Arsenal’s midfield dream

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
Rice Zinchenko
Ødegaard Havertz
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.



  1. This is an interesting one because I am torn. When at Marseille what I liked about Saliba is that being in the RCB position allowed him to be quite aggressive and progressive in his role. In your situation there, I would be tempted to move White in the middle of the 3 and move Saliba on the RCB. However, The most likely position being White as RB, I guess Saliba dropping centre makes the most sense. But I liked Saliba as a RCB at Marseille, he was brilliant.

  2. I like the Rice signing and absolutely love the Havertz signing. If someone had told me 3 years ago that Arsenal would have havertz, Odegaard, Jesus and Zinchenko in their side, I would have asked that person what they were smoking because our club has never really been that intelligent with transfers.

    But here we are with 4 generational talents in our side, while being about to add Rice and Timber on top of Saliba, Nelli and Saka’s developments. We are becoming a really scary team.

    Havertz is perfectly suited to the role Xhaka played last season, but I dont give Arteta credit at all for the role Xhaka played last season. I have been calling for him to stop being played deep if he has no defensively sound box-to-box midfielders ahead of him, or put him where he started his career. Xhaka has never been anything other than an attack minded player, not in movement but in possesion. He might not have been a brilliant dribbler, but he is an intelligent player in terms of positioning himself, very good technically with regards to striking the ball and passing, but most importantly, Xhaka is an intelligent player in the attacking phase of play.

    In-game intelligence is something that will never really show up in the stats because there is no way to measure it other than to sit down and watch a player play. it is not only in the positions you take, but also the positions you don’t take. It is not only in the passes you make, but also the passes you don’t make. I have always said that a 5 yard pass backwards can be more valuable than a 25 yard pass forward, it just depends on the game state at the time, the tactics of the team and the abilities of your teammates. this for me is Xhaka’s biggest strength.

    He has been praised over and over again for playing to instruction, when in reality, he is not really doing what his coach wants of him, but controlling the game so that his teammates find it easier to do what was asked of them. It is very difficult for midfielders to play to instruction, outside of the DM who can be told to sit and protect, but for CMs and AMs, they have to make the coach’s instructions come to life by controlling the game towards the coach’s instructions. Xhaka has been trusted by Wenger (Very attacking possession coach with a team that lacked structure), Unai Emery (Defensive coach who was very detail oriented and was all about structure) and Mikel Arteta (combination of the two who is also very afraid of losing possesion).

    The most valuable attributes in football right now, especially for midfielders, are technical ability, physical competence and in-game intelligence.

    That is what we are getting with Kai. We are getting a complete midfielder. he is a special player. And just like with Xhaka, I will never negatively judge a player who is forced to do a job in side. Xhaka was never a DM, Kai is not a CF.

    I am so excited, I spilled my drink.

    1. When it comes to Rice, I kept hearing how he is an upgrade on our current #5 and honestly, I really struggled and continue to struggle in seeing how anyone can come to that conclusion. Even my younger brother who supports united is shocked at us letting our #5 leave, to the point where he thinks it has nothing to do with the football, just everything that has surrounded him for the last 12 months.

      So I wondered how can these two be compared. I thought about looking into the stats, but that is useless, they played for two very different sides. So I came to the conclusion that they should judged on what it is that Arsenal really need in that position.

      Now obviously a DM should protect, but at Arsenal, in the deep position, a certain level of technical ability is very important. we all know what it means to have a player that can’t beat the first line of a press through dribbling, passing and quick feet, as well as being able to spot gaps for passes from deep. The same criticisms of Xhaka can be applied to Rice in the deep role, just without the slowness and lack of defensive nous.

      When Santi got injured, arsenal spent many years struggling against the press. We still do, but we should all remember how bad it got before our current #5 was signed. On top of our #5 being a press breaker and reliever of pressure in the middle third, we are also losing a lot of playmaking in our midfield square. along with our #5, Zinchenko, Odegaard and Xhaka are all adept at making playmaking decisions because in essence they are all controlling midfielders. Kai is a space interpreter and Rice is a big English Coquelin, we will be losing a lot in terms of dictating play. I see a lot of possession in horseshoe passing patterns with that 4 in midfield.

      There is a reason I really loved the Jorginho signing and wanted him a long time ago. In a top side’s DM you need press breaking by either passing (Rodri, Kimmich, Jorginho, Lobotka, Zubimendi, Busquets) or dribbling (our #5, Tchouameni, Fabinho, Sangare, Lavia).

      The top sides need more than a ball winner, which is why I don’t see any of them chasing Ndidi. if rice actually shines, I will give all the credit to Arteta and his coaching team. But I won’t pretend that we would not be losing a top 5 DM on the planet right now.

      If Rice’s weaknesses mean that players like Odegaard have to do much more in build up, then we are going to be taking a step forward and two back.

