Arsenal: Over-thinking Arteta has to make obvious Gabriel, Havertz decisions and go back to basics

Jason Soutar
Arsenal midfielder Kai Havertz and Mikel Arteta with Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola in a circle.
Mikel Arteta's Kai Havertz experiment at Arsenal is not going to plan so far.

Kai Havertz needs time to bed into this Arsenal system, which has been chopped and changed unnecessarily by an over-thinking Mikel Arteta, who is trying too hard to be Pep Guardiola.

Arsenal’s back four against Fulham each bizarrely played in a different position to the one they did throughout the entirety of last season. Benjamin White, William Saliba, Gabriel Magalhaes and Oleksandr Zinchenko all had great 2022/23 campaigns and there is a case for Gabriel being the most impressive of the lot. He definitely went under the radar more than his three defensive teammates.

So to see him dropped for the first three games of the season is strange, especially when there is interest coming from Saudi Arabia. There can not be a falling out there; we all know what a fallout with Arteta looks like and this is not one.

One thing Arteta must do when Arsenal take on Manchester United next week is go back to basics, and that starts with the defensive four. Shift White back to right-back in place of Thomas Partey, who has to be playing in midfield, with Saliba returned to right-centre-back, Gabriel in next to the Frenchman, and Oleksandr Zinchenko back in as an inverted left-back.

All four are comfortable on the ball and the usual set-up will see Bukayo Saka link back up with White. The latter’s overlaps and chemistry with Saka made Arsenal a threat to every left-hand side in the Premier League and gave the 21-year-old more freedom, easing the opposition’s desire to double and triple-team him.

With Kai Havertz, it was always going to be difficult. His time at Chelsea meant the German was written off by many before kicking a ball for the Gunners, and that is fair, especially when he cost around £65million. His first two games showed some promise for a player who needs to be given more patience than such a signing should ordinarily be allowed. But on Saturday against Fulham, he looked lost and nearly every Arsenal fan is in agreement that he should not start against Manchester United.

Questions have always been asked about what Havertz’s best position is after he was used as a No. 9 at Stamford Bridge, and as he struggles to integrate himself into Arsenal’s dynamic midfield, fans are wondering whether or not he is up to the task of replacing Granit Xhaka as Arteta’s box-to-box left-sided central midfielder. The German was not helped by Fabio Vieira’s very impressive cameo off the bench against Fulham.

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He does, unfortunately, look completely and utterly lost in this Arsenal midfield currently. Everyone likes to compare Arteta to Pep Guardiola and with those similarities, you need to take into account that it takes a truly world-class player to come into this Arsenal side and not look a bit lost at first. Jack Grealish took a year to become a big player for Manchester City and that might be what it takes with Havertz, even if Arsenal fans have a lot less patience and are a lot more reactionary than their rivals in the north west.

The Guardiola comparisons are there to see (we do not think they are on the same level for what it’s worth) and the Manchester City manager’s desire to randomly change things and be accused of overthinking has been firmly established. Well that is exactly what Arteta is doing right now and it needs to bloody stop, Mikel! You are not Pep Guardiola!

Arsenal were not supposed to be title contenders last season, but they became favourites to win the Premier League thanks to their dynamic 4-3-3 formation, which would change into a back three while in possession, with Partey in the No. 6 role, Zinchenko inverting and White – albeit further up to support Saka – Saliba and Gabriel forming the back three in possession.

Arsenal left-back Oleksandr Zinchenko preparing to take a throw-in.

The attack has not changed too much in Arsenal’s opening three fixtures, even if Arteta decided to drop Eddie Nketiah for Leandro Trossard – who had his worst game in an Arsenal shirt – against Fulham on Saturday.

Meanwhile, Declan Rice was brought in as someone capable of playing as a lone 6 or in a more advanced position, which is where he should go in place of Havertz, allowing Partey to move out of right-back, a spot in Arteta’s starting XI he should be nowhere near.

There is another change potentially worth making and that is in goal. It really depends on how Arteta decides to approach the battle for goalkeeping supremacy between Aaron Ramsdale and David Raya. Maybe I am the overthinker now. Maybe my knee is jerking after a 2-2 draw in which Arsenal looked fairly comfortable and created lots of chances. Who knows?

What is certain is that this Arsenal team does not need some mad makeover or fancy tactical switch. They became title contenders with an impressive young squad full of players who knew their roles and there is no reason to change things up to such an extent.

It is more complex with Havertz, who needs time to improve and learn his role, while his lack of confidence is also a massive reason why he is hindering his side’s free-flowing football. For the greater good of the team, he should be coming off the bench against Manchester United next weekend but there is faith here he can become a big player in Arsenal’s midfield.

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