Saka, ESR, Lokonga: Internal Solutions to our Left 8 problem
By Alfie Cairns Culshaw (Chief Editor)
With Gabriel Jesus arriving at Arsenal early enough to travel on the club's pre-season tour of America, Mikel Arteta and Edu have acted quickly and decisively to address the team's most pressing issue. However, the club are yet to find a solution for what is arguably the next priority in terms of strengthening the squad- the left eight position.
Jesus will add creativity, dribbling, ball carrying, combination play, pressing and most importantly goal threat as the focal point of Arteta's dynamic 4-3-3, a lot of what was missing in Alex Lacazette's game last season. This will solve a lot of issue for us, but it should absolutely not serve as the last piece of major incoming business we do this summer.
While many have argued that adding another forward who can provide goals and cover for Bukayo Saka should be high on our to do list, I've expressed personally several times that I think the left eight should take priority. The Raphinha links were fun while they lasted, but perhaps not forking out £60 million on a player that operates in our best player's position is a blessing in disguise.
Saka does indeed need more protection next season, and making sure we can rest and rotate him in and out of the side during an unprecedentedly congested fixture schedule, without losing a huge part of our attacking potency, should be on the agenda. However, in our very best team (not 'starting 11' as we should veer away from this concept), there is a glaring hole.
Thus far in Arteta's 4-3-3 revolution, we've been fitting a square peg into a round hole. Granit Xhaka has adapted relatively well to his new role, but it's very evident he lacks certain attributes to really allow our left-hand side to flourish. While most would agree that our right-hand side has found a perfect balance, with Tomiyasu, Odegaard and Saka fusing well together, our left-hand side is in limbo.
Xhaka can progress the ball from slightly deeper areas, he has good ball recovery skills and is adept at carrying the ball forward before being closed down. However, penetrative passing, dribbling in close quarters and being a presence within the box are simply not areas of his game which are of the requisite quality to really thrive in this unique 'mezzala' role. He just isn't a 'final third player'.
If he finds his left-winger or full-back down the line, his natural instinct isn't to move into the attacking third himself and make a passing angle for the player in possession in an advanced area. Instead, he'll peel back and provide the more conservative passing option back to where his pass came from. This inhibits the attacking threat on this side, and while this isn't a criticism of Xhaka, it's more of acknowledgement that he is trying to fill a role that doesn't suit him.
Xhaka is a number six in a double pivot, trying to operate as an attacking eight. This is why the links to Youri Tielemans and Lucas Paqueta make sense. However, if the club do decide to go down the 'prioritising a right-sided forward' route, then at least there are some potential internal solutions we could develop to fill this role.
While I'm confident we will address this issue in the transfer market, it's interesting to look at some of these potential solutions.
Have we already signed our left eight? My immediate instinct would be no, but it could be one to watch out for.
Vieira has played as part of a midfield three on a number of occasions in the past, although usually on the right-hand side. Similarly to Odegaard, the passing angles created for a left footer in the right-half space make operating on this side more natural. However, the extent to which the side matters may be slightly exaggerated. Out-swinging passes or crosses into the box can be just as effective as in-swinging ones.
The Portuguese under-21 international has the creative assets to thrive as an eight. His low centre of gravity and ability to get away from a man makes him perfectly suited to operating in tight spaces, while the intensity and progressive nature of his passing are also valuable in this position. Additionally, he gets the shots to play here (over 3 per game by the way).
However, he'd have to drastically improve the defensive side of his game to play in this position. With our left-back at the moment tasked with operating higher up the pitch than our right-back, the left eight has more responsibility dropping back into deeper areas and covering than the right-sided counterpart.
While Vieira could certainly be developed into playing this role, in his first season in English football and at his tender age, you'd expect some settling time before he could potentially truly take this mantle.
Albert Sambi Lokonga
This feels like quite a natural fit, although the player might not yet be ready to take this responsibility at the highest level. Some practice in this position in the Europa League could do him the world of good.
It's clear that the initial plan for Lokonga was to nurture him into the long-term successor for Thomas Partey as our number six. While this is certainly still on the cards, certain games where he did fulfil this role last season demonstrated that he's nowhere near there yet.
For the time being, utilising his skill set as an eight makes sense. Lokonga has a brilliant passing range, can carry the ball more effectively than any of our current midfielders and could develop into a shot taker and goal threat with good coaching. Significantly more mobile and nimble than Xhaka, he can also develop more creative tendencies in the final third.
Like Vieira, his defensive output has to improve, but he certainly has an upper hand on the new signing in this department, having played deeper in midfield for a lot of his short career thus far. I expect him to develop in this role in lesser competitions in the upcoming season.
Emile Smith Rowe
Perhaps the most interesting internal option. Smith Rowe was used here sporadically in the 2021/22 season, namely in the period in January when we were light on midfield options. Unfortunately for him, he didn't really stake a claim to make this position his own.
Nonetheless, he remains an interesting candidate. His ball carrying skills would be useful here, as would his ability to arrive late in the box and get into good goals-scoring positions. However, the most important attribute for any midfielder is being able to pass the ball, which is something Smith Rowe has not yet established as a key asset to his game. While he keeps the ball with his passing, it's largely conservative and lacking in intensity. He needs to improve in this aspect to have any chance of playing as our left eight consistently.
On the defensive side of the game, while he puts in the hard yards, his awareness and positioning need drastic improvement.
At the moment, Smith Rowe may be close to experiencing something of an identity crisis. Despite possessing great productivity last season, he isn't defined yet in what he does. Next season, he needs to establish his role within the squad.
Given how exceptional he is, you could probably put Saka anywhere and he'd excel. He's also probably likely to be the best if you were to try each of these four players I've discussed to be our left eight. Creative, a good passer, ball carrier, dribbler and goal threat, he has the attributes. Having played a lot of minutes at left-back in his breakout 2019/20 campaign, he possesses the defensive capabilities to fill in for a marauding Kieran Tierney.
He's also been used in this position on a handful of occasions and delivered expertly. A game at the Etihad early in the 2020/21 season springs to mind, as does a performance at the Amex in project restart and part of May's harrowing North London Derby defeat.
If we do go back in for an established winger, this move would make some level of sense. However, the reason I'd personally be against remoulding Saka into a left eight is probably because I think his ceiling as a player is higher as a wide forward. He could be a very good eight, but he could and probably will be an absolutely elite right-winger. I don't think we should disrupt his seemingly inevitable trajectory towards stardom as a winger.
Ultimately, there are solutions that can be worked upon, but none of them feel ideal for what we need right now, which means we probably need to dip into the market. However, if this show anything, it's that it wouldn't be a disaster if we don't manage to get that business done this summer.