Arsenal’s midfield dilemma: What can be done?
If there is one part of the Arsenal setup that has a lot of questions to be answered, it is their midfield. This is primary due to the uncertainty that surrounds two players who could be on their way out during this transfer window.
Manager Mikel Arteta likes to usually play with a 4-2-3-1 that requires two central midfielders at the heart of the action. One of those slots is taken, with the presence of Thomas Partey sure to be starting but it is the other spot that is vacant at the moment.
There are other candidates in the mix apart from Granit Xhaka such as Mohamed Elneny, Joe Willock, Ainsley Maitland-Niles and new signing Albert Sambi Lokonga. Out of these four, it is Willock who is the most likely to leave after an outstanding loan spell last season with Newcastle United.
Assuming no other player is brought in for this position before the start of the season, Arteta will have work with what he has. This would require one of these players to partner Partey in the centre. Who could that be?
This is the man who would normally be one of the leaders of the team but with a move to Roma in the works, it remains to be seen if he will be given a chance. The latest reports state that this potential transfer has hit a roadblock and as a result of that, he may have to remain in north London.
What the boss gets with picking the Swiss captain is someone who has played this position for multiple seasons now. And along with Partey, would form the partnership that the manager would be looking for, to bring some balance to the team.
Though it has been clear for some time that the midfielder wants to leave, he may have a chance to play again for the Gunners. One factor that could affect this selection is his match-fitness given that the 28-year-old is yet to report back for training.
Arguably the player with the best chance of starting alongside the Ghanaian midfield dynamo, Elneny brings something different to the team. His work rate and endless stamina make him a good foil for Partey as seen in the win at Old Trafford last season.
He is also the most senior option at the club right now and with some pre-season minutes under his belt, would be primed to play against Brentford. The 29-year-old has bags of experience in this position which would hold him in good stead.
For Arteta, it is also about picking players who are looking the sharpest in training and though the Egyptian is not the flashiest, he brings a dependability to the role. It would not be a surprise if he got the nod to start.
Albert Sambi Lokonga
This one is bit of a wildcard, but the youngster who shone on his debut suggested that he could partner Partey in the middle. With Xhaka coming back late and Elneny a rather bland choice, it could be the Anderlecht man that is chosen by the boss, mainly for his passing.
Lokonga is excellent at keeping the ball moving forward and that is something the Gunners have struggled with in the past. With two players in the central areas looking for the attackers, it instantly makes the build-up faster and more difficult for the opposition to deal with.
Although there is the temptation to safeguard the Belgian given that he arrived in England only a few days ago. But the 21-year-old certainly has the talent and might spring a surprise if he started against The Bees.
The Englishman’s career has been a curious one so far given how well he fits in at one position but is unwilling to play there. As a right-back, Maitland-Niles is perfect for the role, as he is the ideal modern full-back, but the player wants to play in midfield.
And in pre-season, Arteta has been using him there and the 23-year-old has shown real glimpses of his talent. If the manager wants a central midfielder with a lot more energy than Elneny, Maitland-Niles would be quite a good option and he also has more experience than some.
And an appearance on the opening day would also serve as a show of faith hinting that the club want the player to stay rather than going out on loan again.
A player that looked like he was not getting many chances, made use of a loan away, to become one of the best young midfielders in the league. The Englishman’s spell at Tyneside was the stuff of dreams as he lit up the league with his goals and skills.
Now, the Magpies want him again and the Gunners have to make a decision on what to do with their young star. If they decide to keep him at the Emirates Stadium, it should be with a guarantee of a certain number of games. That is why Willock is the least likely to start and it will not be a surprise if he were to move to Newcastle once again.
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The midfield can be considered as the fulcrum of the team and if that is not working at top gear, it can hamper the rest of the players. So, Arteta will have to be careful on who he chooses to be his starting duo. Arsenal have some great options to choose from but they must also think about who will be at the club and who will be leaving.