OPINION: Arsenal have a midfield problem that Mikel Arteta needs to sort out quickly

Rice and Havertz were recruited to bolster Arsenal's midfield
Rice and Havertz were recruited to bolster Arsenal's midfieldProfimedia
Mikel Arteta and Arsenal have a problem. The balance and composition of their midfield trio is currently far from ideal, and with the relentless and seemingly inevitable Manchester City starting the season in powerful form, the manager cannot afford to let this issue linger if he wants to go toe-to-toe with Pep Guardiola and co once more in the race for the Premier League title.

Of course, even the most optimistic of Arsenal fans will surely acknowledge that winning the league will be a meteoric task, but after being in the position they were in the previous season, the last thing they will want to do is let City run away with it.

That is why their performances so far this campaign will be a little bit of a concern. 10 points from a possible 12 is not in any way shape or form a bad start, but the Gunners have not played nearly as well as they did this time last year. 

A large reason for that is Arteta’s experimenting. In an attempt to make his side more unpredictable and threatening, especially against sides who sit deep and defend in their own box, he has changed the makeup of a team who weren’t in need of drastic changes.

We have seen Guardiola change the shape and style of his City sides over the years, but usually after they have won a league, or when aiming to rejig and refresh a team that could potentially go stale.

The main issue with Arsenal was their depth and perhaps not having the leadership or real power in their side to get over the line. With the additions of Declan Rice, Jurrien Timber, David Raya and Kai Havertz, it looked like they may have gone a long way to potentially solving that.

Rice, Havertz and Timber joined the club this summer
Rice, Havertz and Timber joined the club this summerProfimedia

Which is why it came as a massive shock to see Arteta change Arsenal’s set-up.

Granit Xhaka departed the Emirates in the summer after a really impressive season. The Swiss occupied a more attacking role, playing as a No.8 alongside Martin Odegaard with Thomas Partey playing as the deepest midfielder.  

The balance of that midfield worked. Xhaka performed superbly in his new position, in contrast to his struggles as a holding midfielder over the years at Arsenal, scoring seven goals and providing seven assists in the league. He had scored seven Premier League goals combined in the four seasons prior. But he was also highly capable of dropping deep and working hard to support Partey too.

The Ghanaian international was one of the best No.6s in the league last season, providing protection to the back line while also being brave and progressive on the ball. When Arsenal were looking for a goal, you could rely on him driving forward and playing passes between the lines.

Odegaard, meanwhile, was the creative star of the team. Given the freedom to run games, his craft and unmatched technical ability were often the difference maker for the Gunners.

So Rice and Havertz arrived, and the latter was touted as a potential replacement for Xhaka, to the bemusement of many. Havertz had struggled at Chelsea, with no one really being able to work out his best position. Midfield certainly didn’t seem like the answer.

Rice was a huge acquisition for the Gunners. Not just a powerhouse of a defensive midfielder, the former West Ham captain possesses the leadership qualities and personality to be able to drag his teams through tough moments. His potential is enormous, and Arsenal signed an absolute gem.

Rice celebrates scoring a late winner against United
Rice celebrates scoring a late winner against UnitedProfimedia

Arsenal used a midfield trio of Partey, Rice and Odegaard in the Community Shield against City, and it worked well, with Partey and Rice offering defensive security against what is arguably the best midfield in the world.

However, since the start of the Premier League, Arteta has fielded Rice as the deepest midfielder with Havertz and Odegaard ahead of him. Interestingly, and very much surprisingly, Partey has played as an inverted right-back, coming into midfield to offer another option - much like Oleksandr Zinchenko did last season.

At this current moment in time, the new system hasn’t worked; for a number of different reasons.

Firstly, Partey just isn’t a right-back. Sure, he may have played a few times there under Diego Simeone at Atletico Madrid, but he has evidently not been comfortable in that position when other teams have had the ball. He has come under pressure defensively, with wingers targeting him.

Secondly, with Partey playing in defence, it has meant Ben White has moved over to the centre-back, and consequently, Gabriel Magalhaes has been dropped. Both White and William Saliba are quality players, but Gabriel was Arsenal’s best defender last season, and stood up when the latter was injured. Tearing up what was a formidable partnership feels like trying to fix something that wasn’t at all broken.

Finally, and as mentioned, most crucially, the midfield just isn't functioning as it used to. 

Rice showed against Manchester United that he is capable of anchoring the midfield on his own - perhaps even better than Partey. His athleticism and ability to cover ground make him the ideal person to play as a lone midfielder, and his recovery runs and speed in winning back the ball are unmatched by the majority of players in his position.

However, the issue is that he isn’t as good as Partey in possession. That’s not to say that he is bad. He is very comfortable with the ball at his feet and is a powerful runner at times, but he currently doesn’t possess the dangerous and intricate forward passes that Partey does, nor does he have his dribbling skills.

Partey has taken up a new role in defence following the addition of Rice
Partey has taken up a new role in defence following the addition of RiceProfimedia

So with Rice as a No.6 instead of Partey, Arsenal require a more creative player than Xhaka next to Odegaard, knowing full well that Rice will be able to do the extra defensive work.

That has also evidently been Arteta’s plan, which is why he signed Havertz. The Spaniard has wanted him to take up more of a free role from that position, finding space in between the lines to cause havoc, while also making late runs into the box. 

This has failed to materialise. Havertz has seriously struggled since signing for Arsenal, looking like a lost puppy out on the pitch. He has failed to offer anything creatively and also missed a number of clear-cut chances in front of goal - his air shot against Manchester United springs to mind.

As a result, Arsenal’s midfield looks vapid, and they are yet to play with the same speed and vigour that was on show last season. The dynamism and drive in the heart of the team have been nowhere to be seen.

There are a few ways this could be solved. In an ideal world for Arteta, Havertz suddenly comes good and proves all the doubters (and there are a lot of them) wrong. He has been in the Premier League for over three years now though, and doesn’t look like the player that Chelsea and Arsenal have spent a combined £140 million on. 

It has been a difficult start to his Arsenal career, with fans growing vocally frustrated in the stadium by his errors. However, he does deserve a little bit more time. Let’s see what Arteta can do.

But another very feasible option for Arsenal is Fabio Vieira. The Portuguese man has been used as an impact sub since signing last summer, but he has consistently impressed - even more so this season.

Vieira has impressed from the bench this season
Vieira has impressed from the bench this seasonProfimedia

Against Fulham, he came off the bench to great effect, winning a penalty and then assisting Eddie Nketiah’s goal when his side were trailing 1-0.  Against United, he also made his mark; with the score at 1-1, he came on and added impetus to Arsenal, and ended up assisting Gabriel Jesus.

Vieira is silky on the ball and has a wand of a left foot, he looks fitter and sharper than ever and seems to have adjusted to the Premier League. If Arteta wants to take Havertz out of the firing and wants a creative No.8, then look no further than him.

Partey is currently out for a few weeks with an injury, meaning the potential of moving to the same system that worked against City in the Community Shield is out of the question - although Rice playing as an advanced midfielder against teams sitting deep isn't guaranteed to work either.

The dilemma in front of Arteta is just further amplified by the fact you need to be perfect when City are lurking. Arsenal cannot afford to let this linger for too long, as any dropped points will hurt twice as much as normal. Just one or two bad results and suddenly the reigning champions are seven or eight points ahead of you.

Arsenal head to their bogey ground at Everton this Sunday - a place they haven't won at since 2017. The Toffees have been awful so far this season, but have evidently caused problems for the Gunners over the last few years, and are bound to make it a physical affair. Arteta knows that his side will need to be at their best, and any dropped points will shine an even brighter light on their midfield issues.


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