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Arsenal 2018/19 season preview: Midfielders

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Arsenal’s midfield is the deepest it has been in years.

Arsenal v Paris Saint Germain - International Champions Cup 2018
Mesut Özil could be in line for a big season.
Photo by Thananuwat Srirasant/Getty Images for ICC

Another day, another position group preview. Today, it’s Arsenal’s midfield, which, for the first time in years, might not be lacking for deeper lying, defensively capable options. The addition of Lucas Torreira this summer could prove the key to unlocking the Gunners’ full midfield potential. His defensive capabilities should free up Aaron Ramsey and Granit Xhaka (to a lesser extent) to play more of the box-to-box role in which they excel.

Slightly concerning, however, is the relative lack of true wide players. A day before the transfer window closes, Arsenal have Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Ainsley Maitland-Niles (who might be forced to deputize at left back) as the only natural options to provide width. That means some of the time, if not often (depending on the preferred formation), a player more comfortable playing centrally will be forced into a wider role.

Lucas Torreira

Torreira hasn’t played a minute of competitive football for Arsenal, and there are already loads of expectations on the young Uruguayan. While he is almost certainly not the Second Coming of Patrick Vieira, his ability to break up play, put in a tackle, and generally add defensive bite to the midfield is something Arsenal have sorely missed for years. He is a capable passer, if not an incisive one, and that’s fine. As long as he is able to win the ball / receive it from the defense and get it to the more creative players, he’ll have done his job.

As stated above, Torreira’s greatest value may lie in what he enables the players around him to do. When in the side, he will shoulder the primary midfield defensive responsibilities, which will free up whoever is playing next to him, likely Granit Xhaka / Aaron Ramsey. That’s not to say those two will be free to roam as they please, just that they will be more able to impact matches offensively, which is what they are best at.

Granit Xhaka

Of all the Arsenal midfielders, Xhaka has the potential to take the biggest leap forward this season. While he has become a more consistent player during his time at Arsenal, he has the tools to become a dominant one. His composure on the ball, ability to find penetrative passes, and precise, sometimes inch-perfect long switches of play could potentially dictate the tempo and flow of matches if he puts it all together.

Regardless of how much he does or doesn’t elevate his game, Xhaka should be first choice irrespective of formation this season. In a 4-2-3-1, he’ll sit next to Torreira as a double pivot. In a 4-3-3, he’ll play in the midfield bank.

Matteo Guendouzi

Guendouzi joined Arsenal this summer from French side Lorient for around £7m plus bonuses. His performances this preseason were perhaps the most pleasantly surprising thing to come out of the warm-up matches. Despite making some youthful mistakes, he showed himself to be a capable passer and not afraid to put in a challenge.

The young Frenchman should feature in the cup competitions, the group stages of the Europa League and may even see some playing time against lesser Premier League teams. Any rest and rotation he enables for Arsenal’s first choice players will be valuable.

Mohamed Elneny

The Egyptian international is the quintessential backup / squad player. He has a high work rate, is positionally sound, and doesn’t make many glaring errors. He’s a fine passer and has shown he isn’t afraid to get forward, even if his touch and skill in the offensive third can sometimes leave a bit to be desired. He’s the type of player that if mustered into action for whatever reason, you’re neither particularly happy nor unhappy to see on the pitch. He’s A Guy, and every club needs Guys.

He should be a starter in most, if not all, the cup competition and Europa League matches. It should also be noted that in a pinch, he has filled in at center back, which given Arsenal’s current depth and performances at the position, might not be as far-fetched of a possibility as you’d hope.

Aaron Ramsey

Aaron Ramsey is the engine that makes the Arsenal attack go. His ability to make runs from deeper positions unbalances opposing defenses and compares favorably with just about anybody in the Premier League. Those runs not only put him in dangerous positions to receive / play the ball in combination with his teammates, they also drag defenders out of position, creating space in which Mesut Özil can work his magic.

Expect Ramsey to play primarily from the center of the park this season, regardless of formation. Don’t be surprised, however, if he starts a few matches wider so that Özil can play more centrally.

Mesut Özil

If Aaron Ramsey is the engine that makes Arsenal’s attack go, Özil is the guy driving the car (the analogy sorta works, right?). The attack should and usually does flow through him. He sees space on the pitch and passing angles that few people can imagine and even fewer can successfully pull off. With a full season’s experience playing with Alexandre Lacazette and the prospect of a full season putting Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang through, Özil is a threat to break Thierry Henry’s single-season assists record.

While we generally try to stay away from imputing motive to player performance for a number of different reasons, I’m going to do it anyway because I feel so strongly about it in this case: I think Mesut Özil will want to prove something this season. He’s looked fantastic in preseason, and after all the tension, drama, controversy, and aftermath surrounding his retirement from the German national team, it just makes sense that he’d want to stick it to ‘em, right? Many of us can relate to the messy end of a relationship - you want to show them what they’re missing, that you’re doing great, and in fact, you’re better off without them.

Henrikh Mkhitaryan

Mkhitaryan could be the x-factor in Arsenal’s attack this season. Before being Mourinho’ed, he was a key part of Borussia Dortmund’s attack, scoring 41 goals and adding 49 assists in 140 appearances. He’s creative on the ball, has good chemistry with Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, and has a wicked shot that he is not afraid to unleash. Before getting injured last spring, he had started to show flashes of returning to his pre-United form.

Mkhitaryan will likely split time with Alex Iwobi and whoever else Unai Emery deploys as a wide attacking player, but should get the lion’s share.

Ainsley Maitland-Niles

Getting back to the Arsenal-as-a-car analogy, Ainsley Maitland-Niles is the customizable options. He has played as both a deeper lying and more attacking central midfielder, looks comfortable playing on the wing, and can even fill in at outside back. His pace is a particularly valuable asset when playing out wide — it gives him great range and the ability to recover from mistakes. Remember, he’s still only 20!

Because of Sead Kolašinac’s long-term injury and Nacho Monreal’s nagging one, AMN will almost certainly be Arsenal’s opening day left back. Counter-intuitively, he could get less playing time this season than he did last year because of his positional flexibility and importance as a backup.