A solid summer and a solid start to the season. The Wednesday night win over Leicester in the Carabao Cup makes it four wins from four in competitive fixtures so far this term and Mikel Arteta’s Arsenal head into Monday night’s showdown with Premier League champions Liverpool high on confidence – even if their last top-flight performance wasn’t overly convincing.
In the background, transfer rumours continue to swirl. With six signings so far in Pablo Mari, Cedric Soares, Willian, Gabriel Magalhaes, Dani Ceballos and Runar Alex Runarsson, Arsenal might not be done just yet.
Arteta wants to strengthen his midfield, which lacked both creativity and control in the narrow Premier League win over West Ham last weekend, and has identified two players to fix those issues.
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Lyon’s £53million-rated Houssem Aouar is seen as the man to solve the problem of a lack of creativity, while Atletico Madrid midfield general Thomas Partey – who would cost £45m due to the release clause in his contract – would add extra physical prowess to the midfield while being brilliant on the ball himself.
The more glamorous signing is France youth international Aouar, and it is no surprise to see the replies to tweets from the official Arsenal account flooded with demands to bring the 22-year-old to the Emirates.
Aouar last year produced nine goals and 10 assists in 41 games and as an attack-minded midfielder, would bring the kind of ingenuity and vision through the middle that has been lacking since Aaron Ramsey left for Juventus and Mesut Ozil’s powers began to wane.
But Arsenal may just have a player already within their ranks capable of stepping up to play that role – 19-year-old Bukayo Saka.
The Gunners’ academy graduate has filled in in various different roles over the past 12 months, playing at left-back, left wing, right wing and in central midfield.
Having produced four goals and 11 assists – the most of any Arsenal player – last season despite spending a large spell of the campaign as a full-back, Saka is the club’s most creative outlet while Ozil remains in exile.
He already has an assist to his name this season, too, supplying Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s strike in the Community Shield penalty shootout win over Liverpool at Wembley.
Against Leicester, Saka was arguably the best player on the pitch. Playing in a left wing-back role in a 3-4-3 formation, his link-up play with his team-mates and bursts towards the box were impossible to miss.
But he has competition in the left-sided full-back role, with Ainsley Maitland-Niles and Kieran Tierney both capable of excelling there too.
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Saka didn’t start in the win at Fulham over the opening weekend with Tierney lining up as the left-sided centre-back and Maitland-Niles as the wing-back on the same side, although he did displace the latter against West Ham.
But while Saka is predominantly deployed as a wide player, the teenager’s future could lie more centrally – having played as the most advanced of a three-man midfield at Brighton, where he played well despite defeat.
Soon after, Arteta explained: “I see [Saka] evolving, getting better, getting to understand different positions and finally we will fit him in one that gives the best.
“At the moment we needed [him] to float a little bit because he gives us a lot of versatility to do different things, even with the same shape.
“He understands the positions really well, he picks [up] movements, the situations and when to use the spaces really quickly, he’s very intelligent and I think it’s a really good thing for his development for him to do that.”
And it is that spatial awareness and use of the ball in tight spaces that makes him potentially ideal should Arsenal eventually switch to a 4-3-3, the formation Arteta was expected to adopt when he first took over at the Emirates.
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As Arteta points out, using Saka as a left-sided No 8 does not prevent him from still moving out wide and being a threat against the opposition full-back either – the youngster has the awareness and knowledge to switch drop into the half space and be a danger but also come more centrally when required.
He did that at Brighton, drifting infield and outfield dependent on the situation, occasionally providing defensive cover for Sead Kolasinac while also driving forward offensively on the flank or through the middle at other times.
And his maturity against Leicester was eye-catching, with it looking as though Saka was playing with a decade of first-team experience in comparison to his team-mates of the same age – even though he has played just 45 senior games since his November 2018 debut.
This is where Partey comes in. With Arsenal having to pick between either him or Aouar, the outrageous potential of Saka and his capability to play in the creative midfield role means the Ghanaian should be the first choice.
A blend of Patrick Vieira and Gilberto Silva given his ability to drive forward with the ball, Partey could provide the shield for Saka and perhaps Dani Ceballos, who could serve as the link man in possession and the ball-winner out of it as Partey sits deeper – though he too could be given licence to burst through the middle.
The Atletico holder, in front of Gabriel Magalhaes and William Saliba, would certainly provide a dominant presence in front of the back four and would be a significant upgrade on Granit Xhaka.
Though he does not offer quite the same long-range passing as Xhaka, Partey is more mobile, better at carrying the ball forward and would command better control of the middle of the park while Saka roams and Ceballos harries.
Signing Aouar instead would still leave Arsenal’s spine vulnerable – they would still be missing the screen that they need in front of the back four, with Xhaka having improved under Arteta but still shown at times that he cannot offer the authority and command needed off the ball.
Partey is a rarer talent with players similar to Aouar more readily available, for all the Frenchman’s ability, than an elite-level No 6 – and is the type of functional signing who would take this Arsenal team up another level.
And given Arsenal’s finances dictate that they cannot sign both Partey and Aouar, it makes sense that they prioritise Partey and offer Saka the opportunity to carve himself a future as a fluid attack-minded midfielder, with Arteta the ideal man to oversee that development.
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