There has rarely been a player in recent years to divide the Arsenal fanbase in the way Granit Xhaka does. Perhaps only latter day Ozil in the last few seasons. However, whether you are in the pro Xhaka camp, or in the camp that feels he represents years of under achievement, you will acknowledge that the Arsenal engine that purred against Spurs, with him back, stuttered without him at the Amex.
The dilemma for Arteta, is that the team function well in a 4231, with Xhaka’s steadiness and control, allowing Partey more freedom to influence proceedings and there is a question over whether they can be as fluid without the Swiss skipper.
Whilst I am one who would like to see an upgrade or an alternative style of deeper lying partner for Partey in the medium term, Arteta has to find a formula that works for the next three months. Without his senior player, due to a reckless sending off, the Spaniard did try a 433 against Norwich and Burnley but after the exhilarating performance in the North London Derby, he persisted with the 4231, asking Sambi Lokonga to fulfil he Xkaka role versus Brighton.
Whilst not denying Brighton were superb, Arsenal did fail to compete as well as expected or exercise the same control with Sambi. There is no one suggesting the newly capped Belgian international is not a good player, more that he is too similar to Partey and is not the calming senior influence that Xhaka can be.
So, should the manager, persist with Lokonga and hope he can adapt his game, replace him with Maitland-Niles or Elneny, or should he opt to rebalance the team in a 433?
From my perspective I hope Arteta, selects the formation based on the quality of, and the threat posed, by the opponent on the day. There is no doubting the solidity of the double pivot in the 4231, as demonstrated against Brighton, but we also saw that without Xhaka’s passing the midfield was not as effective in springing our attack. However, the 433, with just one player sitting and 2 8’s can and should be very offensively effective, particularly against weaker teams.
My personal issue with the deployment of the 433, as we have seen this season, is that it means the main defensive, holding player is Thomas Partey. Of course, he does the role well, but the team loses his marauding presence (if not his shooting!!) in the opposition half. So, if this is the route then I would like to see Sambi, or Maitland-Niles tried as the sitting player, leaving Partey and Odegaard as the double 8s.
Many however, will disagree with me and Arteta will be one of them, and it will probably be Partey sitting with Odegaard and Sambi or Smith Rowe as the dual 8s. This might mean a reprieve for Pepe, but I am against any selection that takes Bukayo Saka away from his star berth on the right. Consequently, if the Ghanaian is asked to patrol in front of the back 4, then I would prefer to see Odegaard and Sambi, with Smith Rowe and Saka, left and right of Aubameyang. If Arteta feels the 433 needs at least one wide man to retain the width, then use ESR as the second 8 and play Pepe or Martinelli on the left.
The one option that most fans will be against is using the experience of Elneny as the DM, if Arteta does want to keep the 4231. The much-maligned Egyptian has played effectively with Partey on several occasions and whilst he may not have the passing prowess of Xhaka, his ball control, retention and speed of simple distribution is underrated in my view.
Whichever way Arteta goes, and I feel it may well change game to game and also during matches, he does have a squad with the depth and flexibility to work with. The coaching staff can work with Sambi to step up but have alternatives and importantly the team now has two additional accurate passers out of defence to help spring the team into attack having lost that with Xhaka. Yes, the White and Ramsdale factors cannot be overlooked, but perhaps that can be expanded upon next time…
Unedited version of yesterday’s Sun Fan Column
Passionate fifty-something Arsenal supporter who has been making the journey to N5 regularly since the early 1980s – although his first game was in 1976. Always passionate when talking about The Arsenal, Dave decided to send a guest blog to Gunnersphere in the summer of 2011 and has not stopped writing about the Gunners since.
He set up his own site – 1 Nil Down 2 One Up – in February 2012, which he moved on in 2016 to concentrate on freelance writing and building Gunners Town, which he launched with Paul in 2014.
The objective of GT was to be new and fresh and to give a platform for likeminded passionate Arsenal fans wishing to write about their team. Dave still of course, writes for the site himself and advises the ever-changing writing crew.
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