Transfer Window Analysis Part Three- Defensive Midfielders
By Vinay Shankar (Tactical Analyst) and Alfie Cairns Culshaw (Chief Editor)
This is the third 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 look at in the upcoming transfer window. In his short tenure, Mikel Arteta has created a temporary solution in midfield which has brought in more solidity, but more importantly, masks the deficiencies of the players at his disposal. Games against the likes of Everton, Olympiakos and West Ham demonstrated that Arteta is still trying to find the right balance, and the lack of versatility and athleticism among the current options has to be solved in the upcoming transfer window.
Depending on the type of formation Arteta chooses to employ, there are two types of midfield profiles Arsenal must look at in the next transfer window:
1. Double pivot:
Mesut Ozil will be entering the final year of his contract, so Arteta might look at getting the most out of him as much as possible. In that scenario, Arsenal will have to look at getting the right balance in the midfield pivot behind Ozil. Defending transitions continues to be Arsenal’s bugbear and this prevents the team from keeping possession of the ball for sustained periods.
The use of Ceballos with Xhaka was crucial against the low-block teams thanks to the former’s incisive passing but against counter-attacking teams like Everton and West Ham, their lack of mobility was exposed in transition, even though Arsenal ended up taking all the points. Arteta has created a role for Xhaka that hides his well-documented weaknesses, while also looking to capitalise on his strengths. Losing him in January would have been a big loss for the squad and would have added to the existing chaos at the club when Arteta took over, but this is the window that Arsenal must capitalise on and get him off the books. The links with Partey suggest that Arsenal are paying attention and are focussed on upgrading their midfield. A pivot of Ceballos-Partey would provide the right mix of defensive protection, control of transitions, and attacking contributions.
Looking at the stats of both the 2018-19 season and 2019-20 season of Thomas Partey, what stands out is his versatility both offensively and defensively. He’s got the physicality to sit between the centre-backs and disrupt play, the passing range to keep the ball ticking and the athleticism, considering he’s played as a full-back for Atletico as well. When paired with Ceballos, he would be the more defensive option of the two and control transitions. When paired with Torreira, he can focus on dictating the play, whilst also provide a goal threat with his long range stingers.
Denis Zakaria 19/20
The Swiss international, brought in by Mönchengladbach to replace Xhaka, has been one of the top performers in the Bundesliga for a couple of seasons now and is wanted by several clubs. At 23, he would be a younger option to Partey with a lot of potential as evidenced by his stats. While his ball progression numbers aren’t great, he can drive with the ball and is very strong defensively. His asking price would be very similar to that of Partey but his profile and age would be more in line with Arsenal’s recent recruitment strategy.
Eduardo Camavinga 19/20
Nearly every year, young breakout stars from Ligue 1 are linked with big-money moves to various European clubs. However, other than Kylian Mbappe, nobody has generated as much buzz for a 17-year old as Eduardo Camavinga. After his eye-catching performances against PSG back in August, Camavinga has established himself as a permanent member of the Rennes side and has statistically been one of the best tacklers in Europe this season at just 16 (turned 17 in November). He has already been called up the France under-21 side and would command a fee along the lines of what Arsenal paid for Pepe. Should Arsenal miss out on either of the above-mentioned targets, Camavinga should be targeted and would completely justify the transfer fee. Signing somebody like him would reflect the club’s emphasis on young prospects in recent years and improve the team massively.
2. Defensive Playmaker/ “The Busquets role”/6
The Busquets/6 role, which was popularised by Guardiola’s Barcelona, has many interpretations, but the basic duties remain to set the tempo, keep the ball moving and nipping attacks in the bud to strangle the opposition. Arteta was brought up in the famous La Masia academy in Barcelona like Pep Guardiola and it seems only a matter of time before he gets the team playing in this style.
The basic structure is a 4-3-3 formation, with the deepest-lying midfielder one of the crucial aspects of their system. When Guardiola started at City, he groomed Fernandinho for this role to bring out the best in him and when he started to decline, he immediately spent £60 million on a player with this specific skillset a.k.a Rodri. Should Arteta revert to this formation, the club would need to look for players who can perform this role but don’t cost as much.
Of the current players, Xhaka has the passing range but is defensively a liability, while Guendouzi has the potential but questions over discipline and temperament remain. One only needs to look at the reluctance of multiple managers to play Kante in this role at Chelsea to understand why Torreira wouldn’t be suited to the role due to their limited ball progression skills.
Defensive Playmaker Targets:
Marc Roca 18/19
Spain has become a factory in recent years in the production of high-quality defensive playmakers and Marc Roca is widely-tipped to be the next one. Roca was part of Spain’s under-21 Euro winning team in 2019, playing alongside Ceballos and Napoli’s Fabian Ruiz in midfield, who is expected to compete with City’s Rodri as the successor to Busquets for the Spanish national team. He’s got the vision and the passing range that Arsenal would miss without Xhaka and he’s got the potential to be a defensive beast. He had a breakout season with Espanyol in 18/19 with the team getting into Europe, but in the 19/20 season, they languish at the bottom with a high probability of getting relegated. With the financial situation of many clubs uncertain, Arsenal could use that to get him for around £20 million, which would be a great bargain.
A name that might fly under the radar since Hoffenheim are not one of the top teams in the Bundesliga, but he’s been one of the top defensive midfielders in Germany since 2018. The lanky Austrian would be another value for money signing that would provide defensive solidity coupled with being very composed in possession and at 24, he’s got the potential to step up and succeed in the Premier League. According to various reports, the Austrian has a 22 million euro release clause for PL clubs and 17 million euro for non-PL clubs.
Konrad Laimer 19/20
One of the lesser-heralded names of the RB Leipzig side that’s dominated the Bundesliga this season is their defensive midfielder Konrad Laimer. Just glancing at his stats, what stands out is the defensive side of his game. His strengths are in tackling, regaining possession, applying pressure with a solid passing range and he’s certainly thriving under Nagelsmann’s high-pressure style. Considering RB Leipzig are likely to see a couple of their stars sold in the next window, they would be under no financial pressure to sell Laimer and would command a big transfer fee.
Whilst what we have currently in this area is far from poor, it could do with upgrading, particularly on Granit Xhaka, who we remain heavily reliant on for ball progression, which isn’t good considering his defensive inabilities. A lot of food for thought for the Arsenal recruitment team.