It has become abundantly clear over the course of the season that Arsenal is targeting a new midfield player to replace Granit Xhaka as part of their big summer recruitment drive; the profile and identity of this midfielder however, is less clear. Debates have raged over whether Arsenal should be targeting a 6, an 8, or possibly both, as well as where Arsenal’s structure is heading; the usage of a 433 formation in recent games has led to considerable speculation that Mikel Arteta has finally made the long awaited permanent transition to this formation that had been touted early in his reign.
In these games, Thomas Partey has been utilised in a lone 6 role, operating in a single pivot at the base of Arsenal’s midfield and glueing Arsenal’s attacking triangles and defensive line together. Xhaka’s gradual advancement up the pitch in positioning has required Partey to hold the midfield on his own a lot more regularly, and the Ghanaian has been impressive for a number of games now, however doubts linger over whether he can make this role his own in the long term. So what could Partey’s performances tell us about Arsenal’s capability to effectively play the 433, and what could they suggest about the Gunners’ midfield transfer strategy for the summer?
Arsenal’s primary formation in the attacking phase has resembled a 235 this season, and this has largely remained the same in recent games; the big difference however, is the increased amount of positional rotation that has found players such as Xhaka taking more advanced positions in certain situations. Typically, Xhaka would find himself as part of the midfield three next to Partey and the inverted Takehiro Tomiyasu, however, Arsenal’s pass network against Brentford showed that Xhaka’s positioning was more akin to that of a left sided interior/8. Arsenal’s increased rotations allowed them to create endlessly against Brentford through fluid, rotating passing triangles in which both the fullbacks and midfielders Xhaka and Martin Odegaard would take advanced positions regularly.
This placed increased emphasis on Partey in the anchor role in the middle of the park; he was to be the connector in the middle between Arsenal’s triangles that helped the Gunners recycle the ball and switch quickly to underloaded sides of the pitch. In the initial phases of build-up play, Partey was tasked with progressing the ball from the centre backs to Arsenal’s two 8s positioned just ahead of him in the half spaces as well as the full backs, requiring a high degree of technical security on the ball, decision making and pass execution to maintain possession in crucial zones of the pitch while drawing much of the attention from the Brentford press. The former Atletico Madrid midfielder put in a strong performance and fulfilled the needs of Arteta’s 6, although the occasional sloppy pass in the first half showed that there remains room for improvement; indeed, it would be harsh to expect absolute competency from the Ghanaian in this role, considering his natural progressive, risk taking nature and his lack of experience in the anchor role both at Arsenal and Atletico Madrid. Partey’s rapid and continuing adaptation to this role is commendable, as he learns to tame his risk taking side to ensure complete technical security, while utilising his excellent close control and use of body feints to elegantly evade pressure in the middle of the park. Should Partey maintain this level of performance across the rest of the season in this role, it could provide Arteta with sufficient evidence that the Ghanaian can be relied upon to be Arsenal’s 6 for upcoming seasons.
Should Partey prove that he is the man for the anchor role in Arteta’s side, it would have big implications for Arsenal’s possible structural set up next season, and subsequently, Arsenal’s transfer strategy for the summer window ahead. It is no secret that replacing Xhaka is one of the few glaring opportunities to improve the side; however, the profile that the club brings in depends on Arteta’s vision for Partey next season, and it is entirely possible that the club could target multiple midfielders to provide maximum tactical flexibility. Should Arteta persist with the 433 next season, Arteta could go two ways with purchasing a new left sided interior – he could either opt for a pure attacking 8 with better final third impact, or a more balanced 8, capable of providing threat in the final third, while also being comfortable playing deeper, both in possession and while defending.
