Arsenal must strengthen central midfield - here are some January transfer options

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  • Granit Xhaka
    Granit Xhaka
    LiveTodayTomorrowvs--|
  • Thomas Partey
    LiveTodayTomorrowvs--|
  • Albert Sambi Lokonga
    LiveTodayTomorrowvs--|
  • Mikel Arteta
    Mikel Arteta
    Spanish association football player and manager
  • Charlie Patino
    English association football player
Arsenal must strengthen central midfield - here are some January transfer options - AP
Arsenal must strengthen central midfield - here are some January transfer options - AP

Arsenal's stodgy performance in a lamentable FA Cup exit to Nottingham Forest was a collective failing, but the lightweight nature of their central midfield was striking.

With Thomas Partey and Mohamed Elneny away at the Africa Cup of Nations and Granit Xhaka absent due to Covid, Arsenal's engine room lacked presence and composure with 22-year-old Albert Sambi Lokonga partnered with 18-year-old full debutant Charlie Patino. Two promising young technicians, but they struggled to win enough duels and second balls against a competitive Forest side.

With Steve Cooper's team happy to drop off and let Rob Holding and Ben White have time on the ball, Arsenal failed to find their two midfielders who could have accelerated their build up play with more incision. The result was Arsenal's centre-backs carrying the ball into traffic, from where Forest launched some dangerous counters.

Lokonga has delivered some eye-catching performances since his summer move from Anderlecht, but the pick of them have come alongside Partey. Lokonga had not started a game since the 2-0 win over Newcastle in November, so this could have been a case of working off rust. Patino is feted as a talent to rival any of Arsenal's academy graduates, but was used out of necessity and perhaps prematurely despite his best efforts.

Mikel Arteta has stated his desire to strengthen in the January transfer window, with striker and midfield Arsenal's priorities. The difficult balance to strike though, is that Arsenal need long-term upgrades on Xhaka and Alexandre Lacazette to be starters for seasons to come, but also have an acute short-term need to add numbers. Partey will only miss two league games at AFCON, and you do not spend big on that basis.

Telegraph Sport looks at some potential midfield options, ranging from expensive statement purchase to the bargain basement.

Premium rate dream signings

Bruno Guimaraes (Lyon)

One of the most complete midfielders around and the ideal age at 24. Guimaraes is a player Arsenal have tracked for several windows, and technical director Edu enjoys a good relationship with fellow Brazilian and former Lyon technical director Juninho who stepped down this month.

Guimaraes ranks highest for progressive passes in Ligue 1 this season, while attempting an average of 75.45 passes per 90 minutes, which replicates the volume Arsenal prize in Xhaka. Unlike Xhaka though, Guimaraes has the ability to evade pressure through dribbling, averaging more than eight progressive carries per 90 minutes in Ligue 1 this season.

The Brazilian has played more passes into the final third than any player in France's top flight. Guimares is also a defensive presence, ranking fourth for pressures applied and third for tackles won in Ligue 1.

Likely to cost a pretty penny though, at around £40m. Lyon owner Jean-Michel Aulas is also a fierce negotiator and the source of much consternation in boardrooms across Europe.

Ruben Neves (Wolves)

As the summer purchases of White and Aaron Ramsdale attest, Arsenal have recently shown an uncharacteristic willingness to pay the premium for Premier League talent.

Arsenal were linked with Wolves midfielder Neves last summer, and he was viewed by many as an underwhelming option, lacking dynamism. However, Neves has shone for Bruno Lage's more adventurous Wolves, and his range of passing looks suited to Arteta's Arsenal.

Arteta's midfield pivot tends to stay behind the ball and look to distribute over long and short range. Neves' love of a switch of play, particularly to the right wing, would potentially make Bukayo Saka and Gabriel Martinelli even more dangerous. The Portuguese is more mobile than Xhaka, ranking in the league's top 10 for pressures, but shares his tendency to collect bookings with six yellows this season.

Wolverhampton's Ruben Neves (L) in action against Manchester United's Edinson Cavani - Shutterstock
Wolverhampton's Ruben Neves (L) in action against Manchester United's Edinson Cavani - Shutterstock

Wolves have their own European ambitions though, and might be about to bank £20m from Tottenham for Adama Traore.

“When you want to make the next step and you sell your best players, the next step never happens,” Lage said in his latest press conference, so two big January sales appear unlikely.

Tyler Adams (RB Leipzig)

A different sort of midfielder to the above two options, Adams is more of a ball-winner who can cover lots of ground. The RB Leipzig man is also versatile having played at right-back. Given Cedric Soares' hapless display at Forest, that is also a position where Arsenal could do with more cover.

The 22-year-old does not stand out especially in any statistical category but that could be due to a patchy league season which has brought just eight Bundesliga starts. Arsenal have been under American majority ownership for more than a decade but are yet to possess a genuine American star in the manner of Chelsea and Christian Pulisic, so Adams ticks that marketing box.

