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Arsenal Season Preview: midfielders

As the midfield goes this season, so will Arsenal.

Arsenal v Sevilla - Pre-Season Friendly Photo by Stuart MacFarlane/Arsenal FC via Getty Images

Next up in the Arsenal position preview series is the midfield. The Gunners return all of their key pieces from last season and have added creative attacking talent Fabio Vieira to the mix. They’re worryingly thin at the base of the midfield, especially given the availability concerns that may come into play at some point.

Lucas Torreira is likely on his way to Turkey, and if not there, he’ll be in Italy this season. He’s not playing for Arsenal. Ainsley Maitland-Niles will likely be shipped out before the close of the transfer window, too. Nottingham Forest are most interested in his services.

By the close of the transfer window, the Gunners may have added Youri Tielemans and perhaps even another option to play at the base of the midfield, but we’ll cross that bridge if we get to it.

Granit Xhaka

Season Outlook: Granit Xhaka is like a fine wine: he keeps getting better with age. And like him or not, he’s been one of the most important players for the Gunners over the past few seasons.

He had a very strong preseason and looks more comfortable in that advanced, left-side #8 role. The manager trusts him. By all accounts, he’s a leader in the locker room. He’s going to play a bigger role for Arsenal this season than most expect.

Best case season: Plays well enough at left #8 that he really gives Mikel Arteta something to think about in that spot. I think Arteta would prefer Emile Smith Rowe, Fabio Vieira, or even Sambi Lokonga lay claim to the position, but don’t rule Xhaka out. He has excelled playing further up the pitch than he (until recently) has been playing at Arsenal for the Swiss National Team. And he’s going to play at the base of the midfield in some matches, too. Regardless of how well or poorly the season goes for him.

Worst case season: Doesn’t really find or claim a spot in Mikel Arteta’s newer system. Ends up playing only against the lesser teams and in the cup competitions. Gets himself sent off a time or two in an inopportune spot.

Mohamed Elneny

Season Outlook: Mo Elneny is a fine backup. He doesn’t project to get much Premier League playing time, and he seems to be happy with that role. He’s unspectacular: you’re hardly ever going to get better than a 6 of 10 out of him. But he’s also consistent: you won’t get many performances worse than 5 of 10, either.

Best case season: Stars in the Europa League and domestic cups. Scores a few absolute bangers from 20+ yards.

Worst case season: Is forced into playing meaningful minutes in the Premier League. Against most PL teams, he isn’t going to cost Arsenal points. Nor is he going to win them for the club. But he’s overmatched against the top clubs, and in a worst case season, he’s playing in those matches anyway.

Thomas Partey

Season Outlook: Partey is probably the most important player at Arsenal for the way Mikel Arteta wants to play. His combination of ball recovery, ball progression and press resistance is not something any other player on the roster has.

Best case season: He’s available for the entire season.

Worst case season: He becomes unavailable at some point during the season.

Bukayo Saka

Season Outlook: Saka is one of the bellwether players for the club. If he’s playing well, chances are Arsenal are piling up results. He’ll be one of the two or three best players on the team. Last season, he added a bit more scoring to his game, which will hopefully continue. He’s going to be a nightmare (again) for opposing defenders.

Best case season: Forces his way into the conversation for Premier League player of the season. He’s that good. He could score 15 goals and add 10 assists. Signs a new contract to keep him at Arsenal through his prime years.

Worst case season: The fatigue finally starts to catch up to him. He’s played a lot of football over the past two years without much rest. I think he was nursing a slight knock for most of the last month, month and a half of last season, and if he doesn’t get sufficient rest / rotation, there’s a decent chance of that happening again. There’s also a non-zero chance that one of the multiple hard challenges a game he receives injures him. Hopefully the Premier League referees finally start protecting him with cautions.

