Forget Vlahovic: Arsenal's true transfer priority exposed by FA Cup catastrophe at Nottingham Forest

Albert Sambi Lokonga, Arsenal FA Cup 2021-22Getty

All the talk at Arsenal right now has centred around the speculation linking Dusan Vlahovic with a big money move to north London.

But while there is no doubt the Gunners do need to add a prolific striker to their squad if they want to close the gap to the Premier League’s elite sides, the embarrassing FA Cup defeat at Nottingham Forest highlighted their most pressing need during the January transfer window.

Mikel Arteta’s options in midfield are threadbare right now, and it is there where the Arsenal boss, along with technical director Edu, must focus their attention during the coming weeks.

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“I want to try to get the best out of the players we have,” Arteta said after Sunday’s 1-0 loss at the City Ground.

“It’s clear where we need to strengthen, but at the moment it’s what we have and what we have has to play.”

With Thomas Partey and Mohamed Elneny both away at the Africa Cup of Nations throughout January, this was always going to be a month that stretched Arteta’s midfield options to the limit.

But the issue was exacerbated against Forest as Granit Xhaka missed out due to a positive Covid-19 test just days after the decision was made to let Ainsley Maitland-Niles leave on loan to Roma.

Had Maitland-Niles still been around, the 24-year-old would surely have started at the City Ground, but Arsenal opted to let the England international make the move to Italy before the game.

Ainsley Maitland-Niles Roma GFX
Getty/GOAL

With Partey and Elneny already absent, it seemed like a risky decision to let the Hale End graduate go so early in the window - but Roma were adamant they wanted the deal done now, rather than at the end of the month.

“We are very, very short at the moment, but this cannot be the only argument to try to keep a player,” Arteta explained in the build-up to the Forest game, when giving the reasons for Maitland-Niles’ departure.

“Ainsley came to me and explained the reasons why he thought that the best thing for him in his career right now is to move away.

“We already had this conversation in the summer and we decided to keep him at the club and assess the situation in December, but with the amount of minutes that he has played, he’s entitled to that opportunity.

“And when a player feels that way and has a strong argument like he has, it’s very difficult to turn it away, so we decided to let him go."

While that may be a noble stance on Arteta’s and Arsenal’s part, there is no doubt that the decision has left the Gunners very light when it comes to central midfield.

Mikel Arteta Arsenal GFX
Getty/GOAL

The absence of Partey and Elneny was always going to create problems, but the sudden loss of Xhaka has made things even more difficult.

It is unclear when the Switzerland international will be cleared to return, but with games against Liverpool and Tottenham to come this week, Arteta will be keeping everything crossed that he gets the green light to feature.

“It will depend on the next few games and how he’s feeling,” Arteta said, when pressed on the subject after Arsenal exited the FA Cup at the third round stage for only the second time in 25 years.

Should Xhaka not return in time for Thursday night’s Carabao Cup semi-final first leg against Liverpool, then Arteta could be forced once again to go with a central midfield of Sambi Lokonga and teenager Charlie Patino against Liverpool.

The latter was handed his first ever senior start on Sunday and it was understandably a very difficult evening for the 18-year-old. Patino’s potential cannot be questioned, but throwing a player so young into an already depleted side was always going to leave him with an uphill task.

Charlie Patino Arsenal GFX
Getty/GOAL

He needed an experienced head alongside him, but in Lokonga he had a player who had barely played any football in the past six weeks. Arsenal’s summer signing from Anderlecht looked rusty, and that left Arteta’s side exposed in central midfield.

The visitors were unable to get any sort of control in the middle of the park and from early on it looked clear that the only way they were going to score was through a moment of individual quality from the forwards.

That never materialised, however, and Arsenal were deservedly beaten, with Arteta’s side failing to muster a single shot on target.

“We are going to look for options, because we are very short,” Arteta admitted when discussing the future of his midfield. “We are going to move.

“I think with the amount of things and the way that we want to evolve the squad we have to maximise every window in many different ways and we are alert

“Edu and his team are working very hard as we know exactly what we need to do. Whether we can accomplish that in January or in the summer is a different question, as it is related to other stuff.”

The issue for Arsenal, however, is they cannot really afford to wait until the summer to bring in a midfield reinforcement. Even when Partey and Elneny return, they still look short in the middle of the park.

The Gunners have given themselves a real chance of achieving a top-four spot in the Premier League this season, securing themselves a long-awaited return to the Champions League.

So to weaken themselves now - which they have by allowing Maitland-Niles to leave - would be bordering on criminal.

The priority is clear and that was highlighted perfectly by events in Nottingham on Sunday night. There is still time for Arteta and Edu to fix the issue, and the club showed with their recruitment in the summer of 2021 that they can be smart when it comes to the transfer market.

But they must act now or they risk undoing a lot of the good work that has gone on during the past few months.