It’s party time at the Emirates – and not the kind that’s been getting the England team into trouble this week. Arsenal finally managed socially distance themselves from the Atletico board they’d spent the summer negotiating with, and secure the signing of Thomas Partey.
The heist-like nature of the deal could easily have been cut from one of the Oceans movies. While the merits of that approach definitely require analysis at some point, they are irrelevant for now. The important thing is that Arteta has improved his Eleven.
But how exactly will it line up?
Deadline day departures have seen Matteo Guendouzi and Lucas Torreira move on from the club while Mesut Ozil’s Arsenal career is seemingly as extinct as the dinosaur he’s trying to save. This means we head into the new season with almost a completely new-look midfield. Let’s take a glance at what that might be like.
End of the back 3? –
I know it might seem counterintuitive to start analysis of the midfield by looking at the defence but that’s what I’m going to do here.
Since the disastrous return from project restart Mikel Arteta has fielded his Arsenal side in a 3-4-3 formation. This is a switch up from how he originally started with a Wenger-esque 4-2-3-1.
The decision was an example of our coach’s refreshing pragmatism. Realising the defensive limitations of his squad he moved quickly to address them. David Luiz was restored to the middle role that he had excelled in under Antonio Conte, Kieran Tierney thrived in the hybrid left-back/left centre-back position and Rob Holding began channeling his inner Brazilian on the right side of the defence.
Two trophies later, and you have to say it worked. But if you asked Mikel Arteta how he envisaged his teams playing on their way to success, he’d be the first tell you that this isn’t it.
When asked what his coaching philosophy would be in 2014 the Spaniard said: “I want the football to be expressive, entertaining. I cannot have a concept of football where everything is based on the opposition.”
“We have to dictate the game, we have to be the ones taking the initiative, and we have to entertain the people coming to watch us.”
The wins against Liverpool, Chelsea and Manchester City were certainly entertaining, but if you were to ask if we controlled those games, even the most die-hard of Gooners would answer with a resounding “no.”
The truth is it cannot be done with a back three. It is a fundamentally reactive formation. If the football of Arteta’s mentor Pep Guardiola is anything to go by, then the future of this time lies in a 4-3-3 formation.
Who is Thomas?
One of the first things that needs to be established about Thomas Partey is that he is not the Gilberto Silva surrogate social media seems to think he is.
Yes, he has excelled in a defensive midfield role at Atletico Madrid. I mean is there really any other kind in a Diego Simeone team? In last season’s Champions League, he averaged 3.6 tackles per game and 1.5 interceptions. But he’s so much more than just a destroyer.
As a 23-year-old Thomas spent a season on loan at Almeira where he was largely used as a number 10 or a winger. It was actually a surprise to the Atleti coaching staff when he came back and was adept in the deeper lying position.
This is borne out in his stats from last season’s Champions league yet again. He averaged 1.6 key passes and just under two dribbles per 90, while also managing more than 60 passes per game.
His career progression is actually somewhat reminiscent of Arteta’s own. It’s worth remembering that when the Spaniard arrived at the Emirates, he had spent six years playing number 10 at Goodison Park before Arsene Wenger repurposed him in front of the defence.
But what Thomas does have is the physical attributes that Areta lacks. He’s tall, with good recovery pace and the strength to really excel in the Premier League. He is the complete midfielder and would be wasted just sitting in front of the back four.
How will we line up?
So, if he’s not going to sit in front of the back four then who will?
Before answering that I should say that I think Partey will end up on the right hand side of Arteta’s midfield three.
Then if Guardiola’s City are anything to go by the left side will be reserved for a more forward-thinking ‘free eight’. You may have noticed Bukayo Saka moving slightly further infield in the games against Sheffield United and West Ham, while it’s fair to assume that Willian was brought in with this plan in mind. Joe Willock and Emile Smith-Rowe may also be given minutes in this position. (This was covered by Dave here on Monday.)
That leaves one position at the base of our first-choice midfield. Until recently I would have assumed that spot would have been reserved for Granit Xhaka. The Swiss international has been an ever present in Arteta’s sides.
While I might not be quite aboard the Xhaka redemption train just yet, I do have to admit that he has done a pretty good job.
But the reality remains that he doesn’t deal well with pressure. Never was that more clear than when he was harassed for an hour by Liverpool’s insatiable midfield. It’s no coincidence that when Dani Ceballos was brought onto the pitch that we suddenly looked a much better side.
So, it’s Dani that I expect to start week-in week-out in front of our back four. Ceballos is much better on the ball and under pressure. If we genuinely want to control games like Arteta claims, then this is key.
Xhaka will be a fine squad player but with the quality of options now available to Arteta he should be nothing more than that. After just over four seasons of mediocrity in the middle of the park it’s time for Arsenal to finally move on from our erstwhile captain.