Central midfield is an area Arsenal have struggled in during their recent history.
During the early years of the Arsene Wenger era it was a position of considerable strength but as time wore on under the Frenchman the lack of power in the middle of the park proved to be an issue.
Then under Unai Emery and in the early days of Mikel Arteta the Gunners over-corrected, almost entirely losing the skill, creativity and guile that made that such an entertaining and dangerous side in the early-to-mid 2010s.
In Thomas Partey though they appear to have found the perfect balance between the two.
The Ghanaian has had an excellent pre-season so far demonstrating an incredible knack to drift into space so as to be perennially available to receive the ball.
When on it his skillset is so varied that it makes him unplayable at times.
The 28-year-old is able to effortlessly glide away from opposition pressing using just one touch, while also possessing an excellent ability on the ball to pick out long passes to his pacey teammates in the forward areas.
Partey demonstrated all of this in the space of one movement against Chelsea, receiving the ball from Bernd Leno before ghosting away from Matteo Kovacic to slip in Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, switching Arsenal from defence to attack in a matter of three touches.
Having teased the 25,000 fans inside the Emirates Stadium on Sunday with what he was capable of, it was then devastatingly cruel to see the former Atletico Madrid man limp off before he was even able to make it to half time.
Injuries robbed us of the chance to see him consistently in full flight last season, and after such an impressive warm up this time around it would be sickening if the same thing were to happen again.
The early prognosis suggests that that might be the case after he suffered an ankle injury following an over-zealous tackle from Ruben Loftus-Cheek.
“I just had a talk with the doctor,” Mikel Arteta said after the game.
“He [Partey] is going to have a scan tomorrow [Monday] and at the moment it’s not looking good because he was in pain and he could not continue which, for Thomas, is pretty unusual.”
As the Premier League opener against Brentford on August 13th approaches this will be a big concern.
Mohamed Elneny looked suspect on the ball yet again and although Granit Xhaka was good for the most part on his return to the side and new signing Albert Sambi Lokonga looked impressive on his home debut, Arsenal will want Partey back as soon as possible to avoid the pedestrian play in midfield that was such a problem last season.
New position same problems for Aubameyang
One of the more fascinating tactical trends we’ve seen so far this pre-season has been the use of a centre forward as a left winger by Mikel Arteta.
On Sunday though it was Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s turn to play the role. This was particularly interesting as the Gabon forward has been almost exclusively used as a number nine since he returned from a bout of malaria in late April.
Back on the left though he resumed the process of starting wide before drifting infield in the final third that was so successful towards the end of the 2019/20 campaign.
This worked well often as he used his pace to exploit the space in between Christian Pulisic (the Chelsea right wing back for the day) and Kurt Zouma. However, there was also evidence of the drawbacks to playing Aubameyang on the wing.
His delivery into the box on his weaker left foot was poor with Smith Rowe and Pepe both having been available at the back post on separate occasions to tap in had the delivery been better.
But then again there is the obvious pro of starting a fully firing Aubameyang out wide.
As the clock ticked over into the 90th minute the 31-year-old drifted infield and was found by a lovely piece of link up play from Nketiah to play him through one-vs-one with Kepa Arrizabalaga.
However, the problem with Aubameyang right now is that he is not fully firing, and the Gabon forward’s tame finish from a chance that he would have gobbled up 18 months ago was a sign of a real problem Arsenal could have to deal with next season.
The line is high, but Arsenal can’t hold on
Looking at Arsenal’s recruitment in the window thus far there is a clear strategy with how Mikel Arteta wants his side to play with next season in mind.
Last season, the presence of the ageing David Luiz at the heart of defence meant that it was often too much of a risk to play the kind of high defensive line the Spaniard clearly wants to deploy.
There were some occasions, such as the 3-1 victory over Southampton away, where the tactic was deployed, but the Gunners’ approach to many games was quite passive.
Instead the Spaniard wants a side who are more confident in winning the ball high up in the pitch to create chances closer to the opposition goal. So far it’s an innovation that has worked well, with goals against Rangers, Millwall and Watford having come from it.
Against Chelsea Emile Smith Rowe‘s first half chance that struck the base of the post also came from the high press, showing clear evidence of the positives the tactic offers.
At the same time though there is a considerable element of risk that comes with it that left Arsenal vulnerable on many occasions on Sunday.
This means that the onus is very much on the centre backs to win one-vs-one duels around the halfway line. If they are successful then Arsenal can keep the pressure on and get the ball closer to the opposition goal more quickly, but if they’re not then they risk giving the opposition what is essentially a free run at goal.
For Chelsea’s first goal it was very much the latter that occurred.
Arteta watched on in knowing desperation as the situation, yelling “Rob!” at the top of his voice to try and discourage the Englishman from engaging.
By that point it was too late though. Werner gleefully took up the chance to run in on goal before setting up his compatriot Kai Havertz for a fine finish.
White has been brought in to help with this, but even after the £50 million man came on Arsenal still looked vulnerable. His goal line block from Ziyech’s chance in the second half was probably the most obvious example, as Christian Pulisic was able to dissect the entire back line with one simple ball over the top.
The Gunners have generally been defensively sound since Arteta took over, but as he tries to move them forward and signs players with new tactics in mind the high line is something they will have to work a little more closely on.
Playing out from the back problems
While the high line may have been a new defensive problem, an old one from last season also reared its ugly head on Sunday.
Playing out from the back has long been a point of contention at the Emirates, but it is something Arteta clearly wants his team to do.
Bernd Leno has borne much of the brunt of criticism when it comes to the Gunners’ struggles in this area from the fanbase, but against Chelsea it was from his manager too.
In the build up to Ziyech’s aforementioned chance that led to White’s goal line clearance, the German opted to go long only to hit the ball out of play. This prompted an angry yell of “Bernd!” from Arteta, who, having caught his number one’s attention, gestured downwards with his hands as if it tell him to keep calm and keep it on the floor.
Leno was not the only one guilty of possessional errors in the defensive third though as Mohamed Elneny and Granit Xhaka both gave the ball away in situations that could have led to a goal.
Those chances proved to be a warning of what was to come, as Hector Bellerin‘s horrible error played in Tammy Abraham for what ultimately turned out to be the winning goal.
Speaking after the game Arteta admitted a degree of frustration at his team’s inability to discern when was the right time to play like this.
“It worries me because when you give the ball away when you’re in the position we’re in, in one or two passes they can attack your goal,” he said. “It’s a really difficult situation to resolve.
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“From those situations as well, we created many chances today. We need to know when to take the risk.
“It’s more about the perception and interpreting the players that we have to use in certain areas more than the actual action. But you know that against these teams, they punish you in the Premier League.”
White again has been brought into help with this and the England international could be seen constantly moving around so as to be at the most effective angle to receive a pass from his teammates.
But with the season fast approaching, the failure to stamp out an error that cost Arsenal dearly last season, will be another big concern.
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