Arsenal wrapped up an impressive transfer window with the shock signing of Thomas Partey from Atletico Madrid for £45million, giving Mikel Arteta the midfield reinforcements he was desperate for.
After an on-and-off campaign last year that saw the Gunners finish in their lowest league position since 1994 but win the FA Cup, a very strong summer has seen Arteta’s side level up on the pitch.
They’ve started the season with three wins out of four, with the only defeat coming to reigning champions Liverpool at Anfield. They’ve progressed to the Carabao Cup quarter-finals too, having beaten Liverpool at Anfield on penalties en route too.
With the transfer window now closed, Arsenal’s squad is set until 2021 at least. So what is their strongest side now?
The first question is will Arteta stick with the 343 formation that he’s largely used so far, or does he revert back to his preferred 433 that he attempted to use during his initial games in charge. He switched to 343 for more defensive stability and it’s worked incredibly well but he’s said many times that his go-to style is 433, so for that reason I believe that he will now switch back.
Bernd Leno is the undisputed No.1 now, confirmed by the sale of Emiliano Martinez to Aston Villa. With a four man defence, three of the back four pick itself currently. Kieran Tierney is the best left-back at the club by a country mile while David Luiz and Gabriel Magalhaes should be the starting centre-backs too. Rob Holding has had a good start to the campaign but the extra protection in a back three has definitely helped him and if Arteta is to go to a back four, he’s the obvious option to miss out.
Right-back is a bit more of a contest. Hector Bellerin has been the first-choice right-back for a while now but the emergence of Ainsley Maitland-Niles in that role has seen him given genuine competition for the first time. Cedric Soares is also an option but he’s comfortably behind the two of them in the pecking order in my mind. Personally, I think Maitland-Niles should get the nod. His energy and pace are on a par at the very least with Bellerin but also he has the edge when it comes to defending in one-on-one situations and with his final ball going forward.
The midfield three picks itself under Arteta too. Granit Xhaka has seen a huge upturn in his form and fortunes since Arteta’s arrival, with the Swiss international finding his feet in the Premier League by simplifying his game and being able to focus on just his own role because of the improved structure of the team. Alongside him, after an initially tough start, Dani Ceballos has cemented his position as a starting central midfielder. His ability to break the lines with dribbling and passing is unmatched in the squad and he has the quality in the defensive phase too to add balance.
Thomas Partey comes in and is an undisputed starter in midfield. He can dribble, he can break lines, he can pass, he can break up play and he can put in a shift. He’s comfortably among the best midfielders in the league now and will start any game he’s available for.
An issue with that midfield is that it lacks goals. Most top midfields in the world have goals from at least one player chipping in but that midfield will struggle to chip in with 10 goals between the three of them. That will be a detriment in tight games, but they will be hoping it can be supplemented in the attack.
Willian’s signing on a free transfer from Chelsea has seen him displace record signing Nicolas Pepe from the starting line-up so far this season on the right wing and I think that will continue. The Brazilian started his Gunners career with three assists but has struggled to continue that impact. Despite that, his link-up with the midfield has been good and with Pepe continuing to struggle too he will likely continue as the starting right-winger for the time coming.
On the left-wing, Arteta has to play Bukayo Saka. The young academy graduate has come on leaps and bounds in the last 12 months and especially under Arteta. Having played in several positions including right-wing, central midfield and even left wing-back, Saka’s best position for me is in the attacking third and therefore he should be played out wide. His weight of pass, dribbling abiity, pace, vision and quality in execution make him a better option than either Alexandre Lacazette or Eddie Nketiah.
Up front, obviously it’s captain Pierre Emerick-Aubameyang. Mikel Arteta has had an obsession with using Aubameyang on the left to give him a chance to make runs from out-to-in and it has worked largely. But he is one of the world’s best centre forwards and needs to play there. When the other options are Lacazette or Nketiah, and you have good options out wide too then it’s a no brainer.