Tuesday, February 7, 2023

Midfield injuries change the landscape ahead of Villa game

Morning.

Mikel Arteta’s team selection for tonight has been complicated by an injury to Mohamed Elneny, who could reportedly face a substantial period on the sidelines. It’s being widely reported as a hamstring problem, but the fact the injury was only discovered after the 2-1 win over Fulham is a bit strange. Usually a muscle strain is obvious, the player holds the affected area and off he goes to be replaced by a sub. So whatever it is, it feels like something more than a run of the mill hamstring injury.

In terms of tonight, there are options available to the manager. He could start Albert Sambi Lokonga in that role, the young Belgian has yet to feature this season. He could also drop Granit Xhaka back there, a role he’s often played before, and Sambi could play in the 8 position. If Oleksandr Zinchenko is fit, he could slot into midfield, but again I think he’d be better further forward than as the holding midfielder. And, of course, another option is to play with two at the base of the midfield, a Xhaka/Sambi combo, perhaps, but that then impacts the way the team has been set-up this season.

What’s clear is that without Elneny, and the injured Thomas Partey, there’s no natural replacement. Xhaka is playing some of his best football for Arsenal in a role which means he’s much less often exposed, playing in areas of the pitch where he doesn’t have to make too many tackles or defend while running back towards his own goal. Beyond that, what is there?

We had heard talk that Sambi was being developed as a 6, but when Partey was missing last season, it was Elneny who got the nod. Obviously there are wider implications than tonight, and we’ll come to that, but in the very short-term it’s going to be an interesting choice for the manager as he picks his side for tonight’s game.

I had wondered if he might make a couple of changes for this one, with Manchester United looming on Sunday, but he won’t want too much disruption to a team which has been playing well and has won four from four. I think there’s a decent case to involve someone like Takehiro Tomiyasu, and maybe Emile Smith Rowe, but at the same time there’s nobody in the team right now who deserves to be ‘dropped’. Maybe some inside knowledge of players who might benefit from a little rest will influence whatever decisions he makes later on.

Villa arrive after a start to the season in which they’ve struggled: losing three and winning just one of their four games. We know they have some talented players, particularly in the attacking areas, so we’ll need to be careful about the threat they can potentially pose. They were booed off at Villa Park on Saturday after losing to West Ham, so will be determined to try and put things right this evening. It will be a physical battle again, especially in midfield.

But Arsenal have showed some character as well as playing good football this season, and if we can combine both again, we have what it takes to win this one. Nothing in this league is easy, and we know that very well, so hopefully whatever tweaks to his team Mikel Arteta makes will be successful and we can come away with all three points later on.

So, with just under two days left in the transfer window, the Elneny injury has more than likely changed our focus before tomorrow night’s deadline. With everyone fit, my preference if I had to choose between an attacker and a midfielder would have been another winger, giving us that firepower the manager wants.

However, if Elneny is out for a while, and Partey is sidelined, that does alter the landscape. Not least because you can’t help but worry when you hear Partey has a thigh injury, something that has kept him out of action throughout his time at the club. It happened in his first season (twice), and his second season – and it was particularly costly last time around. At this point you have to think of his fitness as basically unreliable, and act accordingly. That, I’m sure, is part of why many people when presented with the winger v CM choice would have gone with the latter.

The question then is who? Your guess is as good as mine. I’ve seen people talking about getting Youri Tielemans in, a player linked with us all summer, but while he’s a good player he can’t play as a 6 and doesn’t solve that particular issue for us. Do we go out and bring in someone on our list, someone who can play that Partey role specifically – expediting a move for a player we’ve earmarked for the future?

From the way it’s being reported, this is quite probably an either/or situation, so the attacking addition would have to make way for the central midfield one. Without banging this drum too hard, this is where being able to sell well can help, because it allows you to reinvest. It would be a shame to miss out on the winger, but clearly we have a problem in midfield that can only be solved via the transfer market and it could possibly be an expensive solution given clubs are often reluctant sellers at this point in the window because finding a replacement is problematic with so little time to go.

I really have no idea what we might do. As I mentioned yesterday, the manager spoke about the squad being ‘short’ after the departure of Pepe, and that interview was done before the injuries to Partey and Elneny. All I can say is that you can have a plan for recruitment and squad building, and I think we’ve seen Arsenal have quite strategic with the way they’ve bought players of late. But sometimes circumstances conspire against you, and you have to be fluid enough to react. It feels like that’s very much where we are now, so it will be very interesting to see what – if anything – we do before tomorrow night’s deadline.

Right, I’ll leave it there for now. Join us later for live blog coverage of the game, and all the post-match stuff on Arseblog News.

In the meantime, check out a brand new Arsenal Women Arsecast exclusive with Ian Wright, and for Patreon members we have our preview podcast available for you too.

Catch you later.

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