With injuries to Thomas Partey and Kieran Tierney, everything looked a little bleak at Arsenal after 3 defeats on the spin.
Throw in Alexandre Lacazette’s drop off in form and questions were rightly asked about our decision to let 6 first team squad players leave in January.
In the last 3 games, things have dramatically improved and we are back in pole position for top 4. The performances of fringe players have been key to that improvement.
Mohamed Elneny and Eddie Nketiah were both given their first Premier League starts of the calendar year against Chelsea. They have since both been ever presents in the next 3 games, contributing to 3 wins out of 3.
If I was to have one major criticism of Mikel Arteta’s time at Arsenal, it is that he has a tendency to alienate fringe players and not trust them to come in and do a job – which in turn leads him to continue playing players who are out of form or carrying slight knocks.
Take the Brighton defeat.
With Tierney and Partey out, Arteta opted to play Granit Xhaka at left back and a midfield of Albert Sambi Lokonga, Martin Odergaard and Emile Smith Rowe.
He decided to leave out our only fit left back in Nuno Tavares.
That decision left him without his two senior central midfielders; but he did not trust Mohamed Elneny to slot in and fill the gap.
You also had a misfiring Alexandre Lacazette up top who kept his place despite just 1 goal in his previous 14 games.
Now I know football is easy in hindsight, but the decision to play Xhaka at left back went as predicted – badly.
Also, whilst Elneny might not be everyone’s cup of tea, he has shown time and again for Arsenal and Egypt that he is a solid player.
Elneny is not exceptional. He won’t win you a game. But he makes very few errors and is dependable in the middle of the park.
Could he have been utilised more this season? I would say yes.
He has started just 4 league games, 3 of which have come in the last 14 days. Could we have taken a bit of pressure of Thomas Partey by playing Elneny a bit more?
Partey has had a couple of injury problems since he has joined us. It has felt a couple of times he has come back from injury too soon – and played with niggles.
With better use of Elneny, could we have managed Partey’s injuries better?
Elneny’s contract is also due to expire in a couple of months. It is unlikely to be renewed.
With us in the Europe next season, we will play at least 50 games.
Considering Elneny’s consistency, would he still not have been a good option as cover for Partey into next season?
Through a lack of trust and a little mismanagement, it feels like we are losing a decent player and are going to have to spend £20m+ on a replacement who might not be as good.
You also look at Nketiah since he has come into the team.
He has been transformed in recent weeks.
He has shown that he is a clinical finisher, pace in behind, pressing and ball holding ability.
Considering this is what we are looking for as a striker, it is beginning to feel like Nketiah has also been poorly used.
I am not saying that Nketiah will be a world beater. He will probably never be that. But his attributes are exactly what we need in our system.
Had Arteta played him a bit more, trusted him a bit more following Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s departure, we might be discussing only needing to sign one striker this summer. Not two.
Nketiah’s performances remind me a lot of Danny Welbeck during his time at Arsenal.
You know he will never be a superstar. But he will do the hard running and be a good option as cover.
If Nketiah leaves, we will get around £6-8million compensation. That feels like we are letting a £15-20million striker walk out the door.
Arteta himself has recently admitted that he has mismanaged Nketiah’s career.
Could Nketiah and Elneny have extended their careers at Arsenal?
Some will say no, that we need to move on from these sort of players and buy better. I understand that.
But I also think the pair fall into the Rob Holding category of players. Good eggs that will rarely let you down whom you need in a 25 man squad.
What the likes of Jurgen Klopp and Pep Guardiola are both good at is keeping the fringe players involved. Making them feel loved at that they are part of a bigger picture. Of course, it helps when they are winning things.
I appreciate that without European football and early cup exits this season, game time has naturally been limited for the likes of Elneny, Nketiah and Holding. But that has changed.
Arteta has talked about wanting a 22 outfield players. By the time you take away those leaving on a free this summer, we have just 15.
Better management of the fringe players could have seen the likes of Nketiah and Elneny fill some of those gaps.
A team wins you games, a squad wins you titles.