Arsenal enter the 2023-24 Premier League season with the most summer changes made to the midfield compared to the other position groups at the club. It’s not so much the number of changes — it’s two new midfielders compared to one new defender and one new goalkeeper — as it is the outlay to acquire the new pieces. Declan Rice cost a record £105M and Kai Havertz was brought in for £65M.
You don’t spend that kind of money to have guys sit on the bench. Rice and Havertz are going to play and play a lot. The question is where are they going to play. In the preseason, both featured in the left #8 spot vacated by Granit Xhaka’s departure. Declan Rice is almost certainly the eventual successor to Thomas Partey at the base of the midfield, but this season will be a transitional one. Mikel Arteta will likely continue to use Partey as the primary #6 with Rice sprinkled in for rotation. He may also deploy both together in a double pivot at times.
Havertz brings more attacking acumen and creativity to the left #8 role although not as much defensive steel as Rice. But don’t sell Havertz short. He’s an excellent presser and plays big / physically — he’s 6’3. He excels at late-arriving runs, and his height will provide Arsenal with another dimension for cutbacks. Last season, the Arsenal attack didn’t have much aerial threat. Havertz changes that. Mikel Arteta also used Havertz as a false #9 at times in the preseason.
Jorginho is an interesting piece for Mikel Arteta to use. He isn’t as athletic as Partey or Rice nor as defensively stout, but he’s the best on the ball of the three. Arsenal will score multiple goals this season because he picked a line-breaking pass from a deeper position. He’ll excel against opponents that want to sit deep and in second halves where Arsenal need a goal. He’s not a complete non-factor on defense, either — he uses intelligent positioning to break up a number of attacks and intercept passes).
There’s not much to say about Martin Ødegaard that hasn’t been said already. Last season, he made the jump from good to great player, and perhaps went beyond that into budding stardom. He’ll continue that trajectory this season. One interesting wrinkle from the preseason: he wasn’t spearheading the press as much. Instead, he was dropping a bit deeper, allowing one of the other attackers to trigger the press, often Kai Havertz.
Arsenal have two X-factors in the midfield this season: Emile Smith Rowe and Fabio Vieira. ESR is coming off a lost season due to injury. After deciding that rest was not sufficiently resolving his hip / groin issue that had been troubling him on and off for months, he and the club decided on surgery. His recovery kept him out for multiple months, and when he returned, he struggled to find his form, in part because he couldn’t avoid other niggling muscular injuries. It’s not clear where ESR is going to play, probably in one of the #8 spots, but he brings a different dimension to the attack. Smith Rowe excels at combination passing and moving and attacking the box from deeper positions. And don’t forget, two seasons ago he was second at the club in Premier League goals with 10.
It looks as if Mikel Arteta is going to give Fabio Vieira his chance to prove himself, at least based on how much he featured in the preseason. The Portuguese attacker was slower to acclimate to the speed and physicality of the Premier League, but his skill is undeniable. He’s an excellent passer and tremendous ball-striker. Expect to see him play across the attacking front, both from wider positions and more centrally.
Mohamed Elneny extended his Arsenal contract last season after tearing his ACL. The club did him a solid so that he could use the team facilities to rehab. He won’t be available until the second half of the season, and I don’t expect him to have much of a role on the pitch. Off the pitch, he seems beloved by everybody at the club and will help with team morale and togetherness, a contribution that shouldn’t be overlooked. Albert Sambi Lokonga will likely be loaned or sold before the close of the window, with Burnley looking the most likely option. He did not participate in the club’s media day.
If there was an overall takeaway about the Arsenal midfield options (and the roster as a whole, see e.g. the defenders who can all cover multiple positions in different formations), it’s that Mikel Arteta has worked hard to make his team more flexible. And we’ve seen that in the preseason. Players have been deployed in a number of different spots with different responsibilities even if the positions are nominally the same.