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What to do about the CDM role?

What should Arsenal do about their CDM role in the wake of Elneny joining Partey on the injury list?

For many, the news broken by David Ornstein that Mohammed Elneny was joining Thomas Partey on Arsenal’s injured list was the manifestation of their worst fears. For other more cynical fans, it was simple confirmation of something they felt was inevitably going to go wrong for the team, given the perception of reliance that surrounds Partey’s play and Arsenal’s need for a quality central defensive midfielder.

All window, fans have been calling for the club to bolster the midfield, with quite a few hoping to see someone provide depth for Partey and/or an upgrade on Granit Xhaka’s role. Fans are still waiting to get their first glimpse of Fabio Vieira’s play within the Arsenal side, but he of course won’t be depth for Partey. When news emerged this weekend of Partey’s injury, at least Elneny offered a safe rotation man to help weather the storm. But as of yesterday, Arsenal are looking at 4-5 games without Partey and an extended absence without Elneny who is undergoing further assessment.

The injury bug has bitten, but how Arsenal choose to respond to it will impact the short-term, the season, and potentially even long-term outlooks. Personally, I believe when assessing this problem, the club will be looking at solutions much the same.

In the short team, as in today and next week, the club will be focused on Aston Villa, the weekend, and determining if they need to alter their Deadline Day plans.

Short term versus Aston Villa

As Arsenal try to win their fifth game in five matches to start the season, two options stand out with a third option offering relevancy:

Albert Sambi Lokonga

Lokonga is the name on many people’s lips for starting today. While some are assured that Sambi’s future lies as a Partey replacement, others feel quite differently. Last season, when Partey went down, it was Elneny who got the call to finish the season — it didn’t go well for the team, not that that falls square on his shoulders. Over the summer’s preseason matches, Lokonga was deployed in a fairly advanced midfielder role, much more aligned with Xhaka’s position while Elneny played in the CDM spot. We never saw Sambi as a lone central defensive midfielder, which tells a little bit of a story as well. Finally, there have been a few games in which Lokonga has played that role, but to mixed reviews. All in all, there were some good aspects about what he offers on the ball, some poor aspects about his positioning, and some mixed review performances.

To me, he is the most likely for today’s match against Aston Villa, but it very much remains a toss up for how long that remains. He would have a chance to stamp himself on the position, but he still feels like an option that could come good for a sporadic game or two, but falter when it comes to extended stretches in which opposition accumulate footage on how Arsenal accommodate him in order to exploit.

Zinchenko

When Zinchenko was first connected with Arsenal, there were plenty of people who wondered whether that signature would be in a left back or midfield capacity. While it felt obvious to me that left back was what Arteta had in mind — especially given the proximity to Martinez transfer rumors — that doesn’t mean Zinchenko’s versatility stops at left back. The kid can play, and has played, as a central midfielder.

“It’s one of the options,” said Arteta when asked about Zinchenko playing as a holding midfielder. “We can use him in midfield, as an attacking midfielder, as a holding midfielder. Of course, it’s an option. He’s played there as well, so it’s great to have players who can give us that versatility,”

With news of his health and availability for Aston Villa, after missing Fulham, there is an increased possibility that we see Zinchenko join the midfield and last year’s starting left back, Kieran Tierney, slotted in again.

My two cents: While it is far from impossible, this feels like a decision that we are more likely see in the coming weeks. As Zinchenko returns to health more fully, the team trains, they test out Lokonga, and Arsenal stare down tougher competition, the factors involved in this decision will change. Much of this could depend on how Arteta views Sambi, Zinchenko’s ability in the midfield, and Kieran Tierney’s compatibility with how Arsenal want to play. If Arsenal can make Zinchenko work, it would sacrifice some of the physical presence in the midfield, but certainly provide high technical quality. This is an option I, personally, feel more comfortable with than using Lokonga for the next few weeks.

Ben White

In Ben White’s career, he has played matches as a defensive midfielder for Brighton. We know he offers decent skills in carrying the ball and progressing it, we know he can defend, so the idea is that he brings that combination to this role.

