I doubt many Arsenal supporters would argue with the suggestion that Thomas Partey is an automatic starter in our current first choice team.
But who should play alongside him?
This conundrum was brought home to me by the way we struggled to take control of the middle of the park for long periods against Leicester City.
This is not to criticise what was an excellent team performance with some of the most committed defending I have seen from an Arsenal team in a long time. Leicester, we do not need to be reminded, are a dangerous side and don’t get dominated by many teams.
But there were times when we rode our luck and when getting even an extra minute or two of possession in the central areas would have given us a breather and helped take the wind out of Leicester’s sails. It would also have meant a bit less nail chewing among the Arsenal faithful.
Lokonga started with Partey in that game and did very well. He’s an exciting prospect who may well emerge as the automatic Partey partner over the next season or two.
But what about our other options?
As I see it – and not counting promising up-and-comers like Azeez (who is on loan anyway) – they are as follows: Xhaka, Maitland-Niles, Elneny and Odegaard.
Ode has been tried a couple of times in central midfield to mixed effect. He can pick a pass for sure, but does not seem suited to winning the midfield battles and is perhaps more effective further forward.
Xhaka – when fit – is still (I suspect) Arteta’s preferred option at the base of the midfield alongside Partey. His career with us has had more ups and downs than his native Alps, but let’s not forget that he played a big part in the 3-1 win over Totteringham in late September.
Lokonga, as I mentioned, may prove to be the natural partner in time (his combination of speed, athleticism and skill are very appealing) but he is relatively inexperienced for such a key role.
Elneny, who had a poor game against Leeds in the Carabao Cup, is now surely no more than a “break glass in case of emergency” type of player who will see little game time while others are fit. He has had decent outings for us in the past but has never really made it hard for the manager to drop him.
That leaves Ainsley Maitland-Niles, who – in contrast – was excellent against Leeds in the same game. I would like to see him given more opportunities alongside Partey. A run of games might help build his confidence and get him into a positive ‘rhythm of play.’ He has the athleticism and skill but needs to prove he can consistently apply discipline and intelligence to his game.
Outside of those five options we are looking at either promoting a young player into the first team or going into the market in January to add a new central midfielder, perhaps one with a defensive mindset. This would only be an option if one or both of Elneny and Xhaka were sold, I imagine.
For now it looks as though Arteta prefers Lokonga until Xhaka returns from injury. I would like to see AMN get more game time, but I’m not unhappy with either option. I hope the Odegaard in central mid experiment has run its course (although it’s possible El Patron thinks he can convert Ode into an all round central mid player in time).
Over to you.