Friday, March 1, 2024

The Briefing: Do Arsenal really need a centre-forward? Is Bellingham the world’s best player?

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Welcome to The Briefing, where every Monday during this season The Athletic will discuss three of the biggest questions to arise from the weekend’s football.

This was the weekend when Liverpool got back on track, Manchester United pulled another win from somewhere, Tottenham left it late again and Ivory Coast rounded off an extraordinary Africa Cup of Nations by beating Nigeria in the final.

Here we will discuss how Arsenal are showing they don’t necessarily need a ‘proper’ centre-forward, why Bayer Leverkusen’s win over Bayern Munich shows that Xabi Alonso might be well suited to Liverpool, and wonder whether the best player in the world is English for the first time in… a very long time.


Are Arsenal showing why they don’t need a traditional centre-forward?

You’re never more than a few minutes away from someone suggesting that Arsenal need a proper centre-forward.

It even happened in the first half of their demolition of West Ham on Sunday. After a cross flashed across the six-yard box with nobody having met it, Sky Sports’ co-commentator Alan Smith sighed, wearily recognising that he was about to make an oft-repeated point, before making that oft-repeated point.

It’s not a point that is completely without merit. A great goalscorer will dig you out of trouble, nick games when you’ve played badly, burgle points that you might not deserve. If Arsenal can get, say, Ivan Toney for a decent price in the summer, this isn’t an argument to say they shouldn’t.

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But at the moment, Arsenal are proving that you don’t need a ‘killer’ of a centre-forward to score goals. They have now played four Premier League games in 2024, in which they have scored 16 times. Only one of those has come from a ‘proper’ centre-forward: Gabriel Jesus’s strike against Nottingham Forest.

Arsenal’s problem earlier in the season wasn’t necessarily that they were passing up chances because they didn’t have a good enough main striker, it was more because their other sources of goals had dried up. Martin Odegaard, Bukayo Saka and Gabriel Martinelli scored 44 goals between them in the Premier League last season. But before the turn of the year this season, they had only 12.

Odegaard hasn’t quite located his shooting boots yet, but Martinelli and Saka now have seven between them in the last four games, and Saka’s second against West Ham might be an indication that he’s back to his best: a classic Saka strike, cutting in from the right and firing into the net.


(David Price/Arsenal FC via Getty Images)

They’re also scoring plenty from set pieces this season too: William Saliba and Gabriel’s headers against West Ham were their 15th and 16th goals from dead balls this season (not counting penalties), which is three more than anyone else in 2023-24 and already one more than they managed in the whole of last season.

Arsenal don’t have a No 9 on which they can hang their hat, but they render that meaningless by finding many other ways to score goals.

There are caveats to this. West Ham were pathetic in almost every aspect of the game on Sunday, to the point where Arsenal might even be annoyed they didn’t score more. Two of the other opponents in this four-game run were Nottingham Forest and Crystal Palace. Even Liverpool, by some distance the best team they’ve played in 2024, were off their game last weekend.

It also probably won’t be enough to finish ahead of Manchester City, who are looking extremely ominous after a 12th win in their last 13 against Everton on Saturday.

But they are once again proving that there are more ways to score goals than just relying on one centre-forward.


Does Leverkusen’s defeat of Bayern show why Alonso is perfect for Liverpool?

Bayer Leverkusen fans might be quite irked at the idea that their freewheelin’ title tilt is being viewed through the prism of Xabi Alonso auditioning for something bigger. They will have been as annoyed as anyone at the timing of Jurgen Klopp’s surprise announcement that he was leaving Liverpool, because of the fear that the inevitable speculation might harm them.

It turns out they need not have worried. The rest of the world will be wise to deploy a little caution before getting excited about the prospect of someone different winning the Bundesliga — because we’ve been here before with teams holding what looks like a significant lead over Bayern Munich. But based on Leverkusen’s victory and performance at the weekend, it’s difficult not to get excited.

Bayern were hopeless, and even Harry Kane couldn’t save them from humiliation as he contemplates the prospect of having left Tottenham Hotspur for a guaranteed trophy only to possibly end the season empty-handed.

It wasn’t just the 3-0 win that was so impressive from Leverkusen’s point of view, perhaps not even the sweeping football and perhaps not even the fact that they did it without Victor Boniface, who scored 10 goals in 15 starts in the first half of the season before getting injured a month ago. But it was the identity of the goalscorers that provided a little more evidence that Alonso might be the real thing, and that he could be well suited to Liverpool.

