The other night I dreamt that I was on a game show and the question came up that I had to name the 2023/24 Arsenal starting lineup. I think this was in my brain because I’ve been watching that gameshow “Bullshit” and whenever a question about the UK came up I gamed out that I could use my travels to see Arsenal in order to bullshit my answers if I needed. But in the dream I was struggling to name the starting lineup because I kept forgetting players’ names. I eventually got there and named the starting lineup and then I woke up and thought “well crap that was weird”.
The lineup in my dream?
White Saliba Gabriel
Saka Jesus Nelli
In the dream I actually struggled with White, right off the bat. Probably because I was thinking in 4-3-3- terms instead of the box midfield and I still have a hard time thinking of him as a fullback. I had the same problem on the other side of the pitch with Zinchenko but both players play this hybrid fullback/CB role very well and once I had those two locked in the rest of the team flowed pretty naturally.
By almost every account that is the lineup we will see next season. Havertz is officially an Arsenal player now (at a cost of 65m). He will slot in extremely well in the Xhaka role. I know there’s some debate about it (whether it will work or not) but for me it was obvious that’s why we were buying him. Let’s look into that a bit and see what I mean.
The “Xhaka role” at Arsenal last year was an odd one. If you’ve been an Arsenal supporter since 2016 or so, then you know Xhaka’s limitations: he’s slow, he makes mistakes in individual duels, his touch is just barely above average and can be pressured off the ball, and he cannot dribble. Of course he has a ton of attributes which also make him valuable: he’s incredibly sturdy, he’s passionate, he’s a hard worker, he does what he’s told, and his passing is top tier.
What Arteta did with Xhaka was remove him from the single pivot role (and the double-pivot which Unai tried to use to help him) and moved him to a spot on the pitch where turnovers wouldn’t be as costly and where his natural left-footedness would be an advantage (this has to do with the speed at which a left-footer can collect and pass, along with the angles he can create as opposed to a right footer in the same position).
Defensively, Xhaka was basically told to hold his position and not engage in defensive duels very often. Offensively he was instructed to knit play together on the left, and make overlapping runs when Nelli dropped deep to take players on. It was, and will remain, one of the most brilliant pieces of coaching I’ve seen. Arteta neutralized almost all of Xhaka’s weaknesses and maximized his strengths. Xhaka’s attacking numbers skyrocketed, his defending numbers plummeted, and most importantly: the team got better.
So where does Havertz fit into all of this? Well, first I would caution looking at his numbers for Chelsea the last two years. Chelsea have been a basket case for a few seasons and Havertz was often deployed as a striker. When we look at his historical numbers, however, we see a player who has the ability to take people off the dribble, puts in a defensive shift, and when he was at Leverkuzen created a great number of chances for himself and his teammates. This was one of the hottest prospects in the Bundesliga at one time. I remember when Chelsea bought him, I was a bit jealous because I thought he’d have been a good buy for Arsenal but it didn’t work out at Chelsea for a number of reasons.
What I’m banking on here with Arteta is that he sees a role for this player and that he will get the best out of him. Arteta said: “Kai is a player of top quality. He has great versatility & is an intelligent player. He will bring a huge amount of extra strength to our midfield & variety to our play.” This suggests strongly that he sees Havertz playing on the left in midfield or perhaps even as a backup to Ødegaard when needed.
With Havertz in the bag, Arsenal are also advancing on Declan Rice, looking to upgrade the position currently being held by Arsenal’s #5 – who is rumored to be on his way to Saudi Arabia. Declan Rice is a pure upgrade on Partey in all the ways that count (his interceptions, tackles, and ball recovery stats are all top 1-4th percentile) but mainly I think his attitude and leadership will be first and foremost. For example, one thing that I never expect to see Rice doing is just letting Kevin de Bruyne run right past him unmarked in the box. Which Partey did not just once but twice, in one game.
Will Rice be able to make the transition from a low block countering team to a Juego de Posicion side? Can he keep his historically good passing numbers? Will he be press resistant in the deep positions?
Every transfer is a gamble in some ways. But I think that Arteta and Edu have earned my respect in the transfer market and on the pitch over the last few years. I don’t know if I have picked out the correct positions that these two players will play but I absolutely guarantee they (Arteta/Edu) have a plan for how Havertz and Rice fit into this Arsenal team and that it will be an upgrade on the players we currently have.