We all know why Mikel Arteta played with three centre-backs for so long. It’s the exact same reason that Gareth Southgate does likewise for England: inferior, vulnerable central defenders.
Are there actually any decent centre-backs in Europe who aren’t desperately fragile or left woefully exposed? You can probably count the world class group on one hand.
Arsenal do not possess any of said group. In fact, there crop is about as average as it gets. It tells the story well when new boy Gabriel Magalhaes has come in and instantly become their best defender in just a small smattering of matches. It needs no reminding, but this being a side with seven more senior centre-backs to choose from.
But defensive reassurances have an impact on other roles of the pitch. In fact, at the back is probably Arsenal’s area of least concern. They’ve conceded the fewest number goals in the entire division. They’ve played Liverpool and Manchester City away from home already.
Up front, between Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Alexandre Lacazette, Willian and Nicolas Pepe, they’ve combined to have just 19 shots so far this season. For context, Aleksandar Mitrovic has had 26 all by himself. How the tables have turned in Arsenal’s case.
This is, however, being seen to.
Three at the back – five, if you like – is in the process of being ditched for the more familiar 4-3-3, with the most telling example at that setup coming in the defeat away at Manchester City. Thomas Partey’s inclusion has no doubt had a significant impact on that transition.
What is important now is to find a balance in midfield with the Ghanaian that maintains the first of the aforementioned statistics, but bolsters the second. A fine balancing act that Arteta has had to apply more weight to the defensive side is slowly being tweaked to suit all areas of the pitch, and central midfield is crucial to that.
It’s well documented that Houssem Aouar was a key target in the summer to add some creative dexterity and flair to midfield, but their failure on that front has called for an altered approach. Now, with Partey and Bukayo Saka set to become mainstays of the three-man midfield moving forward, choosing the third member of that trio will be critical.
Essentially, it boils down to one of Granit Xhaka or Dani Ceballos.
Both will offer vastly different options, add improvements to certain departments and potentially weaken others. Yet, when faced with the current defensive steel and paucity in attack, the pendulum would swing in the way of Ceballos.
Partey’s exemplary reading of danger is an unshakable – but wholly welcome – curse placed upon him by Diego Simeone and his book of the defensive dark arts. He can sniff out trouble effortlessly, but more important, put a stop to it.
It will loosen the defensive shackles off Ceballos, who in the more recent 3-4-3 shape, has been forced to account for Granit Xhaka’s lack of mobility when he looks to charge forward. Requiring to operate – to paraphrase Arsene Wenger – with the handbrake on, he isn’t able to fully commit to attacking situations for fear of high turnovers in possession from the opposition.
With Partey’s solidity in that area and ability to cut out passing lanes more efficiently than Xhaka, Ceballos will be given the freedom to attack the inside spaces where he can be most effective. As it is, the forwards are starved of service through the middle. 19 shots between them is an appalling tally when you consider one of them is among the finest forwards in Europe.
Ceballos can operate in small spaces and has a better touch than he is given credit for, and he could be reinforced by a similar approach from Saka to his left. In the same way that the Spaniard would be given license to drift in between the lines, Saka’s ability to carry the ball with pace drags defenders out of position.
In possession, Arsenal can switch to a 2-3-5 system where the full-backs come infield to partner Partey, with Ceballos and Saka allowed to join the forward line pinning defenders back. If the opposition are in a low block, Partey’s competent distribution can find the feet of his midfield partners in these tight areas where they both flourish.
All this while continuing to shield a defence that is, statistically, the best in the Premier League (this obviously being tongue in cheek). Were Xhaka to enter the fray then Partey would be tasked with more offensive ball carries through a high press, but his mobility in holding midfield allows Arsenal to have more attacking freedom.
There will come times where Arteta will look to shore up central midfield with a Xhaka and Partey combination, but the headache he’s faced with pre-Leicester can be tended to with a certain on-loan Spaniard.
Striking the symmetry in midfield to boost Arsenal’s attacking deficiencies while protecting the backline will be adhered to by the switch to a 4-3-3, but finding the right personnel is just as crucial as the formation itself.
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