Transfer Window Analysis Part Four- Creative Midfielders
By Vinay Shankar (Tactical Analyst) and Alfie Cairns Culshaw (Chief Editor)
This is the fourth part in a series analysing the current players at the club in each position and the difficult decisions that need to be made as well as potential targets the club must target in the upcoming transfer window. Considering the short-term need of getting results to get the team back on track, Mikel Arteta devised a temporary structure tailored to suit the strengths of the players at his disposal. One of the key pieces in this structure was to get Mesut Ozil involved as much as possible in his favoured role, but as most fans know, this is nothing more than an interim quick fix to improve the creativity in the team.
The German’s creative output is most certainly declining as he’s gotten older and the big question then arises, how do Arsenal replace him? Do they go about scouting for a like-for-like replacement (so to speak) or players with specific skillsets to create a cohesive midfield?
To put this into context, most top teams in modern football have moved away from the traditional number 10 role to more of creative, versatile flat midfield 3 with players who contribute both defensively and offensively. Aside from a handful of games (including against Arsenal in December), Guardiola has always used Kevin De Bruyne as a central midfielder in a 4-3-3 formation. While his goal contributions are well-publicised, what does tend to slip under the radar is his work-rate and relentless pressure of opponents (Performance against Real Madrid this season being the perfect example).
One of the key reasons why the traditional Number 10 role has gone out of favour is the focus on chance creation as a team through any means rather than be reliant on a single player to make the difference. The La Masia philosophy that Arteta was educated in and one he seeks to impose at Arsenal has three key parts- philosophy, structure and values. The important takeaway from this is the creation of a structure that is independent of the players but also be able to make tweaks to tailor it to the players that a coach has at his disposal.
In some of his early press conferences, Arteta has alluded to this very point as part of his blueprint that he wants to impose in the long run. What this would also mean is that the team would not be looking at signing an out-and-out number 10 but midfielders who have the ability to play in between the lines or play in the ‘half-spaces’ as it’s referred to and also create chances for the forwards. The other aspect that is very much the requirement in the modern game, is the defensive aspect of the game including hassling opponents and creating turnovers, always tracking back and increasing the numbers in midfield among others.
The likes of Denis Suarez and Dani Ceballos were targeted because Unai Emery specifically wanted players who could play the ‘number 8’ role since he was reluctant to play Ozil as the attacking midfielder. There are multiple variations/interpretations of this position including the ‘mezzala’, ‘box-to-box’ midfielder etc. but one key aspect that’s absolutely vital is versatility. This quality is very much lacking in our current midfield options so players with the ability to play multiple positions are crucial. Technical ability is an aspect that Arteta will be keenly looking at while deciding on targets as this role demands players with an innate tactical sense and the ability to operate in tight spaces.
Emi Buendia 19/20
Norwich’s Argentine midfielder has been having an eye-catching season despite the team being rooted at the bottom of the table. As Chief Editor Alfie Culshaw wrote in his piece on Buendia a few months back:
“Buendia has managed an incredible 0.31 xA/90, a stat only bettered only by De Bruyne and Trent Alexander-Arnold this season (of players with more than 10 league starts). This demonstrates his consistent ability to create high quality chances, and he’s doing it for the side placed firmly at the foot of the table. His key pass rate per 90 of 3.27 is again only bettered by Manchester City’s Belgian genius.”
He goes on to say, “The former Getafe man creates chances at will. His ability to find space in central areas, turn with his quick feet and play a slide rule pass to split open the opposition defence is unparalleled in this Arsenal team. His nifty footwork and outstanding close control which allow him to escape tight spaces is very reminiscent of Santi Cazorla, and his overall physical stature and frame remind me of our former Spanish magician.”
Many of Norwich’s highlight plays this season have come in transition with Buendia’s ability to wriggle away from the opposition near the half-way line to open up spaces for his teammates is very reminiscent of Cazorla. Still only 23, he has the potential to be moulded into the midfield role with his strong work rate (evidenced by his pressure regains).
The main drawback would be his lack of goal threat but if played in a deeper role, could be useful in controlling and dictating play. Norwich hardly spent big after coming up from the Championship due to tight budgets and with revenues taking a hit during this period, Arsenal could get him for a modest fee.