RB Leipzig tend to be very measured in their recruitment decisions though, and significant sales like this one are likely to be on the summer's agenda.

 Tyler Adams of RB Leipzig controls the ball during the Bundesliga match between RB Leipzig and DSC Arminia Bielefeld - Getty Images
Tyler Adams of RB Leipzig controls the ball during the Bundesliga match between RB Leipzig and DSC Arminia Bielefeld - Getty Images

Out of left field

Marc Roca (Bayern Munich)

If you were looking for a Xhaka analogue and potential upgrade, then Roca fits the bill. The six foot two, left-footed, Spanish central midfielder excelled with Espanyol but has lacked first-team opportunities since his big move to Bayern Munich in 2020.

The archetypal deep-lying playmaker, Roca likes to sit behind the ball and dictate play, producing some impressive passing numbers. Rather like Xhaka though, his lack of athleticism and defensive capabilities have been questioned.

However, he has bulked up during his time in Bavaria despite starting just two league matches for Bayern last season and three this season.

Roca has played more football in recent weeks due to the absence of Joshua Kimmich and Leon Goretzka, and dismissed the possibility of going on loan. Seems unlikely to ever be first-choice at Bayern, though. Not the strongest aerially considering his height.

Marc Roca in action for Bayern Munich against Borussia Moenchengladbach - Getty Images
Marc Roca in action for Bayern Munich against Borussia Moenchengladbach - Getty Images

Mikel Merino (Real Sociedad)

Has enjoyed an eclectic career. Joined Borussia Dortmund under Thomas Tuchel, spent a year in the Premier League with Newcastle before returning home to San Sebastian when Real Sociedad paid his release clause of around £10m.

Was a popular player with Newcastle fans who were sorry to see him go, and the 25-year-old has developed into one of La Liga's best midfielders. Ranks in the top 10 in Spain for progressive passes and passes into the final third, and wins a lot of aerial duels.

Arsenal have been tracking his team-mate and striker Alexander Isak, and Sociedad is Arteta's home town club though he grew up a Barcelona fan. Like Roca, and indeed Xhaka, another leftie which promises balance with Partey or Lokonga. A player who deserves his big move?

Renato Sanches (Lille)

Another player who had a brief spell in the Premier League, rather ignominiously, was Renato Sanches at Swansea while on loan from Bayern Munich. The much-hyped Portuguese talent has rebuilt his career at Lille, who won the title in France last season, and was linked with Arsenal last summer.

Still just 24, Sanches is a different type of midfielder to others on this list as a more progressive No 8. His stand-out attribute is the ability to dribble with the ball and he ranks fifth for shot-creating actions in Ligue 1 this season. Could potentially facilitate a move to 4-3-3 which Arsenal have at times morphed into in recent Premier League games with Xhaka moving higher.

Low-cost solutions

Denis Zakaria (Borussia Monchengladbach)

Out of contract in the summer, there could be a deal to be done for Denis Zakaria with Monchengladbach also long-standing admirers of Eddie Nketiah who is in the same contractual situation.

The 25-year-old is a Swiss team-mate of Xhaka and looks a solid all-rounder if not especially outstanding in any one category. Also another right-footer, to add to Partey and Lokonga.

If he does arrive, should probably be viewed as an Elneny upgrade rather than a starting XI fixture.

Denis Zakaria of Borussia Moenchengladbach in action - Getty Images
Denis Zakaria of Borussia Moenchengladbach in action - Getty Images

Boubacar Kamara (Marseille)

Just like Zakaria, habitual transfer gossip column dweller Kamara is out of contract in the summer and has been linked with West Ham Unied. Reported wage demands of £150,000 a week look prohibitive.

The 22-year-old has long been viewed as a significant talent in France, representing the national team at all youth age groups. He came through at Marseille as a centre-back, but was converted to midfield under Andre Villas-Boas.

Arsenal have done recent business with Marseille, with Matteo Guendouzi and William Saliba on loan at the club.

Kamara is very much a safety first holder though, and might not possess the ball progression capabilities Arteta desires.

The potentially prudent loan

Georginio Wijnaldum (PSG)

The possibility of signing former Liverpool midfielder Wijnaldum on a short-term basis has been mooted, and would enable Arsenal to keep their powder dry on long-term investment until the summer.

The player himself does not need much of an introduction. Wijnaldum's diligent graft without the ball and his dexterous ability to turn out of pressure made him a key part of Jurgen Klopp's midfield at Anfield, and he plays in a more advanced role for Holland for whom he makes a habit of scoring.

Has started just 10 Ligue 1 games for PSG this season, but would represent a shift from Arsenal's summer strategy of targeting players with an upward curve ahead of them.

While there is no doubting Wijnaldum's professionalism, would a 31-year-old who has already won the Premier League with an English club arrive with the right motivations? Martin Odegaard's loan at Arsenal last season worked because he had something to prove.

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