Though out this season, Arsenal have been swapping different midfield combinations into the center of the park with so much regularity, it feels like Arteta is throwing darts at the board to decide who gets the nod.
Xhaka-Elneny, Xhaka-Ceballos, Xhaka-Elneny, Ceballos-Elneny, Ceballos-Xhaka, Xhaka-Partey-Ceballos, Partey-Elneny for two, Xhaka-Ceballos, Partey-Xhaka… you get it.
The names and partnerships have gone round and round, and round, and round, yet Arsenal have been unable to not only lock down their ‘best’ pairing, but lock down even a consistent pairing.
The fact that Thomas Partey has spent most of time in London on the injury list is a major contributing factor. That’s pretty well known. But in his absence, many will have hoped Arsenal would be able to find a front-running candidate for playing alongside Partey when he returns. I’m not sure that has happened. The carousel simply continued to spin, which makes it the next task to tackle in my mind.
I will ignore the transfer window we are currently in and the fact that Arsenal definitely need to look externally for players that can bolster their side for the long term future. Rumors are flitting back and forth as to whether that transfer will actually come in the January window or be pushed to the summer, which means we are back to internal solutions.
If it is pushed off to the summer, it raises the urgency of this task even more. Arsenal have discovered exactly what Emile Smith Rowe is capable of offering the team through his movement, workrate, and technical skills, and early signs suggest it’s a season-saver.
As good as ESR’s ability has been to filter in between the lines, create overloads out wide, and create chances that become assists or goals for others; his workrate and ability to help win the ball back early and effectively may be an even bigger deal.
At the time of his substitution versus West Brom, Smith Rowe had covered the most distance of anyone else in the side. He also had 4 duels won, 2 tackles, 1 clearance, 1 interception, and 5 recoveries. Add that to his previous two games and he has won 12 of his 17 duels (70%), made 2 tackles and 3 clearances, had 1 interception, and 15 recoveries. Add in his impressive 16.4 pressures per 90 minutes and you paint the picture of a well-rounded, extremely impressive, two-way attacking midfielder that is doing his part on both sides of the ball.
Which brings us to the the obvious new role of Arsenal’s central pivot — support and facilitate Smith Rowe’s play.
As much as every fan wants to believe that Smith Rowe is capable of being this good in every game he plays, from now until the end of his career, it’s fair to assume there are going to be a few tough days of growth along the way. Alleviating the pressure on him to perform at a level beyond his years day in and day out is a must.
So who are the best for the task?
I think it’s fair to assume when Partey returns, his name will be one of the first on the team sheets each game. Beyond what Arsenal invested financially in him, he offers great technical security, box-to-box skill, a real physical and athletic presence, excellent workrate, and a nice two-way player.
After the match against West Brom, Arteta gave an update on Partey’s fitness and progress. “He hasn’t trained fully with us, but he has done most parts of training in the last few days. He is feeling good and we will assess him.
“He needs another two or three good sessions to see if he is 100% available to play. If that is the case, great news for us.”
Assuming things continue to go well, we may get to see him play in Arsenal’s FA Cup match against Newcastle to offer him a bit of match fitness and sharpness. It’s also fair to assume that his reintroduction will be done with caution and a heavy dose of monitoring after what happened earlier this year. But it’s great to see him edging closer to a full return.
Alongside him, Arsenal have four real options for the central pivot in a 4-2-3-1: Xhaka, Ceballos, Elneny, and Willock. Each offers something a little different and none have established themselves as a frontrunner in my book.
Xhaka is an extremely functional central midfielder. He doesn’t necessarily have an immense amount of flair in his game, but he can get the job done, offers a long passing range, and could presumably sit a little deeper to allow Partey to venture forward. Should Arteta want it the other way around, Xhaka demonstrated a decent ability to move up the pitch against Chelsea and aid the attack, which was really nice to see. It seemed a bit more like Swiss Xhaka than the Arsenal Xhaka we have become used to.
Ceballos probably offers the most flair of the four, but is probably the least consistent of the bunch in terms of producing quality performances. I find him to be a player with an extremely high, high ceiling of potential, but a very low, low floor on the days he is off his game. That has relatively been the story of Ceballos’ career in general. When he came to Arsenal he started on fire, fizzled, ended the year extremely strong, didn’t pick up where he left off when he returned, but managed to have an excellent performance against West Brom. In fact, his quality in the match flew under the radar for most.
He had 3 tackles, 3 created chances, 1 shot, 7/10 long balls, 3 key passes, 7 duels won, a league high 7 interceptions, and 7 recoveries. Truly, that is an outstanding performance filled with shades of Dani from last year. The question is, can he sustain it?
Elneny is probably the one I consider the the most consistent of the group — for better or worse. I believe one of his best qualities is his ability to balance out his partner to maintain a good team shape and structure, as well as, the mobility he has to cover a lot of ground to fill unoccupied spaces. These two skills are what led Elneny and Partey to a very successful outing at Old Trafford and allowed Thomas Partey the freedom to go be a real midfield playmaker. The issue is, Elneny’s skills on the ball can be a danger or a liability as we have seen lately. Most times he is a neat and tidy, simple player, but he seems to have a knack for having an error or two that puts Arsenal in danger.
A misfielding Mustafi? Maybe that’s not quite right, but I seem to draw parallels between the two when I see Elneny have a decent game but moments of real error that mar the performance. Sort of that ‘good for 80 minutes, poor for 10’ problem. Fortunately for him his has a defense behind him when he does. Unfortunately for him, that inconsistency just won’t do.
Finally, there is Willock who is the youngest of the bunch and is probably the least likely. He has some some really great Europa League matches this year, but has yet to make the jump to the Premier League’s demands. He has fallen further and further down the pecking order and really could benefit from a loan in my eyes.
As I said, I am not sure who the best partner for Partey is, but the idea of the carousel continuing to spin and spin and spin, spitting out midfielders incapable of finding a run of games or capturing any semblance of form, is causing me to dread the worst. Maybe the solution is on a game-by-game basis or maybe a fantastic partnership will form.
In my opinion, nothing will be solved until Arteta identifies what kind of midfielder he wants to occupy the vacancy, and what kind of skill set he needs from them.
Is it a more attacking facilitator that will feed the ball into Smith Rowe and can offer flair?
Is it a more solid player that offers a passing range and ability to hold while enabling Parey to get forward?
Is it someone with a lot of legs that can buzz around and be in all the places Partey and Smith Rowe aren’t?
Time will tell and the question may be one that sorts itself out based on who plays well. At the moment Xhaka has been the best and most consistent, but that’s over the course of three games. Not exactly deep roots to rely on.
This constant carousel needs to come to halt, some consistency needs to be found, and Emile Smith Rowe’s performances combined with Partey’s return may be the two perfect catalysts to make it happen.