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Arsenal’s risk-taking midfield a shining light despite disappointing defeat

Arsenal’s self-destructive loss at Wolves on Tuesday served up a damaging result for the Premier League’s form team. But in a game overshadowed by calamitous defensive errors and decided by two red cards, a powerful and dominant first-half display showed Arsenal’s midfield continuing to play with exactly what was missing from this team in the first half of the campaign – risk.  

Incredibly, Arsenal only managed to notch four Premier League goals between October 5th and Christmas Day in a flat and uninspiring run for a side notorious for their potent attack. But since the 3-1 win over Chelsea on Boxing Day they’ve begun to build some consistency, with some notable wins that included the strong result against Frank Lampard’s Blues, a 4-0 victory at West Brom, and a convincing win against Southampton.

Even Saturday’s goalless draw with Manchester United illustrated a new-found attacking intent, and the first-half of the defeat at Molineux was arguably the best they’ve played all season. The Arsenal midfield has stopped playing with fear, and they are willing to risk an error to hurt the opposition. 

Pass completion rates can be misleading and the Gunners recent shift in this statistic may be the greatest sign of what they are doing to transform their results. In Arsenal’s two stand-out victories since Christmas, against Chelsea and Southampton, they’ve seen a massive drop in their pass completion rate, sitting at 70% and 74% respectively.

These actually represent two of the lowest three pass completion outcomes of the whole season so far. The 0-0 draw against Manchester United also appears in the bottom eight. In these performances, Arteta’s side has seen a change in mentality and a shift of emphasis from retaining the ball and being patient, to impacting the opposition in possession and taking the initiative. 

Number of passes is also down significantly in these games, with all three of the results mentioned involving under 400 passes for the north London outfit – which they have only achieved five times all season. Quicker ball progression and more attacks in transition means that the team is playing in the opposition’s half more often, where the passes are more difficult to find but the rewards are so much greater. 

Thomas Partey’s return from injury and addition to the starting XI has played a big part in this change. With Granit Xhaka proving to be a mainstay in Arteta’s side, Mohammed Elneny and Dani Ceballos have been sharing the second position in the double pivot. Partey brings an upgrade in quality, technique, and presence but the most valuable asset he has added might just be his intent.

Partey had a pass completion rate of 77% in Saturday’s game against Manchester United. Although it wasn’t his greatest game, his looseness in the pass came from ambition with the ball. Comparing this with Elneny, the Eygytian has the fifth-highest passing accuracy in the league this season (92.3%).

Elneny undoubtedly provides a level of security but it is that safety on the ball that has held Arsenal back far too many times this season. Ghanian international Partey has progressed the ball forward an average of 341 yards per 90 minutes this season, Elneny only manages 215, and Ceballos is a fair amount better at 310 yards. 

Against Wolves, Partey got his passing spot on. His commanding and productive first-half performance is encapsulated by a very impressive pass-map in which moving the ball into the attacking third is his priority.

The £45 million summer signing understands the risk to play forward, and unlike Elneny and Ceballos, is also blessed with the athleticism and frame to recover possession. His ability to tackle outside of his circumference with his long stretch, speed and power makes him difficult to bypass once the opposition have regained possession. Only Ainsley Maitland-Niles has made more tackles per 90 than Partey. He feels he can take a chance with the dangerous pass, because he has an excellent chance of winning it back. 

Since the departures of the likes of Jack Wilshere and Santi Cazorla, Arsenal have missed ball carriers from the central midfield area breaking the lines and evading opposition press. Xhaka, Elneny and Ceballos do not fit that profile, so Partey’s role in the team injects some much needed forward drive.

The 27-year-old completes 2.22 successful dribbles per 90, compared with 0.5 from Elneny and 1.68 from Ceballos. His physical strength and acceleration means he breaks through the opposition midfield and advances play – a part of his game that his midfield peers just can not do. 

 

 

Mikel Arteta is a young manager, learning along the way and adapting accordingly. Changes in his attacking philosophy of late mean that the midfield have more freedom. At the end of the 2019/20 season Arsenal had a focus on pattern plays in attack, patient and deliberate offensive movement which seemed to leave little room for improvisation or spontaneity.

This led to lots of similar goals that were well-worked and practised. The right-to-left switch to Aubameyang was the trademark move that led the Gunners to FA Cup success. But since that system began to falter, Arteta’s move away from the rigid 3-4-3 system, that gave the central midfield big responsibility in covering wide positions, has meant the team is adopting a more fluid attacking style, benefitting the two sitting centrally. 

The introduction of a traditional No.10 in Emile Smith-Rowe simply means that there are more options available in front of the central midfield to make the forward pass. Lacazette playing as true centre-forward, as opposed to the ‘false-nine’ role in the previous system, means there is a body to hit at the point of attack.

While Bukayo Saka’s move into the front-three means that there is another secure option that comes deep to receive the ball from Xhaka and Partey. The obvious passes are no longer the central defenders behind them, or their partner standing next to them. 

Now playing with full-backs, rather than wing-backs, the central midfield can focus on their area of the pitch, and not become too concerned with vacant spaces either side. When Pablo Mari came into the team at the end of 2020, he began making a conscious effort to push the defensive line up.

This meant pushing the two central midfielders off the defenders’ toes and closer to Smith-Rowe, reducing the gaping hole between midfield and attack that became a cornerstone of Arsenal’s football pre-Christmas. The higher line is riskier, the midfield might feel less secure, but it has resulted in Arsenal winning the ball further up the pitch and becoming so much more effective in hurting the opposition. 

Confidence is also key. As the positive results have built up and momentum has started to gather it is a lot easier to play the risky forward pass. The Gunners started the season with too much fear and in a mindset which saw players shifting responsibility by playing the safe ball to the nearest player.

A new-found bravery since the turn of the year has brought back the potency and positivity in attack. The loss against Wolves was disappointing but one half of that game told a different story, and reaffirmed Arsenal’s growing improvements in the middle of the pitch. Thomas Partey’s return and Arteta’s willingness to take the shackles off have released a midfield that understands football’s biggest trade-off.

Arsenal are a bit more open, they are not completing as many passes, but they are taking risks – and will hopefully reap the rewards in the long run.

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