      1. Partey was dropped for Jorginho and wouldn’t have even played the last 5 games of the season after his shameful display against City if we hadn’t had a massive injury crisis at RCB/RB. The fact is he was all fluff and no substance in defense and when Saliba went down he was badly exposed. It’s not even remotely a surprise that Arteta is going for Declan Rice because the man reads the game incredibly well and is a defensive wall. Rice also has fantastic carrying skills and vision for long passes.

        Good bye Partey, you won’t be missed by me at all.

      2. While you may have a point that #5 has individual abilities that contribute to beating the press, it seems to me that dealing with a press is almost always about a system, and not individual players. I will concede that there are special exceptions to this, like Santi, but such players are very rare, and I doubt that given the state of the game in 2023, teams can benefit from the individual skills of a Cazorlacorn like Arsenal did from 2012-16.

        As you alluded to, some things cannot be captured statistically. Effort, and willingness to play a role (another point you made re: Xhaka) are surely subject to the eye test. It seems like you are viewing #5 through the rosiest of lenses. I will concede that I do not like #5 for Arsenal. Though his negative publicity did not help, the biggest problem I have was his giving up on defending in some games, and going absent in others, such that any of the advantages in press-breaking his abilities dissipated. He became, in more than one important match, no more than a practice dummy.

        I will trade unrealized press-beating potential for commitment and unwillingness to give up on the team every single time. Both of those attributes have been displayed by Rice in a West Ham side that has been anything but stable. One of these players showed up every match, in a side buffeted by fan discontent and turbulent bouts of form resulting in a relegation battle, and ended up a winner in Europe. The other, playing a key role in a relatively stable side, sitting in first for much of the season, failed to apply himself in the biggest moments.

        1. Let us not all of a sudden try to paint him as a player who is not good, or even exceptional. Defensive actions are things that we can measure and #5 comes up very good with regards to that. It’s not rose tinted glasses, it’s realistic based on the whole of his time at the club instead of the last few months. I expect every player to have a bad period and he has just had his first in the time he has been here. He’ll, just search “arsenal dont lose when partey plays” and see the stories that come up. For a very long time we were a team that was always much better with him in the side, and that was because of what he offered on and off the ball.

          Does he match up to Casemiro, Palhinha or Rice? No. Why? Because he is a different type of defensive midfielder to them.

          I like how Tim has looked into the whole Havertz coming in for the Xhaka role, as opposed to Xhaka. These are different players, but the requirements for the role point to Havertz being an upgrade. If we take a similar approach to Rice and #5, we would have to look at what he has been asked to do, and ask whether Rice can fulfill that role better than him. Now if Rice for #5 is akin to Zinchenko coming in for Tierney (who is a better left back), where there is going to be a complete change in how the role operates, then I can understand. But if the role is what #5 has been doing for the last 3 seasons, then Rice is a downgrade, and a significant one at that. With only his defending standing out.

          So Rice has his strengths yes, but the difference in his defending to #5 is a lot less than the difference in what they do on the ball.

          1. I don’t disagree with this when Partey was playing well. In his best games, he was dominant. The problem is that there weren’t enough of those, and in fact there were too many matches where he wasn’t even an option due to injury. He can’t bring more to the game than Rice if he’s not even on the field.

      3. I agree. Many people here think Rice will be an upgrade, but I think Arsenal is getting a Partey kind of player, just six years younger. And that’s good. But the bashing of Partey seems gratuitous.

        Rice’s defensive stats are better, true. But maybe because he’s been playing in a very defensive team?

        Partey is inconsistent while Rice shows up in every match? West Ham won the Conference league, but where was Rice during West Ham’s season long slump in the Premier League?

        And let’s not forget that Rice played most of his career in a double pivot position. Next to Souček at West Ham and Kalvin Phillips with England. Only recently he started to play in the single pivot position for England.

        Many people here expect a solid improvement in the DM position, but I’m skeptical about it.

        1. This is definitely the smartest reply on here! I laugh at fans who are quick to kick partey out.. we keep learning don’t we? “Alexa, remind me of this next year”😊

  3. Tim, where do you see Romeo Lavia slotting into this system if Rice will be the 6? Or do you think us being after him is just a rumour?

    1. ha! i love the idea of lavia. i mentioned him and carlos alcaraz from southampton back in like april.

      i know you didn’t ask me but if it were me, i’d buy lavia and send him on loan…to west ham united. david moyes is arteta’s old coach and he knows moyes will have him right. my reasoning is this; assuming partey leaves, arsenal will have 3 cdms in rice, jorginho, and elneny. however, both jorginho and elneny’s contracts are up at the end of next june. let the latter 2 play out their contracts while watching lavia get more league and european experience with west ham…then bring him in next summer to compete with rice.

      likewise, i’d be very cheeky and buy alcaraz. he’s almost under the radar because he’s so young and southampton just bought him in january. however, he’s not under the radar; brighton, newcastle, leipzig, milan, and dortmund are all interested in him. i’d buy him and send him on loan…to brighton. my reasoning is this; we have to give fabio another 6 months to prove himself. if he’s not challenging havertz by then, send him on loan in another league and bring in alcaraz in january. likewise, alcaraz is playing league and european football at brighton. if fabio does work out and proves better than alcaraz, you sell alcaraz to brighton at a marked up price.

      chelsea have been doing this for years; buying young players and selling them at a profit. this would allow arsenal to do a similar thing at a smaller scale. i see lavia being worth caicedo money in two years and alcaraz being worth havertz money in 2 years. why not buy them now? if you don’t need them, you can always sell them for a profit.

