The West Ham game set a new precedent for this transfer window.
Remember when Unai Emery’s Arsenal had this funky little habit of getting penned into their own half, because our midfield couldn’t break the press? Well the Spaniard might be gone, but the impotence Arsenal showed against West Ham this weekend was absolute vintage. That’s not a good thing.
Mikel Arteta’s 3-4-3 formation works with the main principle of maximizing the use the width, spreading out opposing defenses with the objective of creating pockets of space to attack. West Ham countered that by deploying a low-lying block, a common Premier League tactic, and it worked, primarily because they gave our midfield nowhere to go.
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The team took the 3-4-3 shape and played it too rigidly, creating predictable patterns of play, without any sharp angles or incisive runs to throw the Hammers off the scent. There just wasn’t enough movement off the ball.
However, both of our goals came when that pattern was broken, and Bukayo Saka’s short-distance speed and footballing IQ came to the fore, with the same darting outside-in run characterizing the setup for our two tallies.
It got so bad early on that Willian started playing as the third central midfielder, often dropping deeper than Dani Ceballos and Xhaka, in order to collect the ball and try to institute attacks. The extra effort he exerted in those opening 20 minutes contributed to him looking leggy later on in the second half, but it wasn’t his job to do in the first place.
Ceballos took a great handhold in the game late in the second half, when he started really moving and shaking to try and break up West Ham’s rhythm, but he’s only one man, and could only do so much. He’s also the only midfielder in our locker with the spontaneity necessary to create against a low-lying block, bar Mesut Ozil, who won’t and shouldn’t play in the league again.
So what’s the solution? We’ve addressed many of our shortcomings in this transfer window, at both ends of the pitch. Two new defenders, a new attacker, and now an Emi Martinez replacement in Runar Alex Runarsson, and we look in decent shape. But the last missing puzzle piece, I believe is a creative midfielder.
And that’s creative in two ways. He must be a spectacular passer, that much is obvious. So much of Arsenal’s success is predicated upon the distributive ability of the central midfielders, and whether Arteta is comfortable with the back-three or wants to switch to the back-four, we need to keep that particular skill in surplus.
But as the West Ham game clearly shows, we need more than that. Creative movement is almost as key as creative passing. When he was in his prime, Ozil was an amazing mover and constantly exploited gaps, creating space around him. It’s something that Thomas Muller does better than any footballer in history.
He may not be the most talented passer or scorer, but his ability to create space for himself and his teammates is the reason he is never far from a starting berth in Munich, and the reason he has a really cool nickname.
Now most of you are likely reading this with the name “Houssem Aouar” stuck tighter than Stan Kroenke’s pockets in your brains, and I agree, he’s the best solution for the role, especially when it comes to off-the-ball movement. But even if we don’t sign the 22-year-old, we must bring more creativity into the club. And not just on loan.
Because as much as I love Ceballos, he can’t do it all on his own. And if Arsenal do not sign another creator this window, then in my estimation, the transfer window, despite all of its positives, is ultimately a failure.