Time for Mikel Arteta to Gamble on Arsenal Youngsters
By Rob Worthington (Senior Writer)
So far this season, we’ve seen Mikel Arteta deploy numerous different systems. Against Liverpool and Manchester City, we were overwhelmingly defensive as we attempted to hit our opponents on the counter attack and beat their press. Against West Ham and Sheffield United, we had a solid structure but were rather idealess offensively. Most recently, against Leicester, we were refreshingly dominant in the first half, but fell away in the second. The common theme in all our games so far? That’s right. A lack of creativity.
One of the main reasons for this is of course our lack of creative midfielders. With Mesut Özil surplus to requirements and our pursuit of Houssem Aouar eventually ending in failure, Mikel Arteta left heading into his first full season in charge without an obvious senior creative midfielder in his squad.
One got the impression a creator certainly would’ve been useful against Leicester on Sunday. Arteta tried to navigate the creative issue by pushing Kieran Tierney and Hector Bellerin further up the field and relying on David Luiz’ passing to get the pair in behind the Foxes' backline. However, Luiz’ injury rendered us hopeless on this front. We were crying out for a Plan B that the players on the pitch straightforwardly couldn’t offer.
What the Plan B would entail would be a player getting in between the lines and providing a creative spark that we were crying out for. Someone who could take the ball on the half-turn off one of our deeper midfielders and then look to slip one of our forwards in behind. Bukayo Saka was the only man in the Arsenal squad on Sunday who has offered that to us lately. We need more.
Thus, Mikel Arteta has to gamble on the young players available to him. Clearly, his senior options in midfield can’t carry the creative burden, so some experimentation must occur in midfield. The likes of Emile Smith-Rowe, Joe Willock and Reiss Nelson are all players who love to collect the ball in deep areas and drive forward with it. All three are relatively inexperienced so they can’t be relied upon to transform our team, but they’d all certainly offer us something different.
Emile Smith-Rowe, in spite of his recent injury problems, is a player who simply has to be given chances. After his promising loan spell at Huddersfield reached a conclusion, the Arsenal hierarchy decided it’d be best to keep hold of the Englishman this season.
There is no way this decision would have been made so the 20-year-old could strengthen our under 23 side, he was kept to play for the first team. Smith-Rowe has now completed two loan spells away from the club and played a fair few Europa League minutes, it’s time for him to go that one step further and stake a claim in Arsenal’s Premier League side.
Mikel Arteta also asserted in his Tuesday press conference that Reiss Nelson “will get minutes” this season. While he isn’t a player who is recognised for his capabilities in a central role, he could offer us something different on the flanks. To be frank, both Willian and Nicolas Pépé haven’t been good enough so far this season a place on the wing at Arsenal could be up for grabs.
Nelson was excellent when called upon against Leicester in the Carabao Cup so deserves to be given a chance to displace our current options out wide. As a youth player, the 20-year-old often operated as a number 10, so Nelson could perhaps be experimented with in that role too.
Joe Willock has also seemingly disappeared into the shadows after a decent 18/19 campaign. The Hale End Academy Graduate finished second in Arsenal’s tally for number of appearances last year and would likely be well suited to a wide central-midfield role.
Last season, he was consistently used as a number 10 which didn’t really suit him. However, as a number 8, he’d still be able to get forward as he likes to but a fair amount of the creative onus would be taken off his shoulders. As a number 8, Willock would be responsible for driving his team forward and popping up in the half-spaces. He’d suit such a role down to a T.
Elsewhere, Ainsley Maitland-Niles hasn’t really got a look in so far this season and of course £28 million man William Saliba hasn't made an appearance in a competitive game for Arsenal as of yet. Saliba is surely capable of giving Shkodran Mustafi a run for his money at right-centre-back.
In addition, Eddie Nketiah will be pushing for more chances as a central striker. The same can be said for Folarin Balogun who is scoring goals for fun for Steve Bould’s under 23s. All these players deserve the chance to show us what they’ve got.
With numerous youngsters knocking on the door, Mikel Arteta has an opportunity. If his team continues to underwhelm, he just has to open that door to a group of players who have all the talent required to break into the Arsenal first team. Our senior players, who are underperforming both individually and as a collective, look far too comfortable right now and need to be reminded that your place is never secure at Arsenal Football Club.