Does size matter? When it comes to centre-forwards, Mikel Arteta and Arsenal seem to have decided that might not be the case.
Avoiding English football’s stereotype of the hulking target man, Arteta opted for Gabriel Jesus and Eddie Nketiah as his two strikers – both are 5ft 9in (175cm) tall.
It’s a glimpse of the manager’s stylistic vision for the team.
“They have everything we need,” Arteta told reporters after the pair shared 90 minutes in Saturday’s 2-0 friendly win over fellow Premier League side Everton here in the US city of Baltimore. “First of all, they are very intense, both of them. The way they can press, the way they can keep up the pressure with the opponent, it’s great.
“Both can threaten behind which can allow people to have spaces inside. They’re really good at the linking game and they both have an eye for goal, which is what No9s do. They’re not 195cm (6ft 4in) tall, but they have other qualities that mean that for the way we play they are fantastic.
For a long time, it was inferred from Arsenal’s striker target list that greater height might just be a prerequisite.
The club have recently pursued Dusan Vlahovic, Dominic Calvert-Lewin, Alexander Isak and Tammy Abraham to varying degrees – forwards who are all over six feet tall.
During this game, Everton used two strikers who fit the traditional ‘target man’ archetype.
Calvert-Lewin and Salomon Rondon provided Arsenal with a robust physical challenge – although one which William Saliba, making his first appearance since returning from a season on loan with French club Marseille, met in impressive fashion.
And yet, of all the strikers on the pitch, it was Jesus’ performance that allowed him to stand tallest.
New signing from back-to-back Premier League champions Manchester City was Arsenal’s star once again at the home of the NFL’s Baltimore Ravens, batting home the opener after Jordan Pickford failed to claiming a corner from Cédric, then pushing a pass through the goal which eventually found Bukayo Saka to tap at the far post.
The physique goes beyond the height, and it was the intensity of the Brazil international’s play that was most impressive.
There was a nuisance factor to his game, a relentless work rate that an undercooked Everton – playing their first warm-up game of the summer, when it was the third for some members of the squad. ‘Arsenal – had a hard time living with it.
“He creates chaos and uncertainty,” Arteta said of Jesus, whom he worked with for nearly three years as City manager Pep Guardiola’s assistant before taking the job. Arsenal in December 2019. “He’s always on your shoulder, he’s always there to slash the ball at you, he’s always in front of goal. He’s a real threat, and that’s what we need.
“And then, when we give the ball away, he is the one who is immediately active and who puts the pressure on and who puts his team behind him. He has developed his leadership qualities a lot (since they were his last colleagues at the Etihad) and I see right away what he’s trying to do with the boys, and that’s the kind of guy you want.
“He looks very lively, very dynamic and immediately gets along very well with his team-mates. They look for him, he generates opportunities and good connections around specific spaces that we want to exploit with him in particular.
Jesus also showed a bit of fire when he received a heavy challenge from Ben Godfrey. He could be seen berating the referee for his failure to take more action, even in a friendly match – and Arteta applauded the attitude. “I love these kind of players,” he said. “They’re smart, they learn a lot, they know how to take advantage of any situation, and that’s what we need.”
For Arsenal fans, there will have been a certain novelty watching their side play with a centre-forward who has the physical ability to dive deep into midfield and create overloads, but also come up against the opponent’s penalty area to put themselves at the end of their chances. .
In the second half, substitute Nketiah was also busy and provided moments of threat.
Although they shared the game on this occasion, Arteta has already shown this summer that he is ready to deploy Jesus and Nketiah in tandem.
Jesus has shone as a No.9 so far but the Arsenal manager was hesitant to say that would be his final position.
“He’s very versatile,” Arteta said. “Obviously the way we’d like to develop him is in that position, but sometimes not by himself. Don’t close that door because compared to what the opponent does in some games, we’re going to have to use him in different positions. He is open to that and he knows that it is also one of his strengths.
Arteta wouldn’t go so far as to discount the value of an old-fashioned target man. “It depends,” he said. “Look at Harry Kane, look at Erling Haaland. (Robert) Lewandowski is another – completely different qualities and scores 45 goals every season. It’s about what’s available and what the team needs.
“You want to have everything on your team! You want to have a six-footer here, one that plays a false nine… but I’m really happy with the two forwards we have.
If Arsenal could have found a striker who ticked everything their boxes, which was also over six feet tall, so presumably they would have chosen that option.
Arteta isn’t blind to the added threat that bigger size can provide. Variety can be important. The day may come when Arsenal find themselves screaming for a ‘Plan B’ up front.
However, the focus seems to have been on developing an improved “Plan A”.
The first signs are that, with Jesus in the lead, they are on the right track to get there.
(Top image: Getty Images)