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Arsenal’s midfield conundrum

It has been perhaps the most debatable part of Arsenal’s lineup

Manchester City v Arsenal - The FA Community Shield Photo by Robin Jones/Getty Images

If there has been any problem area for Arsenal this season it has been, outside of the frequent visits to the physio’s office, the midfield. Perhaps that is to be expected. Over the summer, Arsenal began to replace two pillars of the team, selling Granit Xhaka to Bayer Leverkusen, and beginning the process to ease the need for Thomas Partey to be a first choice player. On the face of it, it was necessary work. Xhaka is 31, and the time seemed right for a genuinely amicable departure. While Partey is younger, his injury record made him an unreliable player to depend on—a choice that has only gotten more obvious this season.

And thus, Arsenal spent £170m on two midfielders this summer. One of those players, Declan Rice, has been an unquestionable success. But it is the other £65m, on Kai Havertz, that has been more of a question mark, especially given that he was tasked with replacing Xhaka. Between injury and form, Arsenal have not had the consistent midfield that they had so much of last season, though Mikel Arteta has found a base in recent weeks, relying on Jorginho as the #6 and Declan Rice as the left sided 8. It’s a base that has given Arsenal a solid platform, but as Arsenal’s attacking play has been stilted, it’s one that comes under scrutiny when thinking about Arsenal going forward.

In some respects, Jorginho at the base makes sense. While Declan Rice has come on leaps and bounds, his passing into central spaces is not at the level of Partey’s, and Jorginho offers the control and verticality, especially when combined with Saliba. This allows Rice to roam further up the pitch, and utilize his ball carrying skills; skills that give Arsenal the capability to counter-attack and also move up the pitch. It also adds an element of defensive security and tactical adaptability. Rice can press higher up the pitch as the situation demands and then also drop in as needed.

It’s a midfield set up that has worked in the bigger games too, giving Arsenal more control in Champions League matches like both games against Sevilla, and in Arsenal’s win over Manchester City. But it has its limits, as we saw away at Newcastle, and to some extent against Chelsea. This is not only about the attributes of the midfielders, but what they allow the other attacking players to do structurally, especially the two wingers, Bukayo Saka and Gabriel Martinelli.

One feature of Arsenal’s play last season was the rotations on the left hand side. Zinchenko would pop inside, Xhaka would pop outside, and Martinelli would play through the channel. Or, Martinelli would create space wide for Xhaka on the inside, or Xhaka and Martinelli could switch lanes. Part of that effective rotation, combined with rotations with Gabriel Jesus, led to Martinelli being incredibly effective for Arsenal. This season, his xG per 90 is down by half, and his shooting is slightly down. In short, he is not getting into as good positions. Rice, when playing as the left 8, doesn’t as consistently get advanced as Xhaka, and doesn’t really drift wide. His offensive strength right now is ball carrying, rather than combinations or rotations.

Martinelli has always needed rotations to get into shooting positions, hence why some of his form is tied to whether it’s Jesus (or Leandro Trossard) starting upfront. Bukayo Saka, on the other hand, has had a little more freedom to do as he pleases. Yet, Saka still needs players to overlap to create space. This is something Ben White did exceptionally well last season, but White has been a little more reserved this season. Yet, there are rotations happening when Kai Havertz plays as Arsenal’s right #8. Indeed, Havertz likes to drift to the right side to invert, which he is better able to do from the right, whether centrally or wide (which is why he’s been more impressive in this position).

That allows Saka to get on the ball more, perhaps replacing some of Ødegaard’s playmaking and creativity. This was apparent against Sheffield United, Burnley and Sevilla, but less so against Newcastle, where Saka was kept more to the right hand side, and Havertz was tasked with more playmaking and build-up play. This ultimately is not Havertz’s game in the way that it is for Ødegaard, which perhaps explains some of Arsenal’s struggle to create against Newcastle. The ideal role for Havertz is being able to drift into the box as the secondary runner, not lead the attack.

As it stands, Arsenal’s midfield does not have the fluidity of last season. While last season’s football was perhaps no longer attainable, because teams adjust, the midfield right now has some square pegs filling round holes. In short, the roles and attributes of the players filling the roles don’t quite work. Some of that should be solved when Arsenal’s injury crisis eases, but there remains a fundamental issue with one of the number 8s. Ultimately, it’s something Arsenal are going to have to work through, but one key will be if Havertz—or someone else—can bring the left sided rotations to enable Martinelli to pop up in more central areas. There are plenty of tools at Mikel Arteta’s disposal; he now needs to figure out how to deploy them.