Lorenzo Pellegrini 19/20
A Roma academy graduate, Lorenzo Pellegrini is widely regarded as one of the best young Italian midfielders to come out in the last few years. The lanky, athletic midfielder is very versatile and can play anywhere in midfield thanks to his two-footedness, technical ability, work-rate and an eye for goal. He has the passing range and the ability to carry the ball across the pitch with his late runs into the box becoming his trademark at Roma (reminiscent of a certain Aaron Ramsey). The mix of physical and technical attributes makes him a very attractive option should Roma want a swap-deal for Mkhitaryan and at 23, the potential to get even better.
Corentin Tolisso 19/20
The talented Frenchman, whose career has stalled at Bayern Munich after a fantastic debut season, would be a shrewd loan signing considering our precarious financial situation. Tolisso has struggled with injuries and the constant shuffling of managers at Bayern has limited his minutes this season, but his quality has never been in question. The likes of Leon Goretzka and Joshua Kimmich have solidified their places in midfield under Hansi Flick and Arsenal could seek to capitalise on this to get him on a loan (preferably for two years). In his limited minutes this season, his creative abilities from a deeper certainly stand out and would fill the void left by the departing Dani Ceballos.
A week or so ago, Coutinho’s inclusion on this list might have been seen as somewhat ludicrous. Now, however, it seems like a very real possibility. Due to certain agent links we have, we’re supposedly seriously considering a move for the former Liverpool man, and what an excellent loan signing it would be if we were able to pull it off. The Brazilian is not only very creative (shown in his xA numbers), he also poses a huge goal threat, and regularly notches up impressive numbers in that chart. He has the flexibility and versatility to also fit into a 4-3-3 system.
Adrien Rabiot 19/20
Rabiot has been invariably linked with Arsenal in nearly every transfer window so there’s no question about the club’s interest in him. The last couple of seasons have seen his ‘bad-boy’ image and off-the-field issues move into prominence rather than his performances on the pitch. His talent is unquestionable and he’s got physicality to adapt to the Premier League. Despite his success as a holding midfielder, he prefers to act more as a deep-lying playmaker and Arsenal could offer him this position to lure him in on loan. Since he’s on a long-term contract, a two-year loan would be beneficial for both parties. Arsenal already have a similar type of personality in Guendouzi and Arteta has been trying to get him in line by enforcing discipline so it seems doubtful that they want another similar personality in the dressing room.
Unrealistic pipe dream Targets:
As the heading suggests, this list includes players that would be amazing for the role but the club’s financial circumstances make it heartbreaking to analyse them in detail and so we decided to keep it brief.
Donny van de Beek:
The Ajax attacking midfielder, one of the breakout stars during last year’s run to the Champions League semi-finals would be one of the ideal players for the midfield role at Arsenal. His age matches with the club’s target profile plus he’s got the creative and technical qualities required and also comes from a side that presses opposition relentlessly when they lose the ball which makes him a great fit for the role with the potential to be world-class. Ajax have agreed to sell him this summer, albeit with a price tag of €40 million which makes it an unfeasible option.
The RB Leipzig-based Austrian midfielder, who had an amazing game at the weekend and a great season in general is another player that would provide the right mix between playmaking and a goal threat in midfield. His tally for the season has already reached an incredible 16 goals and 8 assists in all competitions. Leipzig are very fluid in their attacking build-up with Sabitzer’s role constantly fluctuating from being the deepest-lying midfielder to making late runs into the box. He’s approaching the final two years of his contract so his transfer will be high at the moment since the value depreciation starts after the upcoming window.
The Lyon playmaker, who’s already made more than 130 appearances for the club at just 21, has caught the eye of most of the top clubs in Europe thanks to his performances in both in Ligue 1 and the Champions League. His current tally for the cancelled season stands at 9 goals and 7 assists and with Lyon failing to qualify for the Champions League, they might be forced to sell their star player. Lyon have previously mentioned a fee of around €60 million for their services but that value is bound to drop in current circumstances but it would still be too much for Arsenal.
And then of course, there’s the likes of Jack Grealish, James Maddison and Kai Havertz who we’ve analysed to death on this site- and probably for no reason because all three seem completely unattainable. As Ozil continues to decline and we continue to struggle to create a load of high quality chances, the need for a new and dynamic creative midfielder heightens- get it done Arsenal.