Man Utd beaten and largely outplayed by an XI containing (I would say) between 0 and 2 players who would get into the Man Utd side, and we are yet again told that the major issue is that they haven't signed good enough players. It's incredible.
— Michael Cox (@Zonal_Marking) September 20, 2020
The transfer market dominates football discourse and analysis to the point that the shark has been jumped and football matches are, essentially, considered 90-minute exercises to see what a team needs to buy. It gives me pause for thought when I attribute so much weight to Arsenal’s pursuit of a new central midfielder.
However, I do consider this a glaring requirement for Arsenal before the window closes next month and I think the difference between Arteta’s side being a top six team and a top four team probably rests on whether they are able to recruit in this area and how well they do it. It was a similar situation for Manchester United earlier this year.
Bruno Fernandes was such an obvious upgrade on Fred and Andreas Pereira and the Portuguese duly turned United from a top six team into a top three team. Even Liverpool have been moved to upgrade in this area of the pitch with the signing of Thiago from Bayern Munich. There is a very broad consensus on the Gunners’ need for adjustments in the engine room.
When Arsenal were chasing a winning goal against West Ham on Saturday, Mikel Arteta summoned Mohammed Elneny from the dugout prior to Nketiah’s late winner. I think Arsenal themselves realise the need for new midfield blood, their behaviour in the market this summer has been to take care of the low-hanging fruit (Cedric, Mari, Willian and Gabriel) as quickly as possible to give themselves space and time to reconstruct their midfield.
Midfield surgery was always going to be dependent on sales because Arsenal are looking for someone immediately transformational in their starting eleven. In their current fiscal situation, that means selling players and it probably means clearing Torreira and Guendouzi from their decks.
Assuming we are all agreed that Arsenal require at least one central midfielder in this transfer window, what are the qualities that this Cazorla / Ramsey / Vieira / prime Özil hybrid will need to offer? Arteta has moved to a 343 formation, which means they play with a central midfield two in an era when most teams play with a three.
The duo of Xhaka and Ceballos is good, it’s not absolutely elite but it is good. They are due some slack because they are a midfield two being judged against contemporary trios. They are intermediate value passers and both, in their own ways, specialise in moving Arsenal from the defensive third into the middle third.
Xhaka does this with his passing, Ceballos is more physically dynamic- his ability to break play up with interceptions and by pressing opponents in the defensive phase are underrated. The Spaniard is also press resistant and can receive the ball with his back to play on the edge of his own area as Arsenal play out from the back.
The issue is that all of Ceballos and Xhaka’s qualities are useful in progressing Arsenal from A to B but not from B to C. I must have said this a thousand times now but Arsenal have shed ball-carriers at quite a rate in recent years. Cazorla, Wilshere, Rosicky, even Iwobi and Sanchez, helped Arsenal’s final third entry game.
Currently, Arsenal just doesn’t have that link in the chain. That third midfielder role is on time-share between the left wing-back (Maitland-Niles or Saka), Willian on the right and Lacazette who drops into midfield to link play. All of them shift into midfield during various phases of the build-up play.
However, Maitland-Niles doesn’t really have a final ball, Willian drops inside to make space for Bellerin to overlap and Lacazette’s time in midfield is spent with his back to goal and a defender riding his coat tails. None of these roles really drive Arsenal forward. Maitland-Niles causes some jeopardy with his decoy positioning but none of this really moves defences around.
Arsenal have struggled against low block defences because they lack imagination and guile between the midfield line and the attacking line. At this point, we have to consider that Mesut Özil is being omitted from the team for reasons not related to his ability or his attributes. However, Arsenal don’t necessarily need an Özil clone or dedicated playmaker type, per se.
One of the key attributes Arsenal’s midfield has missed since Cazorla’s demise is the ability to take the ball on the half-turn under pressure and immediately change the gears of play. Ceballos only really does this to an extent; but he doesn’t quite have the energy or dribbling ability to get it to the edge of the opposition area on a regular basis.
A younger, fitter Abou Diaby or Jack Wilshere would transform the Arsenal midfield. You may have noticed that I omitted Bukayo Saka a couple of paragraphs ago when I spoke of players that “time share” the third midfield slot. I think Saka has all the makings of an excellent third central midfield player on the left side of the pitch.
Firstly, he can help facilitate a left-sided overload with Aubameyang and Tierney. Brazil used to do something similar with Neymar, Marcelo and Philippe Coutinho forming a virtuous triangle on the left side of their attack. Saka has ball carrying abilities and his passes to Aubameyang and Ceballos were crucial in unlocking the West Ham defence on Saturday evening.
For the second pass, Ceballos wandered away from the midfield structure and evaded detection from a well-marshalled Irons defence. This is a quality the team have lacked since Aaron Ramsey’s departure, however, playing in a midfield two doesn’t really allow Ceballos to wander away from the structure and move opponents around in their own area on a regular basis.
Saka chalked up 11 assists last season so we can see his creative potential. Even if Arteta agrees with my learned assessment that Saka could and should play as the third central midfielder in a 433, Arsenal still require surgery in the market. Many have noted the similarities between Aubameyang’s goal against Liverpool in the Community Shield and his strike against Fulham.
Arsenal pass out from the back in both scenarios and in both scenarios they completely miss out the midfield in the build-up. They cannot spend an entire season missing the midfield out and expect to drastically improve on their goal scoring potential. They need that piece in the middle of the pitch to receive a pass from the likes of Xhaka, Ceballos and Ozil and then, in turn, find one of the front three.
In short, the gap between midfield and attack is too big and Arsenal are a tad too reliant on the wide areas to build their attacks. They miss that player that can progress them from the middle third, either on or off the ball. I don’t know who that player is, I don’t know if it is Thomas Partey or Houssem Aouar, but I do know that these are qualities that need to be imported into the team.