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Top spots and the midfield, linked in every way

With the Community Shield this weekend and the season quickly approaching, Arteta took his place in front of the media for the first time of the 2020/21 season. A weird feeling, given it has been just over four weeks since his pregame press conference before the FA Cup finals of last season.

While the technical intention of it all was to discuss the Community Shield, you can hardly blame everyone involved for brushing over that subject pretty quickly. Given the proximity to last year’s finish, players returning from their short break, and the small gap before September 12th’s opening matches, this game is not likely to feature full-strength lineups.

I will have a blog out on Saturday to briefly cover a few thoughts on it.

With the conversation moving on, it naturally progressed to a common topic to ask any manager before the season – where will you finish? Granted they didn’t ask that as much as the more direct question on Arsenal supporter’s minds – Will we challenge for the top 4?

“Well, let’s see how we look like at the end of the transfer window. It just started and everything looks pretty slow at the moment not many teams are moving aggressively so a lot of things are going to happen from now to October 6. But it doesn’t matter who we have, we will challenge for the top, 100 per cent.”

Arteta on finishing in the Top 4

It’s an interesting statement. The end of it seems quite a bit more confident than the beginning. In fact, I would almost be tempted to believe the beginning is very transparent and honest, and the end is a confident, hopeful shout.

Reading between the gaping, transparent lines, it would appear Mikel is well aware of the problems this team has that need to be filled with purchases and sales that are moving quite slow.

Even the deals that seemed done and dusted to the outside may be in more complicated places than we believed. Aubameyang, possibly the most important signature Arsenal can capture, has yet to be announced by the club. “I keep being positive” Arteta said on his captain. “We have had some really good talks with him and his agent and I am pretty confident that we’re going to find an agreement soon. That’s my feeling again.”

Gabriel from Lille, another person announced by credible sources as someone completed, also seems to be hanging in limbo. “Regarding Gabriel, we cannot announce anything yet, the deal is not finalised – you all know he is a player that we have followed for a long time and hopefully we can get it done” Arteta reported. “We are trying to finalise a deal. That’s what I can tell you at the moment.”

Look, I get it. Regardless of where the deal is at, Arteta is not going to be the one to tell the world it’s complete. Not in this time when so much value of the club lies within the brand managed by marketing. I too am confident that Aubameyang and Gabriel will be completed in the coming days or weeks. However, I am less confident that that produces a competitive team.

“Let’s see how we look at the end of the window”? More like, let’s see if I get a midfield before October 6th.

There is a long ways to go and for a club that could use outgoing deals completed early as badly if not worse than players signed, this slow start feels like it could hurt the club in the late stretches of window when their isn’t enough time to get more complex deals across the line within Arsenal’s means.

Arsenal’s current, natural midfielders:

  • Mesut Ozil (On the outs, but available)
  • Lucas Torreira (Linked with moves away)
  • Ainsley Maitland-Niles (Linked with moves away. L/RWB, RB more than CM)
  • Mohammed Elneny (Linked with moves away)
  • Joe Willock
  • Matteo Guendouzi (offered in multiple swap attempts)
  • Emile Smith Rowe
  • Granit Xhaka
  • Willian (May not be ‘natural’ but wants to play there and is in Arteta’s plans)

Desperate for midfield options, we have seen the club recall and play Elneny, who I believe will feature once more this weekend, and apparently extend a verbal olive branch to Matteo Guendouzi who seemed all but out the door. “I have been really clear that everybody starts from zero all the time in football. What you did two weeks ago or two years ago doesn’t really matter” said Arteta about Guendouzi. An interesting development to keep eyes on.

If deals for Torreira and Maitland-Niles are completed and Ceballos doesn’t return, the Gunners are looking at a lot of youth in the midfield. They may have natural promise and may be stars in the making, but might not be ready for that large of leap this year. And Mikel knows it. A combination of Xhaka, Matteo, Willock, Smith Rowe, Elneny, Willian, and maybe even more youth hardly feels like the type of midfield that is making a run in the right direction.

The obvious choice at that point, and something we will likely see to begin with anyhow, is the continuation of the 3-4-3 formation to effectively bypass the midfield. But where does that leave Willian? I hardly see him making a Ceballos-esque switch to play alongside Xhaka. Not to mention, as decent as Arsenal have been in the 3-4-3 during some games, does it offer them enough firepower to win the average of 1.75-2/3 points per game needed to historically make the top 4?

I understand that it’s not about the formation but how you play within it. Completely agreed. There are teams that play in this formation that put more than their fair share past the opposition, but look at how Arsenal play within it. Do you believe it offers them enough scoring chances and creativity across a full campaign?

The ideal answer is to have the flexible option to play the formation that matches the opposition. It’s the type of pragmatism that Mikel has shown hints of thriving at. But to succeed at that, you need the right pieces, and those pieces don’t seem too close to being in place.

There is a lot of time left in the window, over a month, but the clock is ticking before crucial matches begin. Arsenal would be four matches in by the time the window closes. Not an insurmountable amount to make up should one of the worser scenarios play out and Arsenal not complete their work until the final day, but it needs to start now to set up the latter half.

It will be interesting to see who trots out for the Community Shield, how they perform and if they have an effect on the window. Arsenal need to sell fast, other teams know it, and the midfield needs an exceptional amount of work before even Arteta is likely to fully believe in a race for top 4.

Looking forward to it. Announce Gabriel and Aubameyang first, please!

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