ARSENAL are facing a midfield dilemma ahead of their most important week of the season so far.
And the decision to allow Ainsley Maitland-Niles to join Roma on loan has already backfired, after Granit Xhaka tested positive for Covid at the weekend.
That means Albert Sambi Lokonga, 22, and 18-year-old rookie Charlie Patino will be the only central midfield players available for Thursday’s trip to Liverpool for the delayed first leg of their Carabao Cup semi-final.
The 29-year-old Xhaka, who refused to be vaccinated before he tested positive while on international duty with Switzerland last September, is currently in isolation along with striker Folarin Balogun, 20.
And even though he is due out of quarantine before the weekend, he will have missed a full week’s training before the game against Spurs, who are two places below Arteta’s side in sixth.
But with Thomas Partey and Mohamed Elneny away at the Africa Cup of Nations, Arteta is desperately hoping to strengthen his squad with an emergency loan signing.
He knows it is crucial for his team to hold their nerve after back-to-back defeats to Manchester City in the Premier League and Nottingham Forest in the FA Cup.
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But with the Spurs game sandwiched between the two legs of the Carabao Cup semi-final, the next ten days could have a huge bearing on the Gunners’ ambitions to win a trophy and secure a top-four finish.
Arteta was deeply unimpressed by his players’ efforts during Sunday’s shock Cup exit.
No one struggled more than Patino, who was substituted 21 minutes from the end of his first start for the club.
Now Arteta wants to protect the promising youngster from unrealistic expectations at such a crucial stage of his career.
And he will be reluctant to include Patino in the starting line-up at Anfield on Thursday with so much at stake. That could mean Martin Odegaard dropping into a deeper role or a defender, such as Ben White or Calum Chambers, moving into midfield.
But neither solution would be perfect, causing even greater dismay over the timing of Maitland-Niles’ departure to Roma.
Arteta had been extremely reluctant to allow the England international to leave until the end of the month because of concerns over a lack of cover.
But both Maitland-Niles and Roma boss Jose Mourinho made it clear they were not prepared to wait — and now Arteta’s worst fears have been realised.
To add insult to injury, central midfielders Matteo Guendouzi and Lucas Torreira have also been loaned out by Arsenal and will need to be sold to fund any potential new signings.
Arteta spoke of his midfield issues last week and claimed: “We are going to look for options because we are very short there.”
But he seemed less optimistic after Sunday’s setback, admitting: “I think it’s clear where we need to strengthen but at the moment we have to try to get the best out of the players we have.”
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