In early 2022, Arsenal will lose a number of vital first-team players due to the Africa Cup of Nations.
With the tournament lasting from January 9th until February 6th, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (Gabon), Thomas Partey (Ghana), Nicolas Pepe (Ivory Coast), and Mohamed Elneny (Egypt) will all miss out on some potentially key games for the Gunners.
As is the way with knock-out football, there is no way of knowing how far each player will go in the tournament, but the Gunners could be without their stars for over a month.
According to FIFA rules on the international tournament (via The Athletic ): “Players must be released and start travel to their representative team no later than Monday morning the week preceding the week when the relevant final competition starts.”
Arsenal could potentially lose their men from as early as the 27th December and not get them back until February, and even then they may be fatigued from matches and travel.
In that period, Mikel Arteta and his side take on some key Premier League opponents such as Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur, while they could also be involved in a two-legged Carabao Cup semi-final.
Taking all this into account, here are six players who may need to step up for the club.
Albert Sambi Lokonga seems to be the man Arteta looks to as his third-choice central midfielder at the moment. But with Granit Xhaka out injured for the long term, and Partey missing too, Maitland-Niles was also trusted in the club’s last outing.
He was actually named man of the match too, as Arsenal claimed a 1-0 win over Watford.
With doubts over Xhaka’s availability in January, and both Partey and Elneny missing due to AFCON, the Englishman may find himself regularly picked alongside Lokonga in the middle of the park.
For years, Maitland-Niles has promised to break into the Arsenal team permanently. If he can step up in this period, he could finally nail down a regular spot in the position he most favours.
As mentioned before, Maitland-Niles and Lokonga will likely be who Arteta looks to first for his midfield (depending on the fitness of Xhaka). But if injury should hit any of those players, the full extent of the squad may have to be used.
Of course, it’s unlikely Patino would be asked to start games, except in the case of a true fitness crisis, but he could find himself on the bench in this period.
There are also FA Cup third and fourth-round games to potentially take place, where Arteta may want to rest some of his regular players.
Making that step into the matchday squad will be big for the teenager and if any minutes do come his way, he could quickly accelerate his journey into the first team.
In recent weeks, the Norwegian has dropped to the bench, with Arteta favouring Emile Smith Rowe and Alexandre Lacazette in the team. Despite perhaps not being at his best this season, Odegaard certainly has the quality to push back into the starting XI.
Aubameyang’s spell away from the Emirates may force Lacazette further up the field, allowing the former Real Madrid man to play his more natural No. 10 role.
Odegaard has also featured deeper as a No. 8 this season. With Partey and Elneny gone, he may need to get used to that role. Whatever position he is asked to play – possibly even as a winger, with Pepe unavailable – the 22-year-old will have to reach a more consistent level of performance.
It’s been a bit of a frustrating campaign for Martinelli so far. The Brazilian who scored 10 goals in his breakout season has yet to score in this one.
With 339 minutes spread across eight games in all competitions after he returned to full fitness in December after a serious injury, his chances have been fairly limited. Of course, this could all change in January.
Despite his current dry spell, there should be no doubting Martinelli’s ability to hit the back of the net. Whether it be off the bench replacing Pepe’s minutes, or even as a striker coming into Aubameyang’s role, the 20-year-old attacking threat could be crucial for Arsenal in this period.
To this point in the season, Nketiah has seen his first-team chances fairly limited. Indeed, he has not managed to play a single second of football in the league.
However, in the cup competitions, he has shown glimpses of his fine goalscoring ability, with some typical poacher’s finishes – including a clever backheel against Wimbledon in the Carabao Cup.
When January comes around, Nketiah will have just six months left on his contract. It seems certain that he’ll leave Arsenal and so he’ll be hoping to show his value to potential suitors.
With key attackers Aubameyang and Pepe missing, someone has to score the goals. Arteta may have to call upon the 21-year-old.