In a week where false positives have taken their toll on Arsenal, Sunday’s 1-0 defeat to Nottingham Forest was an undoubted negative.
A turgid, low tempo display saw the Gunners crash out of the FA Cup at the third round stage for just the second time in 27 years.
Much of the criticism fell at the feet of Eddie Nketiah who spurned two golden second half opportunities, banishing much of the good will he had built up with his impressive goal scoring run in the Carabao Cup this season.
So toothless was the performance that many have called for Arsenal’s pursuit of Dusan Vlahovic to be ramped up in the coming days. But instead the Gunners could be forced to turn their immediate attention elsewhere.
From the beginning of the season we’ve known that midfield was going to be a problem position for Mikel Arteta‘s side this month. Thomas Partey and Mohamed Elneny booked their respective places at the African Cup of Nations as early as March last year, and the lack of options beyond them meant Arsenal would be light in the middle of the park for January.
It was partly this that led Arteta to hold dramatic talks with Ainsley Maitland-Niles to convince the England international to stay in North London on the penultimate day of the summer transfer window despite his public declaration of a desire to leave.
However, if we’ve learnt anything over the past month or so, it’s that planning in current footballing environment is a fool’s game and when Roma submitted an offer to take the Hale Ender on loan as early in the window as they did, it left the Gunners with a decision to make.
“Ainsley came to me and explained the reasons why he thought the best thing for him in his career right now was to move away,” said Arteta explaining the thought process behind letting Maitland-Niles ultimately leave.
“He felt the opportunity to go to Rome and work with Jose was a really good one. We already had this conversation in the summer and decided to keep him at the club and assess things in December.
“Being fair with the amount of minutes that he’s played he was entitled to that opportunity. When a player feels that way and has a strong argument like he has it’s very difficult to turn that away. So we decided to let him go wish him the best.”
While the sentiment behind this decision was an admirable one, it moved Arsenal from being in a position where they were taking a calculated risk on their midfield options this month, to one where they were taking an outright gamble.
For it to pay off, Xhaka and Sambi Lokonga would have to be available throughout. So when the news came through that the Swiss international had tested positive for Covid-19 ahead of the clash with Forest, it quickly became clear that the Gunners were in something of a crisis.
Charlie Patino was called upon to start, and although the 18-year-old is one of the most exciting prospects to have come through Hale End in a long time, he understandably struggled to make much of an impact on the game.
While Arteta does retain the option to drop Martin Odegaard into the left side of his midfield double pivot, the uncertainty over the fitness of Emile Smith Rowe means there is a distinct chance that Patino may be asked to start again at Anfield in Thursday’s Carabao Cup semi final first leg, just four days after making his full senior debut.
It’s a potentially concerning set of circumstances that could maybe have been put down to bad luck if Arsenal had only known of Xhaka’s Covid diagnosis on Sunday. However, football.london understands the Gunners were aware that the Swiss international had tested positive well before Maitland-Niles completed his loan move to Roma on Saturday, but allowed the Hale Ender to leave anyway.
For his part Arteta claims that he has no regrets over allowing to 24-year-old to join Jose Mourinho‘s side at a time where his squad is stretched to the very limit.
“No, that decision [to allow Maitland-Niles to go on loan] was made for many different reasons,” the Spaniard told football.london after Sunday’s defeat at Nottingham Forest. “First of all, it was because the player was willing to do that.”
Roma are thought to have been keen to get the deal done as early in the window as possible, while it seems that Arteta wanted to honour the commitment he had made to Maitland-Niles during those talks in late August, but with just one senior midfielder currently available to him, you wonder if the Spaniard may have been better served by being more ruthless and forcing the 24-year-old to stay for what is a potentially season defining week of fixtures.
Having made that decision though, it seems that Arteta’s best hope of solving Arsenal’s midfield crisis is by bringing someone in sooner rather than later. This appears to be something that he is open to.
“I think it’s clear where we need to strengthen,” the 39-year-old told press at the City Ground. “But at the moment it’s what we have and with what we have we have to play.”
The likes of Bruno Guimaraes of Lyon and Palmeiras’ 20-year-old Brazilian Danilo have been linked, but there is yet to have been anything concrete enough to suggest that the Gunners will be able to sign a midfielder before facing what is probably the best pressing side in world football at Anfield on Thursday.
While football.london understands that Vlahovic is a deal that they still want to get done this January, it seems that the pressing need for reinforcements in the middle of the park means that Arsenal may be forced to strengthen there before sealing a move for the Serbian.