    2. I haven’t seen any reliable sources linking us to Lavia but if it happens then he will be a developmental player and one to add depth. He would allow Arteta to play a number of different systems with Havertz coming in for Saka on the right and Rice playing higher up the pitch for example. Very much like I see Timber being used in defense (as a backup to Saliba) who is very reliably being linked to the club

  4. welcome back, tim. i like your team…foreshadow much? why this team? perhaps a sign of special things to come.

    i like the havertz move. chelsea were using him wrong. i love that arteta came out and said that he would add quality to the arsenal “midfield”; none of that “he can play up top” nonsense. he’s not a center forward. chelsea, and germany, are too stupid to see that. btw, i love german football; never thought i would use the terms german football and stupid in the same sentence. they did the same thing to timo werner and he still hasn’t gotten his career back on track. hopefully havertz can.

    is rice really an upgrade to partey? heaven knows i’ve been a fan for quite some time…even mentioned him coming here in years past. but partey was pretty darn good last season. unfortunately, his last good game in midfield was against liverpool. with all of the drama he gets at away grounds because of the scandalous broad that set him up, i can understand his desire to leave england. after the season he just had, i’m sure arsenal don’t want him to leave but understand his situation. with that, rice is bigger, slightly quicker, significantly younger, and more of a leader. so, does that make rice better? yes, but how much better? time will tell. what we know is it cost arsenal a boatload of cash to upgrade partey. we’ll see.

    1. Joshua and Devlin…my take on the Rice vs current #5 is that he’s definitely an upgrade. Even without the non-football issue to consider, couple of reasons for sure:
      1. He’s younger – Quite a bit, which lines up with the rest of the team.
      2. Injury history – Rice is like Xhaka, maybe even moreso. Pretty much never injured. This is a huge improvement on TP, who has missed some significant and critical time since signing for Arsenal.
      3. No red cards – zero in his whole senior career. Pretty good for a DM.
      4. He’s English – This is kind of a concern in terms of the overall team and the need for “homegrown players”. We don’t have a ton of them right now, especially if Holding goes.

      Are we overpaying? Perhaps, maybe even probably. Maybe we lose a little in terms of ball carrying? But there aren’t really any other available players that tick those boxes in addition to having a lot of PL experience and being very solid defensively.

      1. He’ll be England’s next captain, that’s what we are paying for as a premium on top of the already high English premium, the selling to another Premier League club premium, and the young player premium.

        1. This! We’ll get an obviously nicer and lovelier version (I hope so anyhow, but how many people blithely endanger their fellow professionals most games) this oft repeated tragedy waiting to happen:
          defender jumps for a header and Kane backs into him while not jumping making/helping him fall on his neck slash head; no cards… ever. We’ve been painted as the cheaty dirty but softy foreigns for way to long. He’d be worth most of this money for me just on the basis that this bollocks would be way less likely to happen because he is a Big English Golden Boy.

    2. The club have let it be known that they will not get in the way of Partey’s exit.

  5. I don’t see the point of Lavia for 40 million, while letting go of Patino.

    I have a lot of issues with Arteta’s ability, or lack thereof, to not only promote a development player, but integrate him into the side and develop him for first team football. Patino was never supposed to leave on loan, and now we are going to start losing young players because there is no clear example of a path for anyone into the first team. Last season Marquinhos was bought while Hutchinson was there. Things may have not worked out for him, but it is sad that Marquinhos got more opportunities than our own talented academy products.

    Even if it means them failing on the big stage, but a chance would be appreciated and show the youngsters that there is a future where they can get a fair shot from the club.

    If the club signs Lavia and sells Patino, our academy will start losing players like Myles Skelly, omari Benjamin, Lino, Walters and etc.

    We are lucky Nwaneri has just signed scholarship terms, but if there is no path to first team opportunities, and just youth from outside coming in, we are going to lose out big time.

  6. This is a drool-worthy summer if Rice, Timber and maybe Ramano come in with Havertz. A far cry from the days of Kim Kallstrom and Rúnar Alex Rúnarsson!


    GK Ramsdale

    RB White, CB Saliba, CB Gabriel, LB (ostensibly) Zinchenko

    DM Rice, DM Havertz, CM Odegaard

    RW Saka, CF Jesus, LW Martinelli

    Plus a deep bench with Smith Rowe, Trossard, Takehiro, etc.

    I mean, when I think of some of our poorer starting X! compared with this setup?

    Happy days…

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