When Mykhailo Mudryk decided to join Chelsea midway through the recent transfer window, the joke was squarely on Arsenal. The league leaders had trumpeted at the altar of January and were celebrated by opposition fans.
But who is laughing now?
Throw in the doomed bid for Moises Caicedo and Arsenal failing to score two key goals in the window. It was an undeniable hit. There is an alternate timeline, one that bears unfortunate similarities to last season and that could become the defining narrative for the second half of their campaign.
Instead, Arsenal responded in a pragmatic and proactive manner. Once it became clear that they were not going to sign Modric or Caicedo, they acted decisively to bring in Leandro Trossard and Jorginho. This duo was an important contributor to Arsenal’s latest win, a 1-0 win over Leicester.
In his post-match press conference, manager Mikel Arteta admitted he was “very happy” with how quickly Arsenal’s pivot to January has turned a profit. “We were very clear about what we wanted to do, we couldn’t do it and we had to adapt. You have to do it in the window. Don’t feel sorry for ourselves. Everyone from the board – Edu especially with (Director of Football Operations) Richard Garlick – was Really strong at doing what we have to do, and we were first there to get what we wanted.”
Modric could go on to become a star and Caicedo will have suitors again in the summer – Arsenal likely to be among them. But the advantage of signing Trossard and Jorginho is that they arrive as ready-made players in the Premier League.
“They are players who already have experience in our league and are a good fit for our way of playing,” Arteta added. “Really intelligent to understand what we ask to do certain things and have the character to play the way we played. That is what is needed at this level.”
Football intelligence is a key factor. Arsenal’s game model is complex and it took Arteta years to perfect it. Trossard and Jorginho seem to have gotten into it in no time.
The ultimate compliment to Trossard is that, against Leicester, he was tasked with one of the most complex aspects of forward play: operating as a false nine. Arteta experimented with Emile Smith Rowe and Willian in the position, but this was by far his most successful iteration.
Trossard is well aware of the central midfield role he has played on several occasions with Brighton. “We knew what the intention was probably because we like going forward,” said Brendan Rodgers. “Maybe Mikel put him in that No. 9 position to go down under him, so he gives you that extra guy there.”
Partly true – but this tactical change was more about what he added to Arsenal than what he took away from Leicester. Playing Trossard through the middle is as close as Arteta can get to reprising Gabriel Jesus’ role. Eddie Nketiah tends to stay in the central attacking zones, but Jesus frequently drops deep and wide.
Gabriel Martinelli suffered from the lack of a fellow Brazilian to blend in with the left flank. In this game, it was the exchange of positions between Trossard and Martinelli that ultimately won the game – the Belgian took the ball on the left wing before looping a sweet pass through Martinelli to score.
It could have been a better day for Trossard. A fine shot from the edge of the penalty area was ruled out for a foul by Ben White and he was also involved in the build-up to Bukayo Saka’s goal which was reported as narrowly offside.
“It was really good,” said Arteta. “He’s been involved in so many situations that could have led to so many big opportunities. He’s so good in tight spaces with that creativity to open people up. I’m really happy to have him.”
Perhaps in previous seasons, Arteta felt obligated to once again throw the right player Thomas Partey into the fray. Instead, Jorginho’s form meant he could name Partey off the bench.
Given how Arsenal dominated possession, it was no surprise that Jorginho had more touches than any player on the field. He completed 68 passes – more than Leicester’s starting midfield three Wilfried Ndidi, Kieran Dewsbury-Hall and Dennis Bright combined. Jorginho is known for his ability to retain possession, but it wasn’t all lateral passes – 21 of the 68 completed were in the final third.
There is another side to his game, too. The Italy international had possession of the ball 10 times during the match – again the highest tally on the pitch. He was successful in seven duels – only Saka was ahead in more than one singles fights with Arsenal.
Modric and Caicedo are 22 and 21 years old and have limited experience at the highest level. Trossard and Jorginho, aged 28 and 31, have made their way through the ranks of the young side.
The elite group of players around the world is relatively small and there is bound to be intense competition for their signatures. Arsenal discovered a lot through their attempts to sign Modric, Lisandro Martinez, Rafinha and others. In this type of landscape, it is crucial to be flexible and engaged in your planning – to have alternative goals and to respond accordingly.
When Modric picked Chelsea, there were a few dark days in Arsenal’s recruitment department. They loved the player, spent months tracking him down, and thought he would be theirs. But there was no shame or panic. As has been the case for several years now, Arsenal have behaved like a smart club.
You have to go back to 2020 and sign Willian one last time. Arsenal seem to have made a clear mistake in the market. This is some time ago. Since then, the club has spent more money than most – but a few have spent it better. The idea that Arsenal is more prose than strategy is outdated. It belongs to another era.
In January Arsenal were ridiculed for their inability to implement Plan A. But the speed and intelligence with which they turned to Plan B should be applauded. It was crucial to keep challenging the title.
(Top photo: Nick Potts/PA Images via Getty Images)
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