While there’s been quite a lot of talk about Arteta’s ambition for having a squad two-deep at every position—and admirable progress at most positions at establishing that—there’s a troubling imbalance that coudl very well derail all of the progress we’ve made over the last few seasons. By now, I’m sure you all know what I’m going on about: the wings. On one side, we have so many options we don’t know what to do; on the other, we have…well, just one option. We need only look back to last week to see how precariously our season teeters on a knife’s edge.
On the left, we such a plethora of players vying for time that Emile Smith Rowe, who had apparently nailed down the position after an effervescent 21-22 season that evoked breathless dreams of he and Saka terrorising opposing defenses for years to come, can now barely find a minute much less a start. First, it was Martinellii who displaced him after his injury. Then, we brought in Trossard, who has impressed and inspired by turns. (I still suspect he’s a member of Gorillaz come to life, but I digress). Waiting in the wings (aha…) is Reiss Nelson. As if that’s not enough, Jesus will occasionally be deployed there as we continue to hope and pray and beg for Nketiah to become the kind of striker who can lead the line. That’s four players, each of whom with claims of varying degrees of legitimacy and/or desirability to playing on the left. That’s depth in extremis.
Meanwhile, on the right, there’s Saka and then…well, there’s Vieira, I guess. Havertz can put in a shift on the right as well, but Arteta hasn’t seen fit to give that a try. He finally shoehorned Jesus in on the right against Man City. As a result, we’ve seen Saka set a club record by playing in 87 consecutive matches, a streak that finally came to an end against Man City. He’s logged heavy minutes over the last few seasons for club and for country, and he’s among the top-ten most-fouled players in the Prem (that’s fouls called, by the way—not fouls committed). Many of the players ahead of him are midfielders who are dropping deep to defend and link defense to attack (Guimarães, Maddison, Ayew…).
Saka’s injury, incurred in the loss to RC Lens, broke that appearances streak but looks mild enough that he should be available to face Chelsea—but we’re surely living on borrowed time unless Arteta can find ways to rest Saka. While it may be less than ideal to play Havertz or Nelson or Smith Rowe on the right, it’s surely better than losing Saka to an extended spell on the sidelines due to fatigue or injury. The fact that we find ourselves in this situation is troublesome. For as significant as the upgrades at other positions have been—Raya, Rice, and Timber (before his injury) have each been vital contributors—is it worrisome that we didn’t find support if not competition for Saka?
The one transfer in who could offer a solution is Havertz—but I’m not a fan of moving a player around, even less so as he’s still struggling. Part of Havertz’s trouble at Chelsea was down to the weekly uncertainty around where he’d play. Since his move to the right part of London, Arteta has played him almost exclusively as a #8 on the left of Rice with occasional appearances as a striker. He’s yet to prove himself, to put it mildly, and so we risk going from now until January before finding some kind of remedy to this dilemma.
Absent a move for a clinical scorer such as Ivan Toney or Victor Osimhen—each of them more pipe-dreams than probabilities—is there a winger out there we could sign in January? Forget being cup-tied in the Champions League. Wolves’ Pedro Neto has been mentioned, but it’s hard to imagine us doing business of any kind with a club that has been so butthurt by our celebrations at their expense. Dortmund’s Jamie Bynoe–Gittens had his name bandied about, but he’s just signed a new contract through 2028.
It may just be that our best hope for offering some respite to our starboy in the short term will be through signing someone like Toney even if that compounds the congestion on the left. It would be magnificent to find a Trossard 2.0, someone Prem-proven who can slot in and hit the ground running, but that seems highly unlikely.
On one hand, the recruitment has been admirable, as evinced by that plethora of options on the left and by Ramsdale’s relegation between the sticks. On the other, the fact that we don’t have a viable backup for Saka is just a touch disconcerting. In the end, we may have to hope that the Edu/Arteta braintrust knows what it’s doing when it leaves so much riding on one player. Then again, it can be costly to secure the services of the kind of player who is both good enough to challenge one of this generation’s preternaturally precocious talents and also pliant and patient enough to sit in waiting to the same.
Twixt the two, all we can do is to wait and hope. Saka simply has to avoid serious injury, at least until 1 January. Should he stumble, should he fall, we at least can find reinforcements—even if that comes at a premium. Should Saka make it to January hale and hearty, well, maybe we can find said reinforcements at a somewhat-lower price.
We just defeated Man City. We have a chance at a Prem title as a result. Let’s not squander that on a few million pounds in transfer fees or wages. That may sound strange coming from your correspondent, one who doggedly defended Arsène’s vision for a self-sustaining club, but this is the water in which we swim. There’s little point in complaining of getting wet.