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Mikel Arteta has already identified the biggest problem in Arsenal's midfield

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Joe Willock's late winner against Southampton last week was an auspicious goal for many reasons. Not only did it end the Saints' late resistance and set Arsenal on course for their first points of the post-COVID Premier League. Not only did it crown another bright moment for the Hale End contingent.

Most significantly of all it ended a quite remarkable goal drought for Arsenal and their central midfield options. For the first time since August 24, 2019, one of the Gunners midfielders had scored a Premier League goal. Unless one is very generous about Mesut Ozil's positioning - he has rarely lined up in a role deeper than the No.10 during his time in north London - that is 306 days without a goal from the engine room since Lucas Torreira's consolation against Liverpool.

The quintet of Willock, Torreira, Dani Ceballos, Matteo Guendouzi and Granit Xhaka have registered between them two goals and five assists. Their combined goal tally is as many as Sokratis has scored in 19 games. Equally concerning, they are one Bukayo Saka assist away from being overtaken by a teenager who is often played out of position.

Even if we broaden this out from just the top flight the numbers are no less impressive for anyone bar Willock, whose tally skyrockets to four. Ceballos has two goals in cup competitions, Guendouzi and Xhaka still have none.

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Whilst few of Arsenal's midfield options had a track record as free scorers before joining the club it ought to be a cause for great concern. Certainly it is one that Arteta is acutely aware of.

"If we talk about playing with two attacking midfielders, even more [is needed]," he told football.london when asked whether more direct goal threat was needed from midfield.

"They have to be a threat constantly, a threat in the box and the final third, assisting, getting chances to score and provide. It's one of the big jobs that they have."

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It is easy for Arteta to tell them what they have to be yet less clear how they can go about adding those goals to their game. Torreira, for instance, was repelled by the idea of playing further forward as a box-to-box midfielder meets pressing leader.

Xhaka, Guendouzi and Ceballos all seem to be more effective conducting play from deep. They do not even play the final pass: according to fbref they have a combined expected assist tally in the Premier League of three.

Willock indisputably has the qualities to get into the box and make crucial contributions on the scoresheet but he remains thrillingly raw, a player capable of unlocking the defence with one pass and astute run - as he did when his movement created the space for Nicolas Pepe to go close against Sheffield United on Sunday - but who lacks the hard-earned consistency that comes only with gametime.

Joe Willock's propulsive run and shrewd pass set Arsenal on course for a dangerous attack (Image: beIN Sports/Wyscout)

Arteta can tweak the formula and one factor to his switch to a three at the back has been that it has freed at least one midfielder to get further forward. In the win over Sheffield United it was Willock rather than centre forward Alexandre Lacazette whose average position was the most advanced.

Similarly in the defeat to Brighton, where tracking data suggests that Arsenal ultimately ended up playing a hybrid back five with Bukayo Saka playing so far out on the left that he effectively functioned as a wing back. On that occasion Ceballos was the man playing ahead of Lacazette, a situation that offers some indication as to why the Gunners were so toothless.

The defensive trio, however, will not be a permanent solution that will allow his midfielders to operate in more advanced areas.

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"We've found a balance in relation to how the opponent plays, how we believe that we can hurt them and make it difficult, how we can find the right balance as well for us to attack better, to control transitions better as well," Arteta said.

"It depends on the players we have available. At the end of the day we have to put all the players in the right positions, where they feel more confident. Sometimes we'll be with five, sometimes with four, in a diamond... it all depends."

Perhaps the only permanent solution to Arsenal's lack of goal contribution from deep lies in a shake up of personal. For all their collective talents none of the quintet offer the goal threat of an Aaron Ramsey and that is something that is informing the Gunners' transfer business this summer.

There has been much talk of Thomas Partey arriving but a goalscoring midfielder may offer more to this side than others have. After all it was notable that when asked by football.london to address Ceballos' suggestion that he may want to stay in England next season, Arteta lavished a great deal of praise on his compatriot without addressing the suggestion that he might extend his time at Arsenal.

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"I am really happy with the way Dani's progressing," the Arsenal head coach said. "I know how tough it is to come from Spain and join this league.

"As well, he had a really tricky injury while I was joining the club but I used him in different positions and his attitude is top. He loves football, he breathes for football and you can see that with every reaction on the pitch.

"Every time we score a goal, you look at him and it's like he's been here for six years, the way he feels about winning a football game and I love that about him."

Certainly that delight shone through when Ceballos netted the late winner against Sheffield United on Sunday but even that goal prompted further questions. How can a player of such indisputable technical gifts so rarely make his presence felt on the scoresheet?

It is not only Ceballos who presents that headscratching conundrum. When only one of your midfield core looks like he might reach even half a dozen goals a season then something must be done.




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