Gunner Thoughts

Finding the missing link

As Arsenal look to find their third midfielder to pair with Mo and Partey, we look into the midfield performances against Molde.

All eyes are on Arteta as he attempts to bring to life a full-blooded attacking Arsenal team. It’s something most fans will say they haven’t seen since the day Arsene left and was replaced by Unai Emery. It’s the second major transition for the Gunners under Mikel Arteta and the burden falls heavy on his shoulders.

Arsenal have reached a point where their task is to find a way to move away from needing an extra dedicated defender, and kick start their attack against teams that allow them to settle on the ball and dictate play. Not only is that a motivating factor as Arsenal head into a stretch of their schedule where they will be tasked with just that, this style of rigid defending is not exactly the type of play that Arteta has voiced as his preference. He wants fluid attack, interplay, tight triangles. Everything we associate with good football.

When it comes to the Premier League, Arteta is very cognizant of Arsenals scoring deficiency. In his press conference yesterday he was asked if he believed that Arsenal should be scoring more goals. “Yes, I do.” He answered bluntly. “To get that balance right is not easy considering the fixtures we have played this season. In the beginning playing Liverpool three times, playing Manchester City, playing Leicester – it’s not easy. It’s something that we’ve been working on in the last two weeks.”

And he’s right about the difficult schedule presenting very few opportunities to test their attack and gain experience. After all, there is no replacement for match minutes when it comes to testing your side. You can run training drills, small-sided games, and everything else. It’s never quite the same as when the whistle blows and the match starts.

Arteta has admirable goals when it comes to his attacking play. “To become a top top team, you have to score 90 or 100 goals to be competing with the top guns and it’s a challenge for us and an area that we have to improve and do better.” No part of me believes that Arteta will consider the attack complete until he reaches that bar. For reference, 90 goals would be a 34-goal improvement, and last season would have given Arsenal the 2nd highest tally. It won’t be a surprise that the only side scoring more than 90 was Manchester City, Arteta’s old stomping grounds.

It’s an aspect of Arsenal’s game that Arteta is confident is going places, and last night’s performance helps. “You can see last night that we were much more fluent in attack,” Arteta points out. “We scored the goals, we created more opportunities. It’s a part that the team still has to evolve more because we still haven’t played many games against many low blocks as well so it’s something that we have to improve on.”

With Elneny and Thomas Partey seemingly having established themselves as the ‘go to’ pairing, it meant last night’s Europa League squad featured Granit Xhaka, Ceballos, and Joe Willock in the midfield and the attack did flourish. 17 shots, 17 chances, 5 big chances, and 4 goals is a great showing against any side, even if Molde may not be quite at the level of even lower table Premier League sides.

So, amongst the midfield, did Arteta find his third man? His missing link? A third many to play alongside Partey and Mo? He confirmed he has options, which is a nice change of pace from last season’s feeling that the midfield was void of choices beyond Xhaka and Ceballos. And at the very least he found one player that offers him something that no one has shown themselves capable of. Additionally, I thought a second member of the midfield slid under the radar with a very impressive performance, which could easily put himself in the running.

Let’s start with the poor news. I was not overly impressed with Granit Xhaka despite leading a counterattack resulting in an own goal. He was solid, he did his job, but I’m not sold on him offering much to a midfield that already contains Elneny. His battle in the coming weeks will be to overtake Elneny who has shown himself capable to being a solid, consistent passer that covers ground, balances Partey very well in the pivot, and covers more ground than anyone else on the field. That’s not to say Xhaka doesn’t have a few skills in his bag that Elneny doesn’t — passing range and left foot — but at the moment, it feels the paring of an in-form Mo and Partey more than cover what Xhaka brings to the team.

Joe Willock shines against Molde in the Europa League

The two that stood out to me were Willock and Ceballos. Willock absolutely stole the show. He showed drive, desire, and composure in the final third. He created shots, took shots, played between the lines where Arsenal have struggled to find a person, and for the second time in a row, showed the fans and coaches just how much he has grown in even the last 12 months. He took over that game and controlled Arsenal’s attack in front of the pivot; he seemed to exchange well with Pepe and Willian at times; he worked well with Eddie to link up play; and he looked to follow through with his runs and get himself in behind the defense. His goal seemed just desserts for his performance on the evening and absolutely warrants a look into the side.

Arteta talked about needing patience at this stage of Willock’s career. “I think it’s key in the development phase, to be patient. But as well, we have to be reading the situation as well and he is playing in Europe regularly. It’s not like before where it’s just ‘Okay, they can play in the Carabao Cup’ and we give them 10 minutes here. It’s not the case, he is playing in important matches. Does he want to start in the Premier League? Of course. But it is part of his development.”

It’s not a response the necessarily suggests Willock will be given the keys to the Arsenal midfield this weekend against Aston Villa. Arteta says, “we have to be reading the situation as well and he is playing in Europe regularly”, but if you’re reading the situation then Willock definitely deserves a look into the team. Is he an immediate starter? Look I could understand if Arteta is going to start with a spot on the bench, but when a player offers you something no one else does in the attack, while being capable of being a box-to-box midfielder and defend — it’s a tough combination to pass up.

Joe Willock stole the show, but Ceballos had a sneaky impressive showing. For me, a major aspect of that success came from his willingness and determination to look vertical and attempt the difficult ball through the lines. It’s something we didn’t see against Leicester City when Ceballos really struggled, and playing it safe with side-to-side passing is a large part of the reason Arsenal struggled over 90 minutes. If Arteta is going to look to a player that can aide in the attack, help give Partey the freedom to asset his dominant self, and offer a bit more Premier League experience and success — he may turn to Ceballos.

Ceballos snuck a little under the radar with his performance against Molde.

Offering 2 key passes, 2 chances created is great, but adding 11 recoveries shows he is scrapping to get on the end of 50/50 balls, and 6 interceptions shows he is reading the game well and making plays. These defensive stats suggest there is a midfielder that could be very beneficial to the team when it comes to mining success from the press. The frontline presses, making life difficult on the opposition, and Ceballos is there to clean it up and spur on a counterattack.

I think it could be a really interesting midfield makeup to see the mobility and scrappy, yet technical, play of Mohammed Elneny and Ceballos with the very impressive play of Partey.

Has Arteta found his missing link? I would love to see Joe Willock be given the chance to play a similar role in the Premier League as he did against Molde. He would need to play with the same confidence, swagger, sharp movement, and intent to ensure he doesn’t get lost in the match, but much of what he showed against Molde demonstrates his growth in areas of question.

It was fantastic to see Ceballos get back on track a little bit after the Leicester match in which he looked a bit lost, and get back to producing the level of play we have become used to getting from him. The one concern I have with him joining Mo and Partey is that it’s clear Ceballos’ success comes when he is a part of the pivot and amongst the action. He struggled when he was asked to be a part of a midfield three that pulled him very wide. Was it just a matter of getting more time in training within the role? Time will tell. And while it is possible for him to play a similar role to Willock, it may not be the more beneficial for his game. He thrives with a little extra time; he thrives when he is facing the game; and he excels when he doesn’t have to labor with his back to goal in order to create.

Plenty for Arteta to think about and it makes the Aston Villa lineup a really intriguing one. Personally, I find myself hoping for another glimpse of Joe Willock, even with the small scale of success.

Alright, leaving it there. Enjoy the day and Saturday’s matches! A pre-match write up coming your way Sunday morning so stay tuned.

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