Is anyone in football paying attention to Rassie Erasmus and the 7-1 bench split? The Springboks’ coach has attracted praise and criticism for stacking the bench with forwards so he has a constant supply of fresh wrecking balls to sustain the physical onslaught.
Watching Arsenal against Tottenham you wondered how long before this becomes a thing in the Premier League as well. Top-level football has become a game in which the forwards spend all their time chasing, while most of the clever technical stuff is done by the goalkeeper and defenders.
Arsenal had played some magnificent football in their 4-0 victory against PSV on Wednesday night, while Tottenham’s players had the week off to train and prepare. The difference soon started to show. Arsenal’s furious press initially disrupted Spurs’ patient build-up play but the huge effort only brought one goal, and beyond the 30-minute mark they found they couldn’t keep it up.
Maddison himself had earlier been robbed by Gabriel Jesus directly in front of the Tottenham goal, but the Arsenal striker smashed a shot over when he should really have scored
As the pressure slackened and the spaces opened up, James Maddison emerged as the difference-maker, once with a turn to flummox Bukayo Saka that was reminiscent of Messi against Josko Gvardiol in the World Cup, and once by robbing Jorginho as Arsenal were spread out in a build-up phase.
Maddison himself had earlier been robbed by Gabriel Jesus directly in front of the Tottenham goal, but the Arsenal striker smashed a shot over when he should really have scored. It’s notable that two of the biggest chances in the game came from players losing possession while taking what just a few years ago would have been regarded as insane risks in front of their own goal. These days, that’s just what the coach expects of you.
Clearly, 2-2 was a better result for Spurs than for Arsenal. The feeling grows every week that Spurs sold Harry Kane at exactly the right time. The process of building a new team is easier for Ange Postecoglou without having to design everything around the needs of a great but ageing player who towered above everyone else at the club.
The fact that one of the players Spurs have already brought in with the Kane money is Brennan Johnson indicates the high-energy template Postecoglou has in mind. Johnson has not yet proved he can be a really efficient scorer, but nobody is going to outrun him.
Mikel Arteta, meanwhile, has been making headlines all week for his avant-garde views on goalkeepers, suggesting that maybe they should be rotated like players in other positions.
This prompted some interesting reactions from former goalkeepers such as Peter Schmeichel, who seems to think the job of the number two goalkeeper should be to tend to and care for the number one, more like a caddy than a competitor.
“If you’re in a competition situation at some point you’re going to think, ‘I have to prove I’m a better goalkeeper than the other one, I’m going to try this or that’, and if you’re going to try things as a goalkeeper very often it goes wrong,” Schmeichel told CBS.
It’s not clear why Schmeichel thinks that a goalkeeper threatened with rotation would suddenly start to “try” stupid things. A perfect game for a goalkeeper would still be a game in which they make no mistakes.
Aaron Ramsdale was one of those 12, so Arteta is a very recent convert to the idea of rotating goalkeepers. David Raya was another of the 12
But Arteta’s suggestion that keepers should be treated “the same as every other position” is also pretty dubious. Goalkeepers don’t spend the game running around, so they don’t get exhausted like outfield players do, and this makes them different. Last season there were 14 players in the top five European leagues who played every minute of every league game for their clubs, and 12 of them were goalkeepers.
Aaron Ramsdale was one of those 12, so Arteta is a very recent convert to the idea of rotating goalkeepers. David Raya was another of the 12. These guys are used to playing every minute.
One popular theory is that by talking about rotation, Arteta is simply creating a smokescreen to conceal the reality that, for the second time in two years, he has decided to change his first-choice goalkeeper. Ramsdale took over from Bernd Leno around the same point in the 21-22 season and now Raya is going to take over from Ramsdale.
If that is the case then the smoke will clear soon enough and Ramsdale will know that his manager didn’t quite have the heart to tell him bluntly that he had been dropped. It looks a sound decision from Arteta. The numbers suggest Raya is the better keeper: he saves a higher percentage of shots, is more accurate with his distribution, etc. He is also a calmer, more focused presence than Ramsdale, whose manic energy verges at times on the chaotic. Ramsdale’s mistake in the first minute of the 2-2 home draw with Fulham may have made up Arteta’s mind.
Still, if Arteta really is in the business of smokescreens, you have to wonder if all this talk of goalkeepers is designed to obscure the fact that Arsenal’s real problems are at the other end of the pitch.
Arteta might have wanted to keep pressing Tottenham yesterday, but when he turned to the bench in search of players who could help, he would have seen … basically nothing. All he had to replace his tiring forwards were Emile Smith-Rowe and Reiss Nelson — neither super-physical — and Kai Havertz, a midfielder.
There is some irony in the fact that player number 569 — by this measure, the worst finisher of 22-23 — was Havertz, who Arsenal have just bought from Chelsea for £65m
Eddie Nketiah played 90 minutes without much distinction. He is unusual among Premier League strikers in that he lacks any single obvious quality. He doesn’t have the speed of Martinelli or the dribbling ability of Saka or the precision of Trossard.
Nor do his stats suggest he has some other quality that is not immediately apparent to the eye. The statistical measure of goals minus non-penalty expected goals gives you an indication of the quality of a player’s finishing. By this measure, Opta data ranked Harry Kane as the best finisher in the Premier League last season and Erling Haaland as the second-best. Nketiah was ranked 568th out of 569 Premier League players.
There is some irony in the fact that player number 569 — by this measure, the worst finisher of 22-23 — was Havertz, who Arsenal have just bought from Chelsea for £65 million (€75 million). That signing already looks a mistake — not because Havertz is a bad player, but because Arsenal should have signed a forward instead. The way Premier League football is going, the burn rate on forwards is higher than ever. You need at least six to cover the three places. And they all have to be better than Eddie Nketiah.