Those three scorers were defender Josip Stanisic, on loan from Bayern and thus providing one of the more sheepish non-celebrations you’ll ever see; left-back Alex Grimaldo, who was signed on a free transfer from Benfica in the summer; and right-back Jeremie Frimpong, who cost a relatively modest £11million ($13.9m) from Celtic in 2021.


Grimaldo has been a superb signing for Leverkusen (Lars Baron/Getty Images)

This isn’t quite a team put together with spit and twigs, a plucky bunch of chancers on the run of a lifetime, but Alonso has managed to knit together a collection of players who are very much not superstars and are clearly outstripping an established behemoth. It’s not quite the same situation as Liverpool are in, but it’s not far off.

It’s easy to think that Alonso is being linked with Liverpool just because of his history with the club, but games like this show that he could be the objectively best candidate, as well as the emotional one.


Is the best player in the world English?

It’s usually not advisable to disagree with Carlo Ancelotti.

About anything, really. But particularly football. So when he declared this weekend that Vinicius Junior was the best player in the world, it is probably quite poor form to contradict him.

But we do present a two-word counterargument to the Real Madrid manager, an argument that he will also be familiar with: Jude Bellingham.

Real played an emphatic game of fairytale squashing on Saturday evening, as they absolutely flattened plucky upstarts Girona to take a five-point lead at the top of La Liga. And the two central figures in that flattening were Bellingham and Vinicius Jr, with the Brazilian scoring an astonishing opener before laying on two for his colleague, the first of which required the sort of quick feet and calm finish that we’ve seen so many times from the Englishman this season.


Vinicius Jr and Bellingham celebrate earlier in the season (Helios de la Rubia/Real Madrid via Getty Images)

Maybe it’s churlish to pick between the two of them. Maybe it doesn’t matter who is ‘the best’. But Bellingham is at least a prominent part of the conversation, and from a parochial point of view, it’s incredibly good news for the England team.

When was the last time that an Englishman was the best player in the world? An English player has never won the FIFA World Player of the Year award, nor its successor, The Best FIFA Men’s Player. The last time an English player won the Ballon d’Or was Michael Owen in 2001, and even that was a bit of a shock. Kevin Keegan won it twice in the 1970s, Bobby Charlton also won it but that was when Pele was around and the award was for best European player.

Away from the awards, you could make an argument for David Beckham for a short while around the turn of the century. Wayne Rooney’s peak was around the time that Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo were establishing their duopoly. For all his goals and other excellence, Harry Kane has never quite been among the absolute world elite.

Along with the extraordinary form of Declan Rice, who every week is implausibly looking more and more like a £105million bargain, England’s midfield looks in extremely good shape, whether Bellingham is actually ‘the best’ or not.


Coming up

  • This round of Premier League fixtures is wrapped up all nice and warm on Monday night when the beleaguered Chelsea travel to face the also-beleaguered Crystal Palace. Could be a fairly bleak evening in south London.
  • Dust off your copy of Zadok the Priest, get your Aleksander Ceferin face masks out, buy a keg of Heineken with your Mastercard and get it FedEx-ed while you fire up the PlayStation: the Champions League is back. Because UEFA loves us all, it’s rationing out the games: four of the last-16 ties will take place this week, and the other four next.


(Valerio Pennicino – UEFA/UEFA via Getty Images)
  • It all begins on Tuesday, when Manchester City travel to Copenhagen, while over in Germany, RB Leipzig will host Real Madrid.
  • Then on Wednesday, it’s a newish face in the knockout rounds, as Real Sociedad play at this stage of the tournament for the first time since 2004: they play PSG. While in Italy, crisis club Bayern Munich face Lazio.
  • Then on Thursday, we have the Europa League and the Conference League playoffs, as the teams who have dropped down a competition face the second-placed sides from the group stage, for the pleasure of competing in the knockouts proper. The choice ties are probably Feyenoord vs Roma in the Europa, and Ajax vs Bodo/Glimt in the Conference, but you can be pretty sure something spicy will happen.
  • Speaking of spicy, you can round off your week with a lively old fixture in the Women’s Super League (WSL) on Friday evening, as the top two Chelsea and Manchester City face off: Chelsea sit three points ahead of their rivals, so a win wouldn’t wrap up the title, but it would go quite a long way to ensuring the Emma Hayes farewell tour has a trophy at the end of it.

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(Top photo: Getty Images)

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