When you talk about the standout players of Arsenal’s pre-season so far it’s difficult to look beyond Thomas Partey.
After missing most of last season with various different injury problems it appeared as though we were set to finally see the player everyone knows the 28-year-old has the potential to be unleashed on the Premier League.
However, the fates had different plans and Partey was cruelly taken off with a nasty looking ankle injury against Chelsea on Sunday. All this creates the question, how exactly do the Gunners replace him.
Last season the pedestrian nature of Arsenal’s midfield was a real problem as they struggled through the months of November and December.
Mohamed Elneny‘s tendency to be safe in possession, combined with Dani Ceballos‘ preference for shorter passes and Granit Xhaka‘s poor pre-Christmas form meant the Gunners often came unstuck when breaking down tightly packed opposition defences in the build up to the festive period.
It was for this reason that by the time Mikel Arteta‘s side kicked off their season-changing Boxing Day fixture against Chelsea, that they sat 16th in the Premier League having been outscored by every team bar Sheffield United, West Brom and Burnley.
Of course the addition of Emile Smith Rowe into the side and the signing of Martin Odegaard helped change this, but Partey’s return to the side after the turn of the year cannot be underestimated in helping pull Arsenal out of their slump.
It was in the Premier League fixture against Newcastle where this really came to the fore as the Ghanaian, played 14 accurate passes into the final third before being taken off on the 66th minute as the Gunners’ coasted to a 3-0 victory.
Suddenly Arsenal went from a side that was slow to get the ball from front-to-back to a side that was rapid in transition in the mould that Arteta so craved.
Partey’s continued struggles with injury though meant that those types of performances were unfortunately few and far between, and in games where the Ghanaian was not at his fully fit best the Gunners really struggled.
The concern now is that this will repeat itself when the 28-year-old is absent for their early Premier League fixture this season.
The ankle injury he sustained on Sunday means he is almost certain to miss the season opener against Brentford, while it is unlikely that he will be fully fit for the subsequent fixtures against Chelsea and Manchester City before the international break.
Had this been the case last season it would have been a real concern for Arsenal, but luckily their early activity in the transfer market means they are far better equipped to cope this time around.
The arrival of Albert Sambi Lokonga from Anderlecht may not have been the stellar name most fans were hoping for, but in limited spells this pre-season the Belgian has shown signs of just how good a player he can be.
Like Partey he is constantly looking to play the ball forward and has an eye for a defence splitting pass.
This was on full display against Chelsea on Sunday as the 21-year-old completed five passes into the final third despite being on the pitch, the standout of which was a ball to Eddie Nketiah that the Hale Ender flicked on to create a fantastic opportunity that Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang really should have scored.
His ability to play through the lines and operate in the half spaces, allows Arsenal to make the most of the attacking runs of Kieran Tierney, who is at his best when sprinting towards the by-line to put in crosses when the game is in transition.
Of course it’s difficult to know for sure quite how Sambi will adjust to the step up from Belgian football to Premier League level. While we have seen positive signs in pre-season, the intensity will be far higher at the Brentford Community Stadium next Friday.
This though is why the 21-year-old was so intent on coming to North London despite being captain of his boyhood club.
The transfer window is in full swing and things are beginning to ramp up with Edu and Mikel Arteta’s dealings at the Emirates.
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“Yeah, everybody is ready, I am ready, I can’t want to start the league,” he said after the pre-season game against Chelsea at the Emirates on Sunday.
With Xhaka now looking likely to stay it seems the Belgian will be Arsenal’s only central midfield recruit this summer unless something changes drastically between now and August 31st.
If he allows them to cope better with the absence of Thomas Partey then it could prove to be a very smart one.