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Arsenal position preview: midfield

Right now, the Gunners will be heavily reliant on Bukayo Saka and Emile Smith Rowe to have big seasons.

Arsenal v West Bromwich Albion - Premier League Photo by Stuart MacFarlane/Arsenal FC via Getty Images

The position preview series continues today with the Arsenal midfielders (as listed on the club website) for the 2021-22 Premier League season. We’ve already covered the goalkeepers and the defenders. It was a tumultuous summer for midfielders in North London. There are several moving parts that still may or may not be moving. To recap:

  • Granit Xhaka looked almost certain to be headed to Roma, going so far as to talk about how much he liked the city. But the move fell through and the Swiss midfielder inked a new contract with the Gunners to “protect his value” a.k.a. prevent him from hitting the final year of his contract next summer so the club can sell him for decent value a year from now.
  • Emile Smith Rowe was the subject of at least one insulting low bid from Aston Villa as we all waited for Arsenal to announce ESR’s new, long-term extension with the club. As expected, he signed a new deal and will wear #10 this season.
  • The Gunners added Albert Sambi Lokonga to back up Thomas Partey. Lokonga has looked quite good in preseason, and the move seems a tidy bit of business.
  • Thomas Partey picked up an ankle injury on a completely unnecessary, late challenge from Ruben Loftus-Cheek and will miss the first month of the season. The earliest I’m expecting to see him in action is September 11th against Norwich City. The aforementioned Sambi Lokonga is in line to get much more playing time much earlier than expected.
  • Arsenal agreed on a £25M deal to send Joe Willock to Newcastle, but the deal is stalling because Willock and Newcastle are reportedly a ways apart on personal terms.
  • Rumors linked Arsenal with a £60-70M move for James Maddison for most of the summer.
  • The Gunners made no secret of their desire to bring Martin Odegaard back on a permanent transfer, but the door seemed firmly closed earlier in the summer — he was going to stay at Real Madrid. In the last few days, however, those rumors have started swirling again.
  • Houssem Aouar, long-linked with a potential move to North London, is still apparently an option as well, although the rumor mill has been much quieter on that front.

SEASON PREDICTIONS

Thomas Partey, 28
Best case: fully recovers from the ankle injury and is the dominant, ball-recovering, and ball-progressing force the Gunners bought him to be. Last season when fit, he showed flashes of absolute brilliance. He has the ability to completely control the pace of the game and create havoc winning the ball back in the attacking and middle third. When he receives the ball in the defensive third, his first instinct is to turn and dribble or pass upfield. In the best case season, he does all of that and is the engine that powers the Arsenal midfield.

Worst case: his season is limited once again by injuries. It’s not difficult to see it playing out like that given that he’ll start the year in the training room with an ankle problem. Health is by far the biggest concern with him. There’s also a chance he struggles as the single-pivot that we believe Mikel Arteta wants him to be — we’ve really only seen him play as part of a midfield two.

Bukayo Saka, 19 (20 on Sept. 5)
Best case: he becomes the full-blown superstar that he’s already well on his way to being. He’s got double digit goals and assists potential. A best case season also (finally) sees Premier League refs protecting him as he should be. Last season, he got clattered with no call far too many times for my liking. Hopefully his standout performances for England get him the respect he deserves.

Worst case: he has a sophomore slump season (yes, I know it’s technically his third season, but it’s just his second as an every week player). He’s just 19, has played a lot of football, isn’t the biggest guy on the pitch, and is fouled frequently. I can see a scenario where that takes a toll and slows him down.

Emile Smith Rowe, 21
Best case: like Saka, continues his current trajectory towards becoming a star in the Premier League. I’m a little more hesitant to say that he’s got 10 goals and 10 assists potential, but it’s not impossible — I guess that’s the best case for him. More realistically, I see somewhere between 5-8 goals and 7-10 assists, which would still be an excellent season. Arsenal need him to be the straw that stirs the drink for the attack this season.

Worst case: as the sole creative central attacker (which he’ll be if Arsenal don’t bring somebody in before the window closes), he struggles once clubs realize that if they mark him tight and shut him down, the Gunners attack peters out. I try to stay away from “soft factors” but wearing the #10 shirt at a club like Arsenal comes with expectations, and that kind of pressure can have an effect on a young player. ESR is also a guy that, given his history of picking up strange injuries (like an elbow problem two years ago and a shoulder issue last fall), I worry about him staying healthy.

Granit Xhaka, 28 (29 on Sept. 27)
Best case: he’s finally set free to play the more advanced, less defensive responsibility role he plays for Switzerland, and like he did for Switzerland, he shines. The odds of that happening are pretty low, so a realistic good season from Xhaka is pretty much what Arsenal have gotten from him since he’s been at the club — rarely injured, solid performances, leadership, and maybe a season without a single disciplinary brain fart.

Worst case: he truly doesn’t want to be at the club, and it shows on the pitch and is a problem in the locker room. Again, I don’t think that’s all that realistic. His outburst at the fans aside (that I totally understand given that people were wishing death to his wife and newborn child on social media), he’s been a consummate professional at Arsenal. A bad season for him is something like multiple sending offs and an increase in the defensive errors that have cropped up from time to time.

Lucas Torreira, 25
Best case: he’s sold for something around £20M (Arsenal paid £26M in 2018). A close second is he’s loaned with an obligation to buy. I don’t see him playing another minute for Arsenal; he’s the only first team player not with the club at London Colney.

Worst case: the club can’t find a loan move for him at all and he spends the season basically not playing. More likely but still not great scenario: he plays somewhere this year, but likely on a loan with an option to buy, not an obligation. There’s still some hope Arsenal can move him next summer because he’s under contract through June 2023. North London hasn’t worked out for him, and life has dealt him a pretty crappy hand. I feel for him.

Ainsley Maitland-Niles, 23 (24 on August 29)
Best case: he figures out that his best shot to “make it” as a professional footballer is as a right back and not as a central midfielder. He claims that role at Arsenal because right now, he might be the best right back at the club. Again though, I don’t see that happening. So I think the realistic best case scenario is Arsenal find a buyer or a loan spot for him. I don’t see him getting much time, if any, in the center of the midfield.

Worst case: he sits on the bench for the whole season at Arsenal, doesn’t play, and doesn’t develop. He’s almost 24 so he’s getting to the stage where he is who he is going to be as a footballer.

Albert Sambi Lokonga, 21 (22 on October 22)
Best case: he plays really while Thomas Partey is on the shelf and forces his way into more playing time this season. He’s looked good in preseason, and I really like that he’s constantly looking to move the ball up the pitch.

Worst case: he struggles to adapt to the pace and physicality of the Premier League. But even the worst case scenario this year for him isn’t that bad, because the expectations for him are low. Nobody is expecting him to be a PL regular this season. I think the understanding is that he’s a backup right now and a prospect for the future.

Mohamed Elneny, 29
Best case: puts in his usual 6/10 performances against the lesser Premier League teams and in the early rounds of the cups. He’s a fine squad player, but I don’t see him being much more than that this season.

Worst case: he becomes a regular starter for the Gunners. No offense meant to him, but he doesn’t have the skill set to get Arsenal where they need to go this year. If he’s playing, something has gone wrong.

Joe Willock, 21 (22 on August 20)
Best case: he agrees to terms with Newcastle, has a great season there (except against Arsenal), and the Gunners reinvest the money from the sale to improve the squad.

Worst case: he can’t agree to terms with Newcastle and remains at Arsenal this year, where he doesn’t really fit into Mikel Arteta’s system. His value diminishes and Arsenal end up selling him for less in January or over the summer.