Martin Odegaard has racked up just 32 minutes worth of substitute appearances for Arsenal since arriving on loan from Real Madrid in January, and Mikel Arteta needs to figure out the best possible way to utilise the midfielder.
The Gunners completed a smart piece of business to sign the highly-rated 22-year-old, who had been struggling for game time under Zinedine Zidane at the Bernabeu this season.
Arteta’s side had struggled for creativity for the majority of the campaign until Hale End academy star Emile Smith Rowe was unleashed in December’s 3-1 win over Chelsea, in which he sparked his previously languid team-mates into life.
Arsenal were catapulted up the table following a run of five wins in six Premier League games over December and January, but they have been brought straight back down to earth, and 11th place in the table, following back-to-back losses to Wolves and Aston Villa.
After all, Smith Rowe is only 20 years old and cannot be expected to carry the burden of being his side’s primary creative influence, which is why playmaker Odegaard needs to step in.
With Smith Rowe looking like he may need a rest and Nicolas Pepe outperforming captain Pierre-Emerick Aubemayang, here’s how Mikel Arteta could line Arsenal up to include his January loan signing.
Bernd Leno will return to the starting XI after his bizarre decision to punch away a clearance outside of his box in the 2-1 defeat to Wolves earned him a red card and one-game suspension.
But David Luiz may not walk straight back into the side like his team-mate. The centre-back’s contentious red card against Nuno Espirito Santo’s side was his third sending off since signing for Arsenal in the summer of 2019.
The Brazilian conceded a penalty and was given his marching orders for inadvertently bringing down Willian Jose in the box despite there being minimal contact, and Arsenal’s subsequent appeal was swiftly dismissed by the FA.
Summer signing Gabriel has replaced his error-prone compatriot in the starting XI and looks set to continue next to Rob Holding at centre-back.
Kieran Tierney is a shoo-in at left-back when he is fit, while Hector Bellerin has managed to keep hold of his starting berth at right-back for the majority of the season ahead of backup Cedric.
Granit Xhaka and Thomas Partey have formed a solid partnership at the base of midfield and Arteta will be hoping his £45million summer signing Partey will be available as soon as possible after suffering yet another injury problem in last weekend’s defeat to Villa.
The most obvious change to integrate Odegaard would be a straight swap for Smith Rowe at No.10, which is a position the Norway international has become accustomed to in recent seasons.
The midfielder had one of the best chances of the game for Arsenal against Villa as he skied Bukayo Saka’s cut-back over the bar, but more importantly, he found himself in the right areas of the pitch and looked sharp on the ball in his 25-minute cameo appearance.
Odegaard’s neat dribbling and pinpoint passing make him a perfect replacement for Smith Rowe, with the only drawback being he doesn’t yet possess a strong connection with his team-mates.
On the wings, the potent Saka has been one of Arsenal’s most consistent performers this season, while previously struggling £72million club-record signing Pepe’s performances have stepped up several gears since he has been moved to the left wing.
Alexandre Lacazette should continue at striker given the recent revival of his goal-scoring form, paired with the fact that he is the only senior No.9 at the club capable of playing with his back to goal and linking up play effectively.
It isn’t purely a case of Smith Rowe in and Odegaard out, as Arteta has previously insisted that the two can feature together.
Asked before the Wolves defeat if the Norwegian is competing with Smith Rowe for the starting No.10 spot, Arteta responded: ‘They can play together. Good players can play together.’
Should Arteta want to keep his 4-2-3-1 system and play the duo together, one option would be to deploy Odegaard as a right-winger.
The Real Madrid loanee played in the position earlier in his career, most recently while on loan at Eredivisie side Vitesse in the 2018/19 campaign, and is more than capable of thriving in the role.
Like Saka, Odegaard is left-footed, which is a factor Arteta clearly keeps in mind when selecting who plays on the right wing, and may be why the right-footed Reiss Nelson hasn’t featured much this term.
The change would mean Saka shifting out to the left and Pepe dropping to the bench, which Arteta could be reluctant to do given the latter’s upturn in form.
Arteta cut his teeth at Manchester City learning from one of game’s brightest minds and innovators, Pep Guardiola.
Guardiola spent years formulating his 4-3-3 system at Barcelona and has enjoyed similar success with it at City having won two league titles since he moved to the Etihad in 2016.
Arteta was expected to adopt a similarly attacking formation upon his arrival at Arsenal in December 2019, however, solidifying the leaky defence left by Unai Emery took precedence and has seen him flit between 4-2-3-1 and 3-4-3 systems since.
Should the Gunners boss switch to a midfield three, he has a solid candidate to deploy as one of the No.8s in Odegaard.
The Norwegian would play a similar role to that of David Silva at City, pulling the strings from midfield, getting into the box and also leading the press from the centre of the park.
Thomas Partey would be able use his ability to get up and down the pitch to fill the box-to-box role next to Odegaard, with Xhaka screening the back four.
Odegaard is a versatile option that will be needed ahead of a tough run of fixtures for the Gunners.
After this weekend’s matchup against Leeds, Arteta’s side face Benfica in their Europa League last-32 tie, with a home clash against City sandwiched in between the two legs, before a trip to high-flying Leicester.
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