Arsenal host Crystal Palace on Thursday, looking to continue their four-match winning run.
For the midfielders starting this game, this is an audition to prove who deserves to partner Thomas Partey when he returns to the heart of midfield for Arsenal.
Over the new year period, the starting XI has become clear, more so by the inability of fringe players to produce a performance worthy of consideration against Newcastle. However, two places still unclear have to be the central midfield and centre backs.
Whether Gabriel should replace Mari remains to be seen, but Partey will be an undisputed starter once fit. He may start, but chances are that he is on the bench if fit. Arsenal would want to manage his injury better than last time, when his inclusion against Spurs ended up doing more harm than good.
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On Partey’s return, Granit Xhaka, Dani Ceballos and Mohamed Elneny can each point to the value in their inclusion alongside. Any two selected would certainly look to give a performance to help cement their place.
Crystal Palace will sit deep and the midfield will have to provide the creative spark for the frontline. They are dangerous on the break with the talismanic Wilfried Zaha having another opportunity to prove to the Arsenal hierarchy that they chose the wrong player in the summer of 2019. The midfield has to be wary of his threat. Who is selected and who will offer something in both these areas might have a huge bearing on future selection.
Xhaka seems the prominent candidate, with his left-footedness providing a nice balance alongside Partey. This can turn out to be the perfect partnership if given a chance, with fans becoming more appreciative of the qualities he brings to the side.
When he’s not playing, Arsenal noticeably lack progression and tempo in passing – his cameo against Newcastle was certainly impressive. However, against fast, fleet-footed players and pressing teams, he becomes a liability. Whether a superior player against such opposition, like Partey, can suppress those issues is still not known.
Dani Ceballos is consistently inconsistent, capable of being an excellent orchestrator at times, while disappearing entirely from the matches at others. If he can find the consistency, there is an excellent midfielder in there; and that midfielder is the second best at the club arguably.
That’s a big ‘if’ in there.
Elneny has to be lauded for turning his Arsenal career around when it seemed dead in the water. He has played more than the fans expected and has been his usual self: neat and tidy defensive presence who keeps things simple. However, therein lies his biggest caveat: risk-free passing.
He can’t progress the ball like the aforementioned two can and therefore, against low block teams, he can’t conjure up the decisive pass. He is still a useful player and an asset against sides who will look to attack – look no further than his performance against Manchester United – coincidentally, partnered alongside Partey.
Its clear that all three have their flaws, but also offer something useful. Mikel Arteta has to find the balance in midfield and whoever starts is doubtlessly auditioning for their capability to provide it.