The market for the first option is rife with opportunities; long time Arsenal link Houssem Aouar is one player that would fall into that category, and there are many others, including Arsenal’s own internal solution – Emile Smith Rowe, should Arteta be able to coach him into the role. Should Arsenal opt for this route, it gives Arsenal even greater threat in the final third, offering creative and goal scoring threat from the left half space, as well as providing greater options for rotations with Gabriel Martinelli and Kieran Tierney in the left sided triangle. However, it places even greater defensive emphasis on Partey, who currently defends alongside Granit Xhaka in a double pivot of a 442 when Arsenal are out of possession. Whether Partey is a strong enough defensive player to take on an increased defensive burden in order to let the left sided interior be more attack minded, remains to be seen; defending is one of Partey’s strengths and he has a good sense for danger, however he does not assert himself and dominate the central zones like the great Patrick Vieira, nor is he an elite ball winning midfielder such as Ngolo Kante or Wilfried Ndidi – he ranks in the 36th percentile for tackles and interceptions this season amongst European midfielders (of course, playing styles vary between teams and can affect the numbers in this metric, so take it with a pinch of salt).
Should Partey fail to prove that he is the dominant, assertive midfielder to enable Arsenal to play with more progressive, attacking 8s, then Arsenal could try to replace Partey with a new 6 who can provide that defensive base. However, the market here is small – among u23 players in Europe, there are really only two candidates who stand out as level raising midfielders that would instantly take Arsenal’s midfield to new heights, and subsequently allow Arteta to play with two attacking 8s. The names of those two players? Declan Rice of West Ham United, and Aurelien Tchouameni of AS Monaco. Both players are unrealistic for Arsenal, not just in regards to the eye watering prices they would command; Rice seems to be destined for a move to Manchester United or Chelsea, while Real Madrid are reported to be circling for Monaco man Tchouameni, with Liverpool and possibly Chelsea lurking in the background. When assessing the rest of the market, there is a significant drop off in quality. Yves Bissouma of Brighton and Hove Albion could possibly be the best cheap alternative available, however even he is a doubt due to the ongoing court case he is involved with. Therefore, the decision to coach Partey into the 6 role from this point onwards could be a decision with transfer strategy in mind, enabling Arsenal to find their own internal solution to the Rice/Tchouameni problem.
An alternative solution to the potential issue of Partey’s lack of defensive dominance would be the purchase of a more balanced 8; comfortable in the advanced left half space as part of Arsenal’s fluid front 5, while also being comfortable with more defensive responsibility and defending in that double pivot. One player that could be the perfect fit for Arsenal in that mould could be Fabian Ruiz of Napoli. The silky Spanish midfielder is outstanding on the ball, posting some of the best numbers in Europe in terms of progressive passing, ball carrying and goal contribution amongst European midfielders. In an attacking sense, he is not a flair player, he doesn’t dribble, however, he is the latest in a long line of technical Spanish creators, able to thread precise, defence splitting passes, as well as providing a goal threat from outside the box. Defensively, he is not the fulcrum of Napoli’s defence, however he provides good support to the primary defensive midfielder, often Stanislav Lobotka, and is extremely capable of defending in a pivot. Ruiz also does not excel athletically; while he is tall, he is not capable of covering ground quickly, however his positional intelligence often ensures that he is in the right place at the right time. Ruiz would provide the right balance to Arsenal’s midfield, with the right blend of creativity, defensive solidity, and control. Ruiz also provides increased tactical flexibility – Arteta would have the 433 and 4231 structures at his disposal depending on the nature of the opposition.
Should Arsenal be able to secure the likes of Rice or Tchouameni, they should absolutely take the opportunity. They are the generational, lighthouse midfielders that could defensively hold the team together and set the tempo in possession, much like Rodri or Fabinho at Manchester City and Liverpool respectively. Should they join Arsenal, Arteta could utilise attacking 8s much in the same way that City utilise Kevin de Bruyne, Bernardo Silva or Gundogan in those roles. In the event that those two are unattainable as expected, a player like Ruiz would be an excellent addition, especially if he could be secured for the reported price of £16m, as he is heading into the final year of his contract with no intention to sign a new one. Ultimately, the picture of who Arsenal’s latest midfielder is will become clearer over time, as Partey continues to learn the ropes of playing the anchor in Arteta’s Arsenal.
Gooner since age 5, I have always been passionate about articulating my thoughts on the Arsenal. Never got to witness our golden years, but a firm believer that they will return. Supporting Arsenal can be a rough ride at times, but Paul and Dave have given me a platform to release all that stress, for which I am very grateful.