Arsenal’s Progress Since Hiring Arteta
Arsenal have been a big disappointment so far in 2019-20, as they are on course for their worst season since the Ian Wright era. That being said, the hiring of Mikel Arteta has proved to be highly effective. The ex-Manchester City assistant (and ex-Arsenal club captain) has not only brought Guardiola’s know-how and style to North London, but more importantly has directly addressed the team’s biggest issue: its leaky defense. So far, to begin 2020, Arsenal have already kept 5 clean sheets through their first 10 games, and are the only remaining unbeaten team in Europe’s top-5 leagues. Mustafi and Luiz’s centre-back partnership has been a bit of a revelation in light of their performances from the first half of the season, and 18- year old Bukayo Saka’s talent at left-back speaks for itself. Now, as we inch towards the most crucial part of the season, with European knockout stages and the race for the Top-5 in England heating up, Arteta will look to create a culture of consistency in order to solidify a base to build upon in the future.
Glaring Weak Points Despite Progress
Though Arteta has greatly improved Arsenal’s defensive solidity, recent games against Sheffield United (1-1), Chelsea (2-2 with 10 men), and Everton (3-2) are prime indicators that the club still desperately needs depth in its defensive core. Despite Luiz’s new role as Arsenal’s leader in the center of defense, he remains error-prone, as seen in his sending-off against his former side Chelsea, but even more so in his mistake leading to Calvert-Lewin’s opener in the match last weekend. In regards to bolstering the defense in the upcoming summer, the club are preparing to make recent signing Pablo Mari’s loan a permanent deal, and already have highly-coveted teenager William Saliba finally coming over from Saint-Etienne. Given Arsenal’s lack of transfer funding from owners, the club must believe their set of centre-backs will be satisfactory, despite some of them not having Premier League experience. In attack, Martinelli and Nketiah look promising, Nicolas Pepe is starting to find form, and superstars Aubameyang and Lacazette seem likely to sign new deals if the team can continue performing at a high level.
This leaves the midfield. The quartet of Ceballos, Guendouzi, Torreira, and Xhaka have been instructed to protect the back line behind them. The most consistent player of this group has been Xhaka, who was highly rumored to be on his way out until Arteta arrived. Arsenal’s defensive mistakes cannot all be pinned on Mustafi and Luiz. Ceballos, Xhaka, and Guendouzi all give the ball away in midfield easily on a fairly regular basis, then proceed to get caught out and have to chase opposing players on the counter attack. What Arsenal needs is a rock in midfield. A player that knows his role and is talented enough to help in possession. I’m envisioning a prime Matic-like fulcrum. This player would move the ball from Luiz to Ozil swiftly, then hang out in front of the defence to serve as a defensive barrier. This player is Thomas Partey. The Ghanaian midfielder is a tank, and despite being a crucial component of Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid setup, Partey has a €42 million release clause in his contract. Atletico’s form has dipped this season having struggled to score goals, sitting 10 points behind 2nd place Real Madrid. Partey may feel inclined to leave if Arsenal do come knocking. The release clause also means that if Arsenal chooses to trigger this clause, they would immediately be allowed to negotiate a contract with Partey. If Arsenal doesn’t spend an extravagant amount of money this summer, Partey would be a close-to-world-class singing, for what could prove to be a bargain.
What Partey Would Bring to the Emirates
As I write this, I am watching Ceballos and Xhaka chase the same player in an unimportant area of the pitch, 10-15 yards higher than at least one of them should be. In contrast, Partey spent last week preventing Liverpool from scoring in a game for the first time since September. For a side aiming to improve defensively, Arsenal must look to bolster its core through the middle. When their weapons of Aubameyang, Ozil, Lacazette, and Pepe all find form at the same time, they will only need a solid base behind them. A midfield two of Partey/Xhaka, Partey/Torreira, Partey/Ceballos, and particularly Partey/Guendouzi could prove deadly, with one acting as an attacking box-to-box midfielder, while Partey protects in behind, also serving as a facilitator in possession. This would patch up if not cure the disease Arsenal midfielders currently have of losing the ball easily in bad areas.
To me, a French Arsenal fan watching from afar, the prospect of creative yet clumsy Guendouzi next to a powerful and stable Thomas Partey is mouth-watering. Partey has Champions League experience and will turn 27 in the summer. Pairing him with 20-year old Guendouzi, who has put in multiple eye-catching performances since his Arsenal debut a year and a half ago, could prove dynamic and dangerous for several years to come. This setup ignores Lucas Torreira (only 24 years old), a player who has been Arsenal’s only true defensive midfielder for some time now. His skillset could parallel Partey’s, as he is more nimble and can venture further forward.
By targeting players like Partey and Upamecano, Arsenal are attempting to propel themselves back into the top tier of European club teams, something their supporters have been longing for ever since Thierry Henry departed for Barcelona. If Arsenal do manage to bring in Thomas Partey, the 2018 CAF Finest XI member would be a surefire addition to the club’s midfield. Arsenal fans can only hope it goes through.