Martin Ødegaard

Season Outlook: The newly announced club captain will be a key piece for Arsenal this season. He does the spectacular, i.e. threading impossibly difficult passes to put teammates in, participating in and finishing team scoring moves. Perhaps more importantly, he does the little things well. He doesn’t often lose possession, finds space to get on the ball, and controls the tempo of matches.

He’s also a key component in Arsenal’s pressure, often leading it. He’s not the guy who is going to recover the ball. He’s the guy that’s going to force the mistake so one of his teammates can win get it back.

Best case season: With Gabriel Jesus in front of him, Bukayo Saka on one side, and Gabriel Martinelli on the other, Ødegaard might threaten the Premier League assist record (20). Reaches double digits in PL goals (he tallied 7 last year).

Worst case season: There were a few times last season when Ødegaard seemed to disappear / not impose himself on matches. Whether that was because he wasn’t playing well or because of something the opposition was doing (or a combination of the two), is largely irrelevant. He had anonymous spells and matches. In a bad season, that trend continues and worsens.

Emile Smith Rowe

Season Outlook: Emile Smith Rowe is one of the candidates to claim the left side #8 spot this season. Like Bukayo Saka, he added scoring to his game last season, although his 10 goals might be a bit tough to repeat. He significantly over-performed his 5.3 aggregate xG for the season.

That said, a lot of his goals look the same. He either cuts across the top of the box and shoots to a low corner or makes a secondary run and scores off a feed from a teammate. It could be that he’s particularly good at scoring like that, that it’s a repeatable skill for him.

Best case season: Starts 2/3rds to 3/4ths of the Premier League matches. Gets back to double digit goals and pushes closer to 15 than 10. Forces his way into the England conversation for the World Cup.

Worst case season: Injuries continue to slow him down. Every time he seems to be rounding into form, he seems to pick up a knock that derails him. He’s slated to miss the start of the season with a minor groin problem.

He’s a tweener, which might hurt his overall minutes. I’m not exactly sure what his best position is at Arsenal and in Mikel Arteta’s formation. He also hasn’t developed the same readily apparent chemistry with his teammates, Martin Ødegaard in particular, that some of the other attackers seem to have in spades with each other.

Fabio Vieira

Season Outlook: It’s tough to know what to expect from Vieira given that he missed the entirely of preseason recovering from a bone injury in his foot. But Arsenal didn’t spend north of £30M on a guy for him to sit on the bench. Reports out of Portugal are that he’s a fantastic, creative attacker that will chip in with a few goals as well. He’s one of the candidates to become the first-choice left side #8.

Best case season: Establishes himself as a regular in the Premier League lineup. Tallies 5-10 assists and 3-5 goals.

Worst case season: Missing all of training camp through injury forces him into a slow start once he’s recovered and back on the field. Struggles to find his form and get up to Premier League level.

Regardless of how the season ultimately goes for him, well or poorly, there is going to be an acclimation period. He needs to get comfortable with his teammates and accustomed to the speed of the Premier League. We shouldn’t expect him to come out guns blazing (but maybe he will!). Hopefully the learning curve isn’t too steep.

Albert Sambi Lokonga

Season Outlook: Sambi is a (very) dark horse candidate for the left side #8 spot. His ball progression and passing is outstanding, which is undoubtedly one of the reasons why Mikel Arteta and Edu bought him in the first place. He has the baseline tools to fit into the way Mikel wants to play. He should get significant, starter minutes in the Europa League group stage.

Best case season: Shines in the Europa League and domestic cups. Continues to develop his game and eliminate mistakes. He’s still a prospect / one for the future — it’s another development year for him. Hopefully the additional playing time in comparison to last season does him well. If it does, he might earn some substitute minutes in the PL as the season wears on, but honestly, I don’t see him having much of a PL role at all this year.

Worst case season: He doesn’t iron the simple, frustrating mistakes from his game like turnovers and positioning errors. Hardly sees the field once the Europa League group stage ends and Arsenal get beyond their first match or two in the domestic cups.