Thursday, November 30, 2023

What is the plan for central midfield?

Morning all, welcome to a brand new week.

I have nothing to say about you know who until you know what is announced by you also know who. That’s it.

It’s been interesting to see the discussions around the transfers we haven’t made yet. People were excited by the idea of Raphinha, and disappointed when it appeared his heart was set elsewhere. There’s been a lot of anxiety over Lisandro Martinez because of the competition from Man Utd, and even the fact that Aaron Hickey appears to be going to Brentford has caused some consternation.

I think he’s a player we probably have on our radar, but he feels much more like a last summer signing than a this summer signing. He’s just gone 20, and he feels like a player who is a bit of a project: someone you hope will develop in a year or two to really push for a place, and Mikel Arteta has made it clear that the transfer business this summer should push us towards a ‘different level’. Is he in that bracket? I’d be very surprised at this point.

So, in the last week or so, the focus has been on a right winger; a 5’9 central defender; and a young player who could well make a breakthrough in the Premier League this season but in all likelihood will take a season or two to adapt and develop properly.

Now, if you’d asked people before the window opened what were the two main signings Arsenal needed to make as a matter of priority, I’d guess around 95% of fans would have said 1 – Striker (and we’ve got that done, just not officially officially), and 2 – Central midfielder. The two names doing the rounds were Gabriel Jesus (see 1), and Youri Tielemans.

I’m quite curious as to what’s going on with midfield signing. Has the arrival of Fabio Vieira changed the plans? It’s hard to know, because while it was a bolt from the blue for us, Edu made it quite clear that it was something they had been working on for a long time. So interest in Vieira would have existed side by side with interest in Tielemans. The former Porto man looks a real talent, but I’m not sure he’s quite ready yet to play centrally in the Premier League, there’s some gym work to be done first.

On the Arsecast Extra a couple of weeks ago, James mentioned that we’re basically the only show in town for the Belgian international, so there’s no particular hurry in getting it done. Which makes sense on one level, but on another, if he’s a player you really want, why not make life as simple as possible for yourself by getting it done without any external complication? If other clubs become interested – far from impossible as we’ve seen with more or less every player we’ve been linked with this summer – then you have to contend with a possible hike in price because they’ve made a bid which drives the price up, not to mention the possibility you might lose the player because he now prefers what’s on offer elsewhere.

There is also the Granit Xhaka element to consider. We’ve spoken about how, if you bring somebody in to play in his position – the now mythical ‘left 8’ role – it’s essentially a demotion for him. Would he be happy to stay and play second fiddle? Does the arrival of a new central midfielder depend on the departure of Xhaka? Personally, I’d be happy to sign someone and keep Xhaka for the season we have ahead, with the all the demands of Europe and so on, and I also wonder if, in the inevitable injury absence of Thomas Partey, Xhaka might be a decent stand-in for the deeper midfield position. I don’t think he can play it like Partey, of course, but his experience might be useful.

There has also been a lot of talk about how, if we were after a player like Raphina – someone with the quality to start week in, week out – we might be thinking of repurposing Bukayo Saka to a more central position. Is he a possibility for the left 8 where, ostensibly, we’d be using someone like Tielemans if he signed? I think he can do it, whether he should do it is another debate entirely given what he produces from the right with such consistency at 20 years of age.

What of Albert Sambi Lokonga, someone who needed last season as one of adaptation (see Aaron Hickey), and what his role is for the season ahead? We believe he’s been developed as someone who can deputise Partey, but do we have other plans alongside that – especially when you remember we renewed Mohamed Elneny to provide us with an experienced option in that area of the pitch? You could also make a good argument that Partey’s importance because of his quality means we have to take steps to ensure that – as and he’s not available – the team doesn’t suffer as much.

Questions. Questions. Questions. If you’d asked me a few weeks ago I’d have said our midfield plans were pretty clear. We thought Tielemans was as much a sure thing as Gabriel Jesus, but that doesn’t appear to be the case. Maybe we’ll get some more clarity over the coming week. Pre-season games usually mean some pre and post-game chat from the manager, and while I don’t think he’s going to lay bare his plans completely, some inkling as to what’s going to happen in this key area of the pitch would be very welcome.

Until then, I guess we keep speculating.

Right, let’s leave it there for this morning. James is away this week, but we will have an Arsecast Extra for you as always, filling in from the bench, Tim Stillman. Keep an eye out for the call for questions on Twitter @Stillberto and @arseblog on Twitter with the hashtag #arsecastextra – or if you’re on Arseblog Member on Patreon, leave your question in the #arsecast-extra-questions channel on our Discord server.

Pod should be out by lunchtime. Until then, take it easy.

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