Compensation for failure
There was a sense of desperation amongst the Arsenal fanbase to see a quality midfielder join the club’s ranks before the transfer deadline. The Gunners had already secured significant reinforcements, in the form of Willian, Gabriel Magalhaes, Alex Runarsson and Dani Ceballos.
However, none of these significantly improved Arsenal’s weakest area of the pitch. Granit Xhaka has been integral to the improvement of the north Londoners under Mikel Arteta, with Ceballos’ turnaround last season having proven mighty. Even the return of Mohamed Elneny has been heralded.
But Arteta’s tactic of sacrificing a midfielder to create a 3-man defensive line, in a bid to compensate for defensive frailties, simply cannot continue.
Arsenal need to compete in the upper echelons of the Premier League. The midfield threes of Liverpool and Manchester City, for example, help to dominate opposing sides, and add pressure until goals flood through.
Arsenal needed to return to this once familiar structure, and on Deadline Day they found the means.
‘If it ain’t broke…’
Thomas Partey signed for £45 million, and suddenly the potential of the Gunners’ midfield has been transformed.
Partey’s signing does not mean that the 3-4-3 formation which Arteta found so much success with is dead. The Spanish tactician put on a tactical masterclass against Manchester City and Chelsea using this very system in last season’s FA Cup.
Had Arsenal invested heavily in Houssem Aouar, the Frenchman’s ability in the defensive third would have shown itself to be weaker than that of Partey. Aouar would need to be supported by two further midfielders, or sit out fixtures in which Arteta opted for 3-4-3. For Partey, this is not the case.
Strong defensive prowess and powerful forward-thinking instincts combine to make up a top player for a midfield partnership. The Ghanaian has previous experience in Diego Simeone’s 4-4-2. This is of course good news for Arteta.
Change for the better
However, as mentioned, a 3-man midfield enables a side to win the battle in the middle of the park, and press forward with their advantage.
Under both Arsene Wenger and Pep Guardiola, Arteta learned his coaching craft whilst a midfield three was in use. An eventual switch therefore seems inevitable, and Partey could prove the key.
One option is for Arteta to utilise Partey’s defensive capabilities in a deep-lying role. The Ghanaian’s speed, stamina and presence would take defensive pressure away from the established partnership of Xhaka and Ceballos.
The latter pair could therefore better provide for their offensive colleagues, and, when countered, would be protected by Partey’s positioning.
There are also downsides to such a route, though. The money invested in Partey would have come following thorough research and analysis.
Even without intrinsic analytics, it is not difficult to understand that a deeper disciplined role for Partey would limit the 27-year-old’s forward-thinking game.
If Arteta opts for a flat midfield 3, it would enable Partey to be more adventurous. The African’s new midfield partners have been impressively competent from a defensive standpoint under the Arsenal boss, meaning if Partey is to venture forward, he will be covered and supported.
This system requires complete harmony between the midfield 3. When one pushes, the other two will cover. Knowing who is responsible for what job at what time can be difficult to gauge, but such a system has the potential to disorientate opposing sides by dragging man-markers across the pitch, in the process creating space for wide-men to penetrate.
However, without a set disciplined position and no dominant attacking midfielder, there is a risk of this setup becoming passive and rigid.
Arsenal fans will be familiar with the system above. Arsene Wenger often deployed Mesut Ozil in a free role behind the attacking front three – known as the number 10 position. This left a pivot of two players behind providing midfield support and defensive cover.
What this system would do now is, firstly, return Ceballos to the role which he occupied at Real Betis. The Seville-based club allowed the Spaniard to flourish, create and become the thorn in many a La Liga defence’s side.
This saw the former Spanish under-21 international rise to a standard which Real Madrid thought worthy of purchase.
Xhaka would maintain a more disciplined defensive role, which continues to see the Swiss midfielder act as a deep-lying playmaker. The 28-year-old is adept at spraying clever passes to open up wider positions for the likes of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Kieran Tierney.
All the while, this would get the best from Partey. The Ghanaian could provide a defensive barrier in combination with Xhaka. But, when Arsenal are in possession, he could also break with play, driving the ball forward in the knowledge that the former Gunners captain remains deep.
A return to old ways looks the best option to accentuate the new. Whatever Mikel Arteta opts for, it is a new-found choice which should excite Arsenal fans.
This article was edited by Conor Laird.
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