Personally, I find this to be a reach and the least likely, if Arteta is looking to maintain Arsenal’s 4-3-3/4-2-3-1 shape. Where it comes into play with a little more potential is if Arsenal’s success in a 3-back system against Fulham has inspired Mikel into consideration. There could a world in which Arsenal look at a 3-4-1-2/3-5-2 that places White central as a hybrid defensive midfielder and center back. He would be given limited responsibility in the same attacking vein as would be expected of Zinchenko or Lokonga, but maybe the team feel alright about building through the wide spaces.

Again, this feels like a system Arteta is unlikely to start with, but maybe one that is considered later in games depending on the game state. I expect Sambi or Zinchenko – if healthy – to start against Villa.

Short/Medium: The window

Deadline Day is on Thursday which means Arsenal have a small window of time here in which they can, more or less, buy their way out of trouble. The problem with this? The club has made it clear that they have no intention of purchasing players they view as short-term solutions or not a part of the long-term Arsenal plan. As fans experienced in January last season, when Arsenal had the opportunity to try to spend big on a Striker signing, the club pursued Vlahovic, didn’t acquire him and ended their pursuit of others — more or less — in favor of saving funds for the Summer window.

This same mentality means that if the club are going to go after a player within this position, it will have to be a player they believe has a long term future at the club. If you follow this thought process, one would it assume that suggests the player would have to be someone that Arsenal have kept close tabs on, and that they are not starting from ground zero on this signing. To our limited knowledge, the only player that fits the bill feels like Youri Tielemans, a player that fans are probably sick of hearing mentioned with no advancement.

Whether he is a name you like or not, he feels the most likely to be signed to help alleviate some of these worries. He may not be a straight forward defensive midfielder but he has played deeper lying roles. Likely, Arsenal would still revert toward to their double-pivot formation or one along the lines of what they played against Fulham.

As much as I, personally, believe Arsenal should be using this remaining window to lock down a signing, made more dire considering Partey’s thigh injury issues are now a persistent, ongoing, intrusive issue — and that I believe they already should have been doing that anyhow — the extension of Elneny, potential of Sambi, and the focus on other areas of the pitch continue to make this feel unlikely. A lot can change in a short amount of time, and the results at Aston Villa are likely to shape thoughts and plans, so we will have to wait and see, but the solution used these weeks could be seen later in the season when Partey spends more time out injured.

Long-term outlook

What is decided in the comings days will likely shed some light on how the club feels about Lokonga’s future. While it made sense to believe that Elneny offered a more experienced, reliable hand for the midfield, if Lokonga is passed up again, you’ll have to ask a lot of questions.

Not only about Sambi’s role within the team, but about how the club intends to get him involved in matches to grow. The Europa League will offer some group stage match minutes, some of which occur during this upcoming stint, but what’s the long term objective for him? If it’s as a Partey replacement, he should be getting selected. If it’s as a Xhaka role competitor, what’s Vieira for, what’s Sambi’s path to minutes, and when does he get minutes there this year?

Not a lot of concrete statements can be made as we have not seen how the club is going to react yet, but is a loan away from north London a realistic future for the 22-year-old, not unlike Nuno? Maybe he is selected for Villa and some of these questions are answered, but uncertain times for the young Belgian.

Summary:

TLDR? If I had my way, the club would have taken the depth behind Partey more seriously this window. They signed Elneny, but I will fight until my dying breath to argue that there were long term options with high potential that currently land somewhere between what Partey and Elneny offer. It was obvious during preseason that an injury to Partey could have the negative effect of hampering the side’s ceiling of potential. Certainly, the way the team is set up, fullbacks mitigate some of the concern, but it’s ridiculous to suggest Arsenal play at the same level of quality without Partey in the side. And with so much on the line this season, this feels like a high risk considering the solution, to some degree, is within their control.

The reality is, I do not get my way as I have no influence over this team, so Arteta will have to make a choice. My belief:

  • Sambi to start versus Aston Villa
  • Sambi and Zinchenko will compete for the spot over the next couple of weeks, very dependent on Sambi’s play against Aston Villa and Zinchenko’s health
  • Finally, Arsenal will complete the signing of a winger during this window and roll the dice on midfield depth. Leicester seem to be asking a lot for Tielemans and Arsenal seem to have a valuation for him set in stone. The two are not matching and neither are budging which will lead to no sale and a sad Youri — probably.

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