While we continue to bask in the warm glow of a deserved win at Old Trafford, it is time to consider whether Mikel Arteta is now close to knowing his preferred starting XI.
Have the outstanding performances of Thomas Partey and Mohammed Elneny agents Manchester United – both individually and as a pair – cemented their places as automatic starters?
It’s certainly tempting to jump on the ElPartey train after such a pleasing victory, but I would add a couple of notes of caution.
First, we have seen very little of Partey in an Arsenal shirt and of a Partey-Elneny axis in any game.
Second, it’s easy for we fans to get carried away with the most recent good performance. At times in the last couple of years we have lauded players like Mustafi and Xhaka who were previously on the naughty step; we have torn our hair out over David Luiz then sung his praises (in the FA Cup games in particular); Dani Ceballos was great, then a waste of space, then great again… Was Elneny’s Old Trafford performance a flash in the pan? Or a sign of a player who has finally found his place at Arsenal?
For today I’m ignoring wide midfielders and other formations (eg using Luiz as a holding midfielder) and working on the basis that El Patron will generally want to pick two central midfielders in most games.
His principal options are Partey, Elneny, Xhaka, Ceballos, Willock and Maitland-Niles.
You don’t have to agree with me (and you’ll have options to that effect below), but I am going to take it as a given that Partey is one of the first names on the team sheet, so the question becomes – who plays alongside him?
Elneny: even in his earlier spells as a fairly regular player for us I always liked Moptop Mo for one main reason: he hardly ever loses possession and his short passing game is excellent (I suppose that’s two reasons, isn’t it?). The downside was that he never seemed much of a ‘progressive’ player, often preferring to pass sideways or backwards. He has been more progressive minded in his most recent outings and I hadn’t really thought much about his athleticism previously, but his size is an asset and the clip of him sprinting to close down Man Utd players in the 91st minute on Sunday was an eye-opener.
Xhaka: how many words have been written about Granit? Most have been critical, particularly around the time last season when he threw off the captain’s armband and stormed off the pitch. I had sympathy for him then because I always hate it when one player becomes the lightning rod for fan dissatisfaction with the overall performance of the team. It looked like his Arsenal career was over, but Arteta brought him back and he was a crucial part of our run to FA Cup glory. He is slower than Elneny and gets around the pitch less well, but his passing range is greater.
Ceballos: Dani looked like the new Santi Cazorla in his first outing for Arsenal, then his form dipped (along with that of the whole team) under Emery before Arteta revived him. Like Xhaka, Ceballos was pivotal in our FA Cup win. He offers something different to Xhaka and Elneny in that he is tricksier, more forward-minded and has excellent close ball skills. He is also happy to put himself about, although he is less physically imposing than the other two.
Willock and Maitland-Niles: I certainly don’t want to discard either of these promising young players, but I think we have to accept that – for the moment – they are what the Americans call “role players” rather than serious options for our strongest starting XI.
So now it’s your turn to vote for your preferred central MF pairing.
If you vote for Partey-Elneny are you suffering from recency bias? Will that pairing really help solve our struggles at the attacking end of the park?
If you choose Xhaka-Ceballos is it because you’re still reliving our Wembley glories of a few months ago?