Unai Emery has tried out a few midfield combinations this season at Arsenal. Generally favouring a 4-3-3 or 4-4-2 diamond, the Spaniard seems unsure what the best personnel for any given situation is, resulting in some often bizarre selections.
Emery is attempting to extract a vast array of things from his three men in the middle of the park: proactive pressing, deep progressions, defensive cover and the ability to move between the lines. He wants his midfielders to be all-rounders.
The problem with this is that Arsenal lack players of genuine all-round quality in midfield, with many of their options highly skilled in one particular facet of midfield play, making balance all the more difficult to achieve.
Think Granit Xhaka: a superb deep-lying playmaker, but one who is slow and one-footed, or Joe Willock: a player that can skip past a challenge in a heartbeat but one who is raw and often caught napping in transition from attack to defence.
With the Gunners’ limitations in mind, the midfield selections may depend on the type of opposition Arsenal are facing, and in particular, how much of the ball they expect to have. The best midfield for different game styles will change as the opposition and venue changes.
Home games vs. the top six
Although these will be challenging fixtures, Arsenal will start as favourites or have even odds for most of these games, and the right balance has to be achieved between needing to win a few of these games while paying respect to the opposition.
In the home fixture with Spurs, Emery admitted later than the midfield selection was too defensive, with a midfield three of Lucas Torreira, Granit Xhaka and Matteo Guendouzi leaving the attacking three isolated and unable to generate opportunities.
Given Arsenal’s likely positive possession ratio in these fixtures (Manchester City aside), a deep-lying playmaker will be important.
However, given the fact that the two options for this role, Xhaka and Guendouzi, both lack mobility, coupled with Arsenal’s tactical vulnerability to being caught on the transition from attack into defence, a covering player is needed either as a genuine number six, or more likely, as a defensive and pressing player on the right or left side of a deeper playmaker.
A proactive playmaker is also a requirement, in order to give Arsenal an option between the lines, and as such one of Dani Ceballos, Mesut Özil or Joe Willock must start. In big games, experience will also be key as it is the ability to understand the game situation as it evolves that is the key to forcing a result.
Best line-up (4-3-3): Lucas Torreira, Granit Xhaka, Dani Ceballos.
Home