When Mikel Arteta moved for Leandro Trossard in January he knew Arsenal would be getting more than a winger. Trossard has spent much of his career drifting in off the left flank but that was never the full story: only a month previously he had lined up against his future employers as a nominal centre-forward and his versatility, at a time when Arteta’s options in that area were limited, was a crucial part of the package.
Nonetheless it still felt bold when Arteta selected Trossard as a drifting false 9 for the trip to Leicester last week. Arsenal had blazed a trail through this season’s Premier League with the help of specialist attacking spearheads, first Gabriel Jesus then the Brazilian’s understudy, Eddie Nketiah. Although both are mobile, intense, clever players who know how to create space for others, neither shares Trossard’s creativity or polyvalence. Playing Trossard where one of that pair had once operated meant recalibrating Arsenal’s attack midway through a title race that will be decided on tweaks, details and fine margins.
Two games, and two wins, against a bland Leicester and a stuffy Everton are not evidence of a revolution; not that Arteta has gone that far. But Trossard’s role, and its impact on his fellow attackers, had a big influence in the details behind both victories. Gabriel Martinelli’s winner at the King Power Stadium was a case in point, the scorer foraging inside to take an assist from Trossard, who had drifted out to the left.
When Bukayo Saka broke Everton’s resistance he did so from the right inside-forward position; Trossard had again moved to the left and Martinelli had made a crossfield run to the right wing, which distracted Vitalii Mykolenko enough for Saka to be given a vital half-yard when the roaming left-back Oleksandr Zinchenko teed him up. Martinelli soon scored the second from an orthodox striker’s position.
It would be a stretch to say Arsenal had become predictable, particularly as they had put four past Aston Villa the week before Arteta’s switch. But results such as the frustrating home draws with Newcastle and Brentford, not to mention the stuttering defeat at Goodison Park, had not been occurring earlier in the season. Arsenal’s blip was fleeting but needed heading off; a change to the angles of attack used in the season’s first half can keep opponents guessing the second time around.
Arteta extolled the virtues of unpredictability before Saturday’s visit of Bournemouth, who should not be the toughest nut to crack. “When you have players that can change formations between phases, or during games, it’s even better,” he said. “Because obviously opponents are really well prepared and know what to expect. So that uncertainty always creates a bit of chaos and teams need to adapt what they do, especially if you are able to dominate games. It’s another element to [make you] stronger.”
Trossard’s marauding presence facilitates that chaos and it will be instructive to see whether Arteta sees the past week as a viable blueprint for the long term, or indeed for assignments against tougher opposition. His hand has been forced to an extent: Jesus is not back from the injury sustained at the World Cup and Nketiah, who had stepped in to fine effect before misfiring in recent weeks, has been managing a problem with his right ankle that may see him miss out this weekend. Arteta could have made Martinelli his central attacker but has instead sculpted a front line whose movement is designed to baffle.
The impact on the left forward Martinelli, in particular, has been noticeable. He had struck up an instant relationship with Jesus, partly founded on a mutual understanding of when to interchange positions. But he had struggled for form in his compatriot’s absence and Arsenal were struggling to get him close to goal; hardly ideal given Martinelli is an outstanding finisher. Much of his hard work on the wing was leading him down tramlines or into blind alleys but he has scored three times in the last two, following his walked-in clincher at Villa. “You can see that spark again in him,” Arteta said. Trossard has given him licence to attack the central areas in which he can be lethal.
Realistically Jesus, whose dynamism was so fundamental to Arsenal’s turbocharged first few months of 2022-23, will return to the starting XI as soon as he is deemed fit enough. That will probably be after this month’s international break. Arteta professed pleasure at how well other players had stepped up but would not go along with the idea Jesus will have trouble regaining his place. “Probably that wouldn’t be fair on him because he was starting every single game and what he produced for the team was phenomenal,” he said.
Would the greener Mykhailo Mudryk have performed Trossard’s role to similar effect if Arsenal had landed their first choice transfer target? It seems unlikely. Regardless: Arteta has, by a mixture of accident and design, happened upon a plan B that may have freshened Arsenal up at the perfect moment. Operating with a false 9 for the first time, with the domestic game’s biggest prize now squarely in view, has been a gutsy move by any measure. “If you are extremely good at what you do it doesn’t matter what the opponent does, it’s very difficult to stop it,” he said. It was a truism, like many of his public statements, but Arsenal’s push has been reinvigorated thanks to extra elements of surprise.