£64m midfielder big call among the Arsenal changes Mikel Arteta should make to mount title challenge

Arsenal have started well, but haven’t been perfect - what can Mikel Arteta do to close the gap on Manchester City after the international break?
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It’s hard to pick too many faults with Arsenal right now – they’ve picked up a thoroughly respectable ten points from the first four games of the season, look every inch like a top four team and can feel confident of making another tilt at the title. But that doesn’t mean that everything is perfect.

Arteta has made quite a few tactical tweaks and personnel adjustments since last season, and the Gunners haven’t quite adjusted to the Spanish manager’s new world order – while they were the better team against Manchester United and indeed in each of their four games so far this year, there have been moments when they have looked a little disconnected, a little off the pace, and a little uncertain. Things are good, but they can get better.

Kai Havertz wins a penalty against Manchester United - but it was later overturned by VAR.Kai Havertz wins a penalty against Manchester United - but it was later overturned by VAR.
Kai Havertz wins a penalty against Manchester United - but it was later overturned by VAR.
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Two selection decisions stand out as being questionable so far. The first is playing Thomas Partey as a right-back, an eyebrow-raising experiment which has now been curtailed thanks to an injury to the Ghanaian.

His personal performances in the right-back slot were not entirely convincing and it was hard to argue that a specialist full-back like Ben White or Takehiro Tomiyasu shouldn’t be doing that job instead, especially when Arsenal’s more aggressive midfield set-up has left them looking slightly vulnerable to counter-attacks.

And it’s over that midfield set-up that the second substantial question mark hovers ominously – specifically, over the continued selection of Kai Havertz and the compromises that has led to in the heart of the park.

Since joining from Chelsea in a deal worth up to £64m in June, Havertz has failed to rediscover the footing that he lost at Stamford Bridge. Unquestionably a hugely talented and technically impressive player, Havertz was one of many who struggled for form and confidence as Chelsea’s season imploded last year and he has not looked any less bereft of self-belief since arriving at the Emirates.

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His glaring miss against United on Sunday underlined the point – a loose ball bouncing to him, completely open, in the box and with André Onana’s goal at his mercy, only for the German to slice the ball harmlessly wide having made the kind of contact more usually associated with amateur golfers at the driving range. Havertz is not a bad player, but he is not in good nick.

And his inclusion comes at a cost. With Martin Ødegaard effectively undroppable, the Norwegian plays alongside Havertz as a second number ten while Declan Rice, who operates best as a box-to-box man in a double pivot, takes on the defensive role. Rice would be at his best with a more defensively-minded midfield partner – like Partey, or the experienced Jorginho – who could allow him to range forward more freely, allowing Arsenal to get the best out of their £105m man while making their midfield more solid.

Of course, the idea is that one of Arsenal’s defenders steps up from the back line to fill in alongside Rice and provide the cover he needs to get forward freely, in much the same way that John Stones operated for Manchester City towards the tail end of last season – but it’s only worked in fits and starts so far, and the impression is of a squad who haven’t quite got the hang of the movement and positional sensibility required to pull it off. Which would be fine, perhaps, if they weren’t having to carry Havertz ever so slightly as part of the trade-off.

It’s understandable if Arteta wants to persist with the experiment, of course. If he believes it’s the best set-up for this squad, then stopping it temporarily simply because one of his players is out of sorts makes no sense. But giving that out-of-touch player a chance to rest and regain his confidence out of the spotlight also makes sense – and Arsenal have options.

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Emile Smith Rowe is still at the club, not that Arteta always seems to be aware of the fact. A dreadful injury last year has derailed his progress but he must be desperate to get a chance to get back to the kind of form that earned him England call-ups before he was forced to spend his spare time on a treatment table. He is unlikely to get back to his best form while wearing a groove on his seat in the Emirates dugout.

Emile Smith Rowe hasn’t played a full 90 minutes for Arsenal since April 2022.Emile Smith Rowe hasn’t played a full 90 minutes for Arsenal since April 2022.
Emile Smith Rowe hasn’t played a full 90 minutes for Arsenal since April 2022.

Then there is Fábio Vieira, yet to really nail down a place in this Arsenal squad but restricted largely to cameo appearances so far. Leandro Trossard could probably operate as a ten in a pinch, too, and with Gabriel Jesus back to full fitness, Arteta has more flexibility in his forward line.

Whoever the best person to turn to is, the fact is that Arsenal could be better right now, still have ground to make up on Manchester City if they want to win the Premier League, and are having to muddle though with one player who remains decidedly off the boil – and if gametime was the cure to Havertz’s ills, he would be right as rain by now. Minutes have not been an issue, but his self-assuredness has been. He needs some space to get right before he can become the player he seemed born to be when he was tearing up the Bundesliga at Bayer Leverkusen.

And Havertz won’t get a breather with the international break – he’s been called up to Hansi Flick’s Germany squad for the games against Japan and France over this coming weekend. Perhaps a change of scenery will do him good – but if he comes back as the man who sliced that shot so tamely wide of the United goal, then it’s probably time to give him a chance to recover his touch on the training ground, and not on the pitch.

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