After overcoming a rocky period, Mikel Arteta has Arsenal thriving in the Premier League and a return to the Champions League appears a given.
There were initial doubts over Arteta taking charge of a senior side for the first time having previously been Pep Guardiola’s assistant manager at Manchester City but he is using his time at the Etihad as a point of inspiration.
During Arteta’s time as Guardiola’s assistant manager, Man City became the first team to win 100 points in a Premier League season, with their midfield trio of Fernandinho, David Silva and Kevin De Bruyne dominating the division in 2017/18.
Fernandinho was charged with starting Man City attacks and halting the opposition’s, ranking first among his team-mates for tackles made, duels won and aerial duels won.
Meanwhile, Silva waved his magic wand in the left half-space, averaging more passes in the opposition half per 90 than any other player in the league and ranking first for chances created from open-play per 90 among his City team-mates.
And De Bruyne did De Bruyne things. He led the division for assists, chances created, Big Chances created, passes into the box… you get the idea.
In 2022, Arsenal made their first move towards replicating this ‘free 8’ set-up. They may never find three world-class players needed to mimic it exactly, but here’s how Arteta’s side is getting on so far.
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Starting with its foundation, Thomas Partey has looked every bit a £45m player since shifting to the base of the midfield. Granit Xhaka possesses the progressive passing needed to be Arsenal’s Fernandinho, but his lack of mobility means he has never been trusted to operate on his own.
Partey, however, no longer has to share space in the first phase of the build up and is free to flaunt his passing range while also displaying the press-resistant dribbling that separates him from Xhaka. And, just like Fernandinho, he leads his team for tackles made.
Ahead of him, Martin Ødegaard has become one of Arteta’s most important players, drawing comparisons to Mesut Özil due to his vision and creativity. However, while Özil was unable or unwilling to transform into a No.8, Ødegaard is displaying the characteristics needed for all playmakers to find their place in the modern game – as David Silva did under Guardiola.
The Norwegian has played more through balls and created more chances than any other Arsenal player in 2021/22 but it’s his team-high ball recoveries in the final third that sets him apart. His intelligence with the ball is matched by his diligence without it.
And, just as Silva developed supreme chemistry with Leroy Sané, Ødegaard has formed his own telepathic link with a fellow left-footer in Bukayo Saka, albeit on the opposite side.
Replicating De Bruyne
So that leaves the final midfield spot. For all of the criticism of Xhaka, every manager has picked him. And, until Partey arrived, his ball progression was unmatched in the Arsenal midfield – he even outranked Fernandinho for passes into the final third during the 2017/18 season.
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But, with Partey best-placed to reprise the role of the Brazilian, the Swiss international has been deployed in a more advanced role. And despite some decent displays, he does not have the same skill-set required to be the all-conquering box-to-box dynamo De Bruyne was – and still is – for Man City.
Of course, finding the next De Bruyne is virtually impossible, but we have identified the non-negotiable attributes Arteta must prioritise based on his profile.
Athleticism is key. Xhaka’s stamina is admirable but he lacks the speed and ability to drive past players needed to take Arsenal forward, in every sense.
Italian midfielder Stefano Sensi was a close statistical match to the Belgian across the board – even outperforming him for chance-creating carries per 90 this season – but his physical frame is more David Silva than De Bruyne. James Ward-Prowse’s ball-striking technique and delivery may rival the Belgian’s – they even share the same love for the right-half space cross – but like Xhaka, Ward-Prowse progresses the ball through passing rather than carrying it himself.
John McGinn perhaps represents the best Premier League-ready option. Only De Bruyne and Bernardo Silva have produced more carries ending in a chance created in the Premier League this season than the Scotsman, who is one of the most well-rounded midfielders in the division.
A wildcard pick would be Lens midfielder Seko Fofana. The Ivorian’s game-breaking dribbling ability generates space for numerous shooting opportunities either for himself or his team-mates while Bernardo Silva is the only player in Europe’s top five leagues with more chance-creating carries than the Ivorian at the time of writing.
Another non-negotiable quality is technique. Xhaka does not excel in tight spaces and, as a result, Arsenal’s left-sided attacks have not looked as slick as on the opposite flank. His heavy left-foot bias can also restrict the avenues of attack, making Arsenal predictable.
In terms of finding a match to Man City’s ambipedal Belgian, look no further than Piotr Zielinski. Nominally right-footed, the Polish midfielder has actually scored more career league goals with his left. But it gets better.
Since 2017/18, 454 midfielders have attempted 50 shots in a top five European league, but only two of them average more than one with each foot per 90: Marek Hamsik and Piotr Zielinski.
If Edu can build a time machine, Hamsik is the ideal player for Arsenal’s midfield. But in the real world, Zielinski profiles similarly to KDB even beyond the mind-blowing two-footedness, and was the Slovakian’s successor in Naples.
The signing of a peak-age player like Zielinski would also allow the perfect long-term incumbent to be developed. Jacob Ramsey and Conor Gallagher represent two intriguing, albeit incredibly expensive, U23 options.
Chelsea are unlikely to allow Gallagher to leave after another successful loan spell, especially to Arsenal. But the fact he leads Crystal Palace for goal contributions, shots on target, chances created, crosses, passes into the box, and ranks second for tackles, take-ons completed and final-third ball recoveries makes him too good not to mention.
Ramsey has turned heads due to his eye for goal – his first six in the Premier League were split equally between left and right foot – and he favours the left-sided role Arsenal are looking to fill. Given Ødegaard’s more dominant role in possession, Ramsey’s goal-threat and excellent off-the-ball movement could be a compromise to the De Bruyne profile worth making. But this final suggestion would not even cost Arsenal a penny.
Before injury, Emile Smith Rowe was thriving in a left-wing role. However, as Arsenal’s style has developed in his absence, Martinelli’s form has shown this left-wing spot is now very much a wide-forward role – similar to Sterling’s at Man City but once again the mirror image.
And although his goal-scoring exploits suggest the Hale End graduate can continue to perform there, learning the ways of the No.8 would mean a future Arsenal XI could include Ødegaard, Saka, Martinelli and Smith Rowe all from the start.
Arsenal’s No.10 has displayed the required two-footedness – his first 10 PL Goals were split evenly between left and right foot – while his ball-carrying ability was the hallmark of his dominant displays for the U23 side. He’s even the same height!
It might take a while, but ESR could become Arsenal’s very own KDB, fulfilling the Croydon De Bruyne prophecy. Martin Tyler will be pleased.