For much of the season, Thomas Partey has been the best defensive midfielder in the league.
A one man wrecking ball, he has been doing the job of two-me in the middle of the park.
His dominance has allowed Mikel Arteta to push Granit Xhaka further forward, creating overloads higher up the field.
Partey is not only a disrupter, he is also a good passer. Able to take the ball off the defence in tight spaces and pick out a pass. He quickly turns defence into attack.
Arsenal have reportedly been nursing him through injury issues this season, trying to keep him to playing once a week. And this has potentially caught up on him these last few games.
The Partey we saw against Liverpool, West Ham and Southampton was certainly not the Partey we have seen for the rest of the season.
He looks slower, both in body and thought. More passes getting misplaced. More poor decisions made. He looks a shadow of the man that drove us into a position to be champions.
With Partey clearly not at 100%, we have struggled.
7 goals conceded in 3 games is not the sign of champions. And whilst I am not blaming Partey, his drop in form has allowed our defence to be got at much easier.
Last season, our fight for the top 4 came to an end due to Partey’s injury. This season we have stumbled due to his loss of form – probably caused by injury.
Partey can not be relied upon. This is the first season since joining us that he has started more tHan 24 games. He has now started 26 out of a possible 43.
You can not expect to win trophies when one of your best players, and potentially your most important, is only starting 60% of the games.
It is not easy replacing someone like Partey.
We tried in January to sign Moises Caicedo, but couldn’t get the huge deal over the line. In the summer, Declan Rice will be our number one target. The only other man in the Premier League that can do what Partey does is Rodri. And I doubt Man City will sell us him!
It is important that we keep the core group of players together into next season. But we also need to build on the team and the squad. Solving the Partey problem might not improve us in individual games, but will improve us over the course of the season.
Against West Ham, Mikel Arteta stuck with the tactics that saw him lead his team to top of the table.
At 2-0 up, no one would have had complaints over how we lined up. And had Bukayo Saka not gave Arsenal a sliding doors moment, I probably would not be writing the blog.
But against Southampton, Arteta should make some tactical tweaks if William Saliba and Olexsandr Zinchenko are still missing.
Arsenal a certainly a team that is greater than the some of its parts, and that is primarily down to the way Arteta sets them up. But with Rob Holding and Kieran Tierney, the change in personal has an affect with how we play.
Zinchenko famously plays as an inverted full back, tucking inside and joining the midfield to create an overload.
In doing so, Gabriel’s starting position is a little more over to the left side than a normal left sided central defender would be. This gives him a better starting position when we lose the ball and need to quickly transition from defence into attack.
Gabriel is able to play a little less centrally because to his right he has William Saliba.
The Frenchman has the pace, power and one on one ability to man mark any striker.
With most teams playing one up top these days, it often leaves Saliba man marking their front man, with Gabriel covering Zinchenko. Against West Ham, Gabriel was unable to play that little bit wider.
Holding’s lack of pace means it is dangerous to leave him one on one with an attacker, so Gabriel has to take a few steps right to cover his teammate.
Michail Antonio pinned himself to Holding and, having got the better of the Englishman west in, Gabriel had to move his starting position right a few yards to help out.
With Tierney trying to replicate Zinchenko, that left far too much space on our left hand side, space that West Ham then flooded.
The lunge by Gabriel on Lucas Paqueta was due to Gabriel being a little too far over to his right, trying to cover Holding. That left him out of position and having to make a last ditch challenge.
Had Saliba been playing, I am certain Gabriel’s position would have been more over to the left, and in turn he would have been closer to Paqueta, and not needing to make the lunge.
Arsenal can not afford to have Gabriel pushing wide left when Holding plays.
Tierney is also no Holding. He does not have what it takes to play that little bit more inside.
The Scotsman is at his best bombing down the wing, putting in dangerous crosses. He simply does not have the technique or speed of thought to replicate Zinchenko. No one does.
So against Southampton, we should probably line up how we should’ve done against West Ham. If Saliba and Zinchenko are out.
You can not expect Gabriel to cover Holding to the right of him and Tierney to the left at the same time.
Play a traditional back four instead of the hybrid one. Have Tierney as a traditional left back, getting chalk on his boots.
Tierney’s presence a bit deeper and wider will then allow Gabriel to play more centrally, covering Holding.
It might only be a small change but it should help cut out the space on our left hand side, and free up Gabriel to assist Holding. A little bit more defensive, with a tighter back four will make us more secure.
I would not make any more drastic changes other than this tweak. A draw away to West Ham doesn’t make a table topping team poor overnight. There is a reason we are leading the way.
Win tonight and we are 7 points clear of Man City going into the trip to the Eithad. But the focus needs to be on tonight.