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Arsenal Season Review: Midfield
Next in the continuing series looking at how Arsenal did position by position is midfield.
I have previously looked at striker:
And Attacking Midfield:
Let's start by looking at how the overall midfield performed compared to the other Premier League teams this season.
Overall, I think that the midfield looks solid but not spectacular. The passing numbers look good with the midfield doing a good job of getting the ball from the middle and defensive thirds into the final third, AKAsqueezing the toothpaste up the tube, while also looking okay as secondary creative and attacking outlets.
The Arsenal midfield has room for improvement at progressing the ball with the ball at the player's feet and also shielding the back line.
I think that there is certainly some fragility in the Arsenal midfield as well. When Arsenal plays the hybrid 4-3-3 type system there really isn't a good option for the base of the midfield three outside of Thomas Partey right now. Maybe in the future, you could imagine getting more from Sambi Lokonga but at the moment, he looks like a fish out of water trying to shield the backline all by himself, with much more comfort further up the field.
Granit Xhaka continued to do Granit Xhaka type things this season.
He was basically available whenever he was needed (and not suspended), he was willing to play multiple positions and pick up numerous different roles.
The big question for Arsenal this summer is 'is this the time to finally move on from the Xhaka dependency?'
I hope the answer is sort of yes, I would love for Xhaka to stay one more season but to have a much smaller role overall where he is more of a rotation option rather than an every-match starter.
When Arsenal signed Partey I wasn't all that excited.
It wasn't because I didn't think Partey wasn't a good player, it was because it was a big fee, with big wages, for a player that was entering the part of his career where injuries and general performance decline becomes an issue.
When he has been available for Arsenal, he has been a solid to good player. When Arsenal play their 4-3-3 he is easily the only player on the roster that I would trust to anchor that midfield three. The problem is that he hasn't been available nearly as much as I would want for a player of his importance for the team.
In his last three seasons for Atletico he played in 74.5%, 60.5%, and 69.5% of the team's total minutes available. Since moving to Arsenal he has played 59.3% and 44.9% of the available minutes. He didn't have a track record for injuries but after two seasons where that has stolen minutes from him, I do think that is a concern. If he can play 75% or more of Arsenal's minutes I think the team will be in good shape but if there is a repeat where he is only at 2,000 minutes it will be hard for Arsenal to meet the goals that they will have as a team.
Lokonga's season was a bit backward for how I would have expected it. He played 928 total minutes in the first half of the season (using December 31st as the cutoff) and 585 minutes in the second half of the season. I would have expected this to be roughly flipped with him playing a bit less to start the year and coming more as he acclimated.
Unfortunately, injuries forced him into the starting lineup right away.
Given his rawness and newness to the level and league, his performances were quite good. He showed issues with defensive positioning at times, but on the ball he looked every bit as good as advertised.
I know that Arteta says that they see him as a 'six' long term but I still have my doubts about that. He has a lot to improve on, on the defensive side of the ball and I think that he looks much more comfortable playing on the edge of the final third compared to deeper behind other midfielders.
I have put most of my thoughts on Elneny in the article about Arsenal resigning him.
Elneny is basically the definition of a "fine" player. He doesn't do a lot wrong but he also isn't a player that is a "match-winner." His style is safe and secure, and one that revolves around him not making mistakes that will hurt the team.
I don't think that is the wrong way to go about things for a player that is a backup, he also seems to be good at implementing whatever it is the coach wants.
All that being said, he is still a player that if you had the choice you wouldn't want to choose to start and you kind of dread seeing him in the starting eleven because you know what you're going to see.
Ainsley Maitland-Niles is probably done at Arsenal. He left Arsenal in the beginning of the January transfer window, just as Arsenal were facing a midfield crunch where the options looked to be youth players. That is about as clear of a signal that you can get that the player and the team are ready to move on from each other.
On loan at Roma, he played a bit of midfield, a bit of fullback and also just not that much in general.
I don't know exactly what his best position is (probably a hybrid fullback midfielder) but it also probably depends on the team that he ends up with next season.
Outlook for next season
Arsenal will start next season with hopefully five good options at midfield. Partey, new 'eight' (maybe Tielemans), Xhaka (or Xhaka replacement), Sambi, and Elneny.
I look at that and think it is a solid and probably good enough group to challenge for the top four again.
Looking at things from a slightly longer term view, Arsenal will probably need to have their eye on replacing all three of Partey, Xhaka, and Elneny or at a minimum thinking about a way to gracefully phase them out as they age out of their prime.
I think that Arsenal will bring in at least one midfielder in the early prime years but that is about it as they will also have their focus on striker, but the planning for what's next will be very important for this team.