito Santo has made Forest more attacking since taking over from Steve Cooper in December. That could help Arsenal and allow their attacking players to play off instinct more on Tuesday night — a must for all players across the front line, but particularly those on the left, who showed what they could do against Palace.
(Top photos: Getty Images)