After a second hard-earned win (this time against Cardiff City), thanks to the new attacking duo Aubameyang – Lacazette, it became even more clear that the main issues at Arsenal come from the back lines. Midfield mistakes plus not-so-strong decision making in the back-four results in conceding goals and depending on the team’s attacking abilities to offset.
We explained statistically Arsenal’s defence problems and now it is time for an in-depth look at the tactical issues in the centre area.
There is one thing no one can deny – Granit Xhaka became the scapegoat for this team – deserved or not. In fact, I am one of the biggest haters of him, but let’s take a more realistic look.
He is far away from the player the supporters want him to be, but we should admit that he is getting a step in the right direction with every game of this season. Maybe that is the reason Unai Emery keeps on relying on him.
The disastrous performance against Manchester City and Chelsea left space for a more balanced one in the next two games, if we could say so about the Xhaka’s style of play. His performance was pretty solid against West Ham and Cardiff but I am still not quite sure if he’s the right player for the starting XI. Obliviously, he made a mistake to be blamed for – a wrong pass which led to the goal a few seconds later, but there is a one to blame in the defence too. There was enough time to recover the ball and get out of danger.
Here, Xhaka could’ve passed to Ozil or Guengouzi, but he decided to make a long-range one to Bellerin. The pass turned out wrong and Cardiff’s player received the ball. Then the team was able to build an attack.
There is no clear midfield line. Matteo and Xhaka failed to get back the possession (something Torreira would’ve helped with). While trying, Bellerin was working on his defensive positioning and a huge gap appeared behind his back. That’s where Ozil should’ve helped more defensively. Instead, the opponents’ players had enough time to pass the ball and send it to the box where they managed to score.
Xhaka made 3 key passes against the Bluebirds, including the one for the Mustafi’s header and all of them went out for a corner-kick. He completed 6 long balls, more than anyone else and sent in 8 crosses, although only 3 of them were accurate. He jumped into 14 duels and won 6 of them. He touched the ball more times than anyone else by 40 touches and had an 85% pass success. This is a way better performance than the ones at the start of the season.
So, it is great that there is an improvement in his individual stats, but as long as he makes mistakes that affect the whole team’s performance, we’re no good. His defensive skills are far from perfect and if he doesn’t have the needed support, the team is going to be leaking a lot of goals. Xhaka has some problems put under pressure and that leads to those mistakes. If Emery thinks to keep him on the pitch, it definitely has to be with the right partner.
The chosen one
It is more than clear that Arsenal’s fans are not excited about the starting XI players that Emery picks. And despite the Aubameyang – Lacazette partnership being the main talking point, lots of them are afraid that the midfield area needs some changes too. The new signing Lucas Torreira is waiting for his first start as the supporters look even more impatient than him. The manager is blamed that after four games of mediocre performance, Xhaka is still playing instead of the Uruguayan. But is that the best decision out of all – to swap them both, or there is a world where they can play alongside each other?
There is no doubt that Torreira is having difficulties getting used to the tactics and the team, but the one ability he is known for – winning back the possession – could’ve been seen immediately, as soon as he came on the pitch against City. He performs better and better and contributed greatly against Cardiff. He did everything he was asked to. Not only did he show the thing he is good at – defending, but he pushed forward too and that influenced the team’s play a lot. Torreira came on as a sub in the 70th-minute and he managed to touch the ball 26 times and he completed every single one of his passes. 100% passing accuracy and Emery still keeps him benched. I’m not finished – Lucas won 6 out of 6 duels and he created an assist for Alexandre Lacazette to score the winning goal, after 10 minutes on the pitch.
This shows perfectly the effort Torreira put into going up the pitch against Cardiff. Not only did he pass to Lacazette, but with his off the ball movement, he positioned himself in the box to receive the ball back, if necessary.
In this situation, Ozil lost the defensive duel and Torreira had to get the possession back, which he did perfectly, dribbling past his opponents. He managed to reach the centre of the pitch and pass the ball to the front lines.
Apart from all these impressive stats, there’s one more thing we could notice – Granit Xhaka started playing better once Torreira came in. The same goes for their partnership against West Ham.
It looks like the main issue is not the players’ individual skills but their pairing. Now that’s a thing that Unai Emery has to figure out as soon as possible. The team was fortunate enough to beat West Ham and Cardiff but as the season goes on and the Europa League starts, the players are going to need more rest and an easier approach to the 3 points. The Gunners are often caught on the counter-attack as it happened for the first goal, they conceded and that often comes from a wrongly-positioned midfield.
What happened: Lacazette lost the ball and Xhaka tried to stop Victor Camarasa with a pressing duel, whilst Nacho didn’t pay attention to Bruno Ecuele Manga and he slipped right behind his back. There was no time to react and Manga managed to pass the ball and start a counter-attack.
What should’ve happened: firstly, Xhaka should’ve dived into a defensive duel (not a pressing one) and if it didn’t work out, Monreal would’ve had time to take care of Manga and not let him make a long-range pass. And if this doesn’t work out too, Guendouzi had to try and stop the receiver to build a counter-attack.
The pair that made most PL starts is Granit Xhaka and Matteo Guendouzi. They both started in four games and to be honest, the results weren’t as pleasant as everyone wanted them to be. Xhaka performed badly in the first two games and was subbed. Then in the next two matches, Matteo couldn’t find his style and left in favour of Torreira.
People want to see more of Guendouzi – Torreira but the two couldn’t pair good enough in the 65 minutes they played next to each other. They had difficulties splitting the defensive and the offensive responsibilities and the team conceded one goal at that time. The duo Guendouzi – Xhaka (241 minutes played together) couldn’t work out perfectly too. The team conceded 7 goals whilst these two were in the midfield area. Matteo couldn’t position himself properly, and we all know how limited Xhaka’s defensive skills are.
Then, despite the only 54 minutes of playing time, Xhaka and Torreira showed a more stable performance. Lucas was dealing with the defending part and Xhaka had more time on the ball and a better chance to deliver. Maybe it is just a matter of time to figure out if that is the best choice amongst the possible partnerships.
Mkhitaryan or Ozil
As I already mentioned why Arsenal might be stronger without Mesut Ozil. The German is not getting the appreciation of the supporters so far this season. His performance is so mediocre that it is hard to notice he is on the pitch. And that’s what happened against Cardiff too. Emery made it clear that whenever he is not satisfied with someone’s performance, he is not going to hesitate to leave him on the bench. His hard time adapting to the new tactical scheme is going to be crucial for choosing among him and Henrikh Mkhitaryan.
Actually, there is some food for thought: If the team has Ramsey, Aubameyang and Lacazette upfront, there is no need for the Gunners top goal-contributor so far – Mkhitaryan. Ozil could get his hands a bit dirty and help out just a little because the creativity of the trio is strong enough, even without a support. But if one of the duo Auba – Laca is benched, it is a necessity for Arsenal to have Mikhi out there, because Mesut can’t take it all and his creativity level has dropped to 1%.
There is a lot to be concerned about when it comes to the Arsenal midfield, but it looks like Emery is one or two decisions away from fixing things. Torreira needs to contribute not only defensively but to go up-front too. Xhaka has to be calmer and needs to try to improve his participation in the back-line actions. Gunedouzi needs to be more confident and position himself better. All this is a matter of pairing and using each one’s strengths to help other’s weaknesses.