Three Arsenal Players Who Could Radically Change Position to Revitalize Their Careers
By Mac Johnson (Senior Writer)
I like to think that my last three articles really show off my scope as a writer. I’ve written about an unrequited love affair, dropped a statistical bombshell using the mystical art of divination, and tackled one of the most serious and societally important topics in the world, let alone football, that being ongoing racism and discrimination. Application to the Athletic pending…
And when brainstorming this piece, the thought occurred to me: how ridiculous am I allowed to make this? How far can I stray from my reputation of completely serious, unironic content, in the hunt for a little bit of satire? Well in honor of my good mate Daniel Finton, we’re going all the way.
Because let’s be real, with bloody Slavia Praha later today, nobody wants to mire themselves in my normal flowery legalese. So today’s object is to get away with utter hogwash, and see if it actually works. Boy howdy am I excited.
In today’s article, we will be discussing position changes, which is a popular theme among…nobody really. But the players who I’ve decided to cover aren’t your run-of-the-mill utility players. I won’t be slotting Ainsley Maitland-Niles into a No. 6 role for example, or trying to claim Bukayo Saka should as a No. 10 more often. We’re taking this to the next level, baby. Strap in, starting with #3.
#3: Mohamed Elneny - Fullback
In deference to my new favorite person, Max Mishcon, I won’t be placing a certain dreadlocked Englishman at fullback. Instead, the Pyramid Pirlo will take up that mantle. And on face value, I don’t actually hate the idea.
What are the key attributes of a right back in the modern game? Endless stamina is a plus, and with Kieran Tierney already playing “left” for the Gunners, I think Elneny might be the man to match him on the right. Ball security and ball progression are both key aspects, and the Zamalek Zidane is actually rather good at both of those. He often opts for safe passes, but that’s no bad thing in the modern game. Rather that than a turnover machine.
He certainly has the defensive acumen to play out wide, and given he’s more comfortable featuring on the right side of a double pivot, it’s not too much of a stretch to bump him further towards the touchline. Plus, if there’s anything we’ve learned from Kyle Walker’s time in the Premier League, it’s excellent to have a right back who can have a pop from distance.
And given Kieran Tierney’s predisposition to injury, the tireless Elneny may just be the man to replace him, for one key reason: bombing forward as a left back and underlapping slots him into that inside-left position he seems to love when it comes to finding the top corner. Not to mention, Granit Xhaka would have less ground to cover, as Elneny is far less likely to find himself on the left wing. He’s the new Oleksandr Zinchenko
I can picture it now: the Cairo Cambiasso galavanting inside of Emile Smith Rowe, curling stunner after stunner past hapless keepers, right on his way to a 10-goal season. Maybe even the Golden Boot. It really is a delicious thought.
That went better than expected. On to #2. No, literally.
#2: Hector Bellerin - No. 8
Actually, if anybody remembers his first seasons in North London, when he had the iconic numbers 40 and 39 on his back—I say we bring that back, by the way—he played at central midfield under Wenger, and wasn’t awful. It may just be an experiment worth pursuing again.
Bellerin loves to drift inside and lose his marker in the wide channel, so let’s just f**king keep him there. Bin off a double pivot, whack Bellerin at right-central midfield ahead of Thomas Partey and alongside Martin Ødegaard and you’ve got yourself a dynamic central midfielder, ready to go.
He’s lost a step after his ACL injury, that much is for certain, but he doesn’t seem to trust his body in one-on-one situations defensively, often drifting inside of the centre-back, leaving chasms of space on the right flank. He’s also lost a lot of his youthful physicality, and is a constant target for opposing keepers on long kicks, as he’s easy to dominate in the air. Not to mention, his crossing has been rather suspect at times, and he tends to expect passes to come to him, rather than stepping to the ball.
The solution? Remove that onus from his shoulders. Let him run the channels, scrap for balls in the center of the pitch, press higher, and disrupt the opponent. Hand him a slate wiped clean of those pesky defensive duties, and let him run free, like a gazelle on the savannah. Give the No. 2 shirt to that loser Cedric, nobody wants it anyway.
“But Mac”, you might ask, “wouldn’t moving him to midfield make it harder to sell him? With PSG and Juventus both in need of a decent right back, shouldn’t we make him more marketable?” Absolutely not, you silly fool. Everybody knows Juventus and PSG only buy central midfielders, and try to play them out of position. Trust me, this is the best thing for Bellerin.
The Spaniard is actually rather adept at finding the net from an inside-right position, with both feet, and his ability to drive vertically could prove key in moments of transition, where Arteta’s high press actually works once in a blue moon. With his good close control, and love of a good old-fashioned one-two pass, playing him as a No. 8 could revolutionize this Arsenal midfield. Houssem Aouar who? Give us Bellerin, Mikel, you know you want to.
#1: Rob Holding - Centre Forward
“He’s built like a brick shithouse, how’s he gone down like that?”
No-nonsense. Competitive. As fierce in the ball as he is off of it. Rob Holding has always had this odd ability to frustrate the absolute mess out of opposing forwards. Diego Costa trembled before his might, Sadio Mane seems to always end up on his arse against the Englishman, and he made nearly the whole Chelsea forward line look like absolute mugs in our 3-1 win.
I reckon he can use that inside knowledge to convert his play into an elite center forward. He knows all the tips and tricks for facing elite Premier League defenders, because he has to face them on a weekly basis, but he’s also rock-solid mentally, and has proven time and time again that he has what it takes to establish a solid run of form and force his way into a team, which is always key to establishing a rhythm as a forward. Furthermore, as a center-back, he’s used to surveying the whole field, which is a crucial skill for any centre forward looking to lead the press.
Arsenal have struggled to find attacking impetus from our experienced players, but Holding has this never-say-die mentality that endears him to Arsenal fans, no matter how dire things get. He also has a good positional sense, and likes to pressure opponents and bite into challenges, which would be useful for suppressing counters when pressing from the front, especially given his lanky frame.
And in terms of the profile, he checks nearly all the boxes. He’s a near-ideal target man, with the ability to cushion headers and use his chest to great effect. He’s a solid passer under pressure, and frankly would be much better on the end of a long ball than playing one.
He’s showcased Ronaldo-esque ball control in the final third, with a mind-boggling air-dribbling run against Fulham in the opening match, a number of silky nutmegs throughout the season, and a lovely series of short passes against Leeds in the 4-2 win that demonstrate very good technique, despite his size.
With William Saliba coming back into the team, Calum Chambers attracting Arteta’s eye more and more, and David Luiz returning to full fitness, Holding may have to look elsewhere for playing time. Given Arsenal’s struggles going forwards this season, and rather limited transfer budget, I would argue that Holding could be a right-footed alternative to Olivier Giroud: powerful, precise, and utterly lovable.
In addition, having a true holdup man could augment Arteta’s possession-heavy style of play, and could also advance the agendas of players like Gabriel Martinelli, whose forward runs around a central spindle could wreak havoc on Premier League defenses. Finally, Holding is a player who’s been underestimated for most of his career. As a proud card-carrying member of Narratives FC, that’s an underdog story I would subscribe to.
P.S. For everybody who looked at the main image trying to figure out who I was referencing, for shame. We don't do spoilers here.