Arsenal's need for midfielders becomes more urgent as situation verges on a crisis
By Alfie Cairns Culshaw (Chief Editor)
As the transfer window drags on and the minimal pre-season gathers pace, the Arsenal squad that will be prominent in the 2020/21 campaign begins to take shape. Rather than see our team transformed into something more exhilarating, as you'd expect in what is supposed to be a major rebuild, the playing staff remains almost identical to the one that finished last season, albeit a slightly depleted version of that. With the exception of William Saliba and some academy players making their debuts, we've seen no new faces feature in each of our two games thus far. Whilst Willian and Gabriel will slowly be integrated into the squad, it remains largely unchanged from the group of players that mounted an 8th placed finish last term.
Considering we're now less than two weeks away from our league campaign commencing, this lack of activity in the window is very concerning to me. Factoring in the two week quarantine period enforced on most players signing from abroad, the lack of an extended pre-season and how congested the opening weeks are, and these early fixtures suddenly appear a very daunting prospect, in which the squad could become very stretched. Whilst many keep pointing to the lack of movement out the door, for me it's the lack of incomers which is more agitating.
Several areas of our squad need reconstruction, but the most pressing area currently is the central midfield position. Unlike the centre-back situation, where we're stocked with endless options, there is an austere lack of options in central midfield for Mikel Arteta to currently pick from. In fact, we arguably currently have just one senior central midfielder on our books who is almost definitely part of Mikel Arteta's plans next season- that being Granit Xhaka. The Swiss international has cemented his place in our head coach's system, with his ball progression and retention abilities seemingly pivotal to the way we want to operate. He's far from a perfect player, being very limited in certain aspects due to his poor mobility, but he is currently the hallmark of this Arsenal midfield. You can't see any Arsenal team functioning without him.
Outside of the Granit Xhaka midfield exclusivity, we're left with a bunch of misfits who would appear unwanted by the club. Mohamed Elneny may have produced a surprisingly adept performance against Liverpool in the Community Shield, but we're all too aware of his limitations as a footballer. There may be a place in the squad for him as a utility player depending on how active we are in resolving this crisis, but if we're serious about a rebuild, it would show a lack of ambition if we pinned major responsibility on the Egyptian for next season.
Rumours circulating around a possible departure for Lucas Torreira have accelerated in the last few days, so it's becoming increasingly unlikely he'll be featuring again for the club. An effective ball winner on his day, Arteta has not taken a shine to his limitations in possession to the Uruguayan's demise. Adding to this sporadic role he played in the run in of last season, reports have ensued for well over a year now about the player's poor settlement in England, largely due to our notoriously shite weather.
Despite Arteta hinting at a clean slate being made for divisive figure Matteo Guendouzi, it would still appear he's much closer to the exit door than a return to action in a red and white shirt. These comments made by Arteta are most likely to spark a rise in demand for Guendouzi at the price we're looking for. The way in which he was frozen out at the end of last season made it far too publicly evident that we want him gone- these flirtations with idea of redemption for the Frenchman may slightly reduce the appearance of obvious desperation we have in letting him go.
As for Dani Ceballos, we have absolutely no idea what's happening. One day he's been told he won't be allowed to leave Madrid, one day he's told Zidane he wants to return to Arsenal, and the next he's supposedly hell bent on joining boyhood club Real Betis. At this point, all these conflicting reports are edging me towards the side that this deal will not take place unfortunately. Nevertheless, who knows with Arsenal?
Assuming Torreria and Guendouzi both leave in the coming weeks, and we don't manage to negotiate a deal for Ceballos, Arsenal would then be left with just Xhaka and Elneny. Whilst Joe Willock is always an option in a pivot, it would appear Arteta is reluctant to use him in such a role, having done so just once since arriving at the club. And whilst we appear to be sticking with our 3-4-3 system for at least the short-term, meaning only two roles need to be filled (instead of a potential three in the future), a Xhaka-Elneny pivot is far from what we would picture in a top four chasing team. Even if we had to settle with this undesirable pivot, having just two players to fill two roles persistently, when we're playing three games a week, is practically unfeasible- even if it's only in the opening months until reinforcements have arrived and been fully integrated.
I don't say this as if it's a completely implausible notion. If we don't accelerate our transfer business and sign some central midfield players by the end of THIS week, this dire possibility will occur. If either Xhaka or Elneny were then to sustain an injury early on, we'd be forced to dip into our academy and call on the likes of James Olayinka and Miguel Azeez- both completely inexperienced at this level.
We do of course have the option of keeping Lucas Torreira and revitalising Matteo Guendouzi's influence at the club, at least until towards the end of the window. This would, however, make them significantly more difficult to sell, drive their price up and thus possibly leave us on the other end of the spectrum- with far too many central midfielders stranded at the club, reflecting our centre-back situation very nicely.
So essentially, we've got to be extremely active in the next week or so, or we face being in a genuine crisis- short-term with an option of long-term. Reports around the likes of Thomas Partey and Houssem Aouar remain very inconsequential- both need to be sped up drastically in order for things to become settled. It should be a hectic week for Arteta and Edu- a lot of our early season fortunes depend on it.