Though generations of players have come and gone, hundreds of millions of pounds have been spent, and three separate managers have been in charge, each and every Arsenal side of the past 15 years or so has side been castigated by supporters and onlookers for the same reason.
The notion that Arsenal are inherently feeble — weak in the tackle, in the air, and of mind in key moments — has been reinforced over such a long period of time that it has taken on the air of self-fulfilling prophecy at this stage. And to an extent it is true, defending set-pieces has been one weakness which has transcended the tenures of latter-day Arsene Wenger, Unai Emery and, initially at least, Mikel Arteta.
But the oft-repeated idea that the remedy is to sign a brute, a designated kicker of men to roam the pitch with mud on his face, screaming orders into his delicate team-mates precious little ears, has never been the truth.
What the Gunners have lacked since the mid-2000s, arguably, is smarts. The thing which has defined them in all those years since has not been physical weakness, but an inherent daftness — a propensity to allow, or even directly cause, chaos to reign in situations where it is entirely unnecessary.
Few players underscore that concept more than Granit Xhaka. Even at his best, which often sees him starting in the side for its biggest games and best results, the Swiss is only ever a moment away from carnage, as the awful raking challenge on Raphinha in December and moronic shirt-pull on Bernardo Silva on News Years’ Day prove.
That Xhaka still regularly starts for Arsenal is a symptom of the sickness which signing him caused — the summer Arsenal paid seventy-million pounds of actual, real-life money for him and Shkodran Mustafi set the club back by half a decade in one fell swoop.
Now, the Gunners have a 4-2-3-1 system built-around the exuberance and unabashed skill of young attacking players who marry regular output with good attitudes and strong leadership skills. But a lack of quality in midfield undermines their positive work and Arteta’s capacity to build momentum.
Thomas Partey is enduring another middling season after an iffy and injury-compromised debut campaign following his move from Atletico Madrid, and even the strengths he does have are not not in possession. Albert Sambi Lokonga is still a raw talented and Charlie Patino is simply not ready for regular first-team football.
The result of the midfield problems is a team which at present often looks as though it has been split in two between attack and defence. Partey is on a long, expensive contract and will not be moving on anytime soon, so the midfield spot next to him is where the club should be focussing immediate attention in the transfer market.
The first point of call when considering who could fill that role well is to look at Partey’s strengths and weaknesses and see what the midfield would benefit from. Per FBRef, the Ghanaian is in the top eight percent of midfielders the Premier League for passes blocked, and ranks highly for touches in the defensive third and passes received too.
On the other hand, though, Partey is in the top 13 percent of midfielders for miscontrols, only completes 85 percent of his attempted passes, and very rarely plays a progressive pass, through ball, or switches play to the other side of the pitch.
In essence, Partey offers a decent amount of protection for the defence at the moment but is nigh-on useless at maintaining possession or moving the ball forward. If he is going to continue starting at the base of midfield every week, Arsenal need to be able to partner him with a player who is capable of joining the attack with the defence with a versatile range of passing, while also possessing the stamina and strength to move up and down the pitch in a double-pivot.
Links to tLyon player Bruno Guimaraes have been persistent and the 24-year-old possesses a set of skills which suggest he could significantly improve the Gunners’ midfield.
So far in Ligue 1 this season, Guimaraes has attempted more long passes than 95 percent of his midfield contemporaries. He has also played more key passes per game than 90 percent of the league’s other midfielders, and is is in the top two percent for progressive passes.
Overall, Guimaraes is confident at moving the ball forward and doing so quickly, which could be a great source of service for the likes of Bukayo Saka and Gabriel Martinelli in wide positions.
Guimaraes is also in the top seven percent for passes made while under pressure, which should give him a good foundation to adjust to the pressing he would face from plenty of sides in the Premier League. In addition, Guimaraes draws more fouls than 99 percent of Ligue 1 midfielders, an underrated skill which allows him opportunities to buy time and territory on the pitch.
The former Athletico Paranaense player also passes the ball into the penalty area more than most midfielders (top three percent) and makes more progressive carries than the majority too (top five percent). Guimaraes is a player who helps his team move up the pitch, which is a skill Arsenal could certainly do with.
Overall, the data shows that Guimaraes is a tough player to knock off the ball, and is ambitious but accurate in the way he uses it. At 24, and speaking the same mother tongue as Gabriel Maghalaes and Martinelli, he could be the ideal player to add to the spine of the side for the long-term.
Guimaraes joined Lyon during a difficult period, at the beginning of former Gunners defender Sylvinho’s short-lived time in charge, after being picked out by director of football and free-kick taker extraordinaire Juninho Pernambucano. That he has shone in a team which has struggled in that time — Lyon are 11th in Ligue 1 at the time of writing — is testament to his character and ability to perform even when those around him are not.
January transfers for players whose contracts have a long time left to run are often difficult but if Arsenal can make any deal work this month, this is the one they should focus on.
One player will not catapult the Gunners from also-rans to title contenders on his own, but Bruno Guimaraes could go a long way to fixing issue which have plagued have them for a very long time indeed.
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