Who Will Fill Arsenal’s Aouar-Sized Creative Gap?

LEICESTER, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 23: Bukayo Saka of Arsenal during the Carabao Cup Third Round match between Leicester City and Arsenal at The King Power Stadium on September 23, 2020 in Leicester, England. (Photo by James Williamson - AMA/Getty Images)
LEICESTER, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 23: Bukayo Saka of Arsenal during the Carabao Cup Third Round match between Leicester City and Arsenal at The King Power Stadium on September 23, 2020 in Leicester, England. (Photo by James Williamson - AMA/Getty Images) /

The pursuit of Housem Aouar failed.

Due to that, Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta will have to pinpoint an alternative creative source in order for the club to reclaim Champions League football.

The transfer deadline came and went with Arsenal claiming one of their two major midfield targets. Former Atletico Madrid powerhouse Thomas Partey will surely make a massive impact on the first-team squad, but the failed pursuit of Lyon’s Houssem Aouar will have fans questioning what could have been.

In the end, there is no doubt that Edu and his team should be commended for their deadline day coup. Partey is arguably a world-class talent and acquiring the Ghanaian’s services as he is reaching his peak years is a massive sign of intent. Yet, there will still be grumblings among supporters about the lack of a creative spark in midfield.

In many ways, Aouar would have been an undeniably ‘Arsenal’ signing: young, French, and technical. While there is no doubt that the mercurial 22-year-old would’ve added quality to the Gunners’ midfield, especially going forward, Aouar would’ve embodied a bigger transfer gamble in reality.

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Despite his impressive performances in the Champions League and Ligue 1, there is no guarantee that Aouar would’ve hit the ground running in the Premier League. English football has a notoriously physical and fast-paced style of play with creative midfielders given far less time and space on the ball than other leagues. One only has to look at Nicolas Pepe’s relatively slow transition to the Premier League to see the evidence.

Now that isn’t to say the Ivorian is a flop or anything like it. Pepe has shown unbridled talent and flashes of jaw-dropping quality and surely we could expect the same of Aouar if he ever arrives in England. However, Partey’s age, experience, mentality, pedigree and playing style make him a perfect fit for Arsenal and English football as a whole.

Partey will be expected to hit the ground running and fans could look forward to exactly that in the coming weeks and months.

Yet that doesn’t change the fact that Arsenal failed to bring in a marquee creative force, which means that the role of the catalyst is still is up for grabs within Arteta’s system. However, the Gunners are not really as starved for creativity as it may seem. The team’s relatively defensive and safe approach is born more out of necessity and formation rather than personnel in that area.

With a dearth of quality options last season, especially at center-back, Arteta was forced into adopting the 3-4-3 system in order to make the team more organized and defensively assured.

With the new formation in place, Arteta was able to provide structure and cohesion to one of the most disorganized groups of players in the Premier League.  However, now with the arrivals of Gabriel Magalhães and Thomas Partey, Arsenal should be able to transition into a back four with the pair providing presence, stability, and continuity in midfield and defense. With the structure provided by this reinforced spine, Arteta should be able to add another creative midfielder into the formation.

Arteta even eluded to the advent of new formations thanks to Partey’s arrival, recently telling the official Arsenal site:

"“I think he allows us to play different formations and he can fit in within those formations in different positions, which is a really good thing to have in a squad where, in midfield, I think we were a little bit short.”"

With Partey now in the equation, we may see the unleashing of one of Arsenal’s other midfield talents. The first two names that come to mind are Bukayo Saka and Dani Ceballos. Throughout the early stages of this season, Saka and Ceballos have distinguished themselves as effective sources of creativity. Thanks to Arteta’s tactical clarity these two players have blossomed in slightly surprising roles.

Ceballos was expected to be more of a No. 10, and possibly a player who would assume Mesut Ozil’s mantle when he first came to Arsenal on loan last summer. After that performance at Burnley, many believed Ceballos would become the team’s main attacking midfielder.

As the season wore on and Ceballos’ form fluctuated – like many of his teammates – the Spaniard found his niche after the Project Restart. Arteta took an especially intimate man managing approach with Ceballos, molding him into a combination of a No. 6 and No.8 to suit the double pivot in 3-4-3.

LONDON, ENGLAND – JULY 26: Dani Ceballos of Arsenal (Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images)
LONDON, ENGLAND – JULY 26: Dani Ceballos of Arsenal (Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images) /

Ceballos often picks up the ball from the center-backs and dictates play alongside Granit Xhaka or Mohammed Elneny. However, we have seen Ceballos’ attacking intent as well which was portrayed by his well-timed run and assist for Eddie Nketiah against West Ham. While Ceballos has been performing very well in his deeper role, there is little doubt that he could use his vision, energy, and dribbling ability further up the pitch to create chances for the forwards on a more regular basis.

Saka is perhaps the most intriguing option for the primary playmaker role. The young England International’s uncanny versatility has made him an effective option in a number of roles including left-wing back, left-wing, left midfield, and right-wing.

Saka never looks out of place in any position but recently we have been seeing the youngster take up more positions in central midfield, most notably towards the end of the Sheffield United match. He’s adept at receiving the ball in half-spaces and turning up the pitch to play incisive defense-splitting passes.

The Hale End product really does have it all; an eye for goal along with decent finishing ability, the skill to operate in tight areas or beat a man when breaking into space, great vision to spot the run of teammates as well as the technical ability to play inch-perfect passes. He ticks all the boxes for a perfect creative midfielder. There is also the option of playing both Ceballos and Bukayo Saka ahead of Partey, which could prove to be a rich and balanced midfield triumvirate.

While Ceballos and Saka seem to be the most obvious candidates to fill the Aouar-sized gap in creativity, other players like Emile Smith Rowe, Reiss Nelson, and Willian could also make a push for minutes in that role as well.

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With Partey and Gabriel Magalhães providing the platform for stability fans may see a midfielder already at the club take the next step and make us forget all about Lyon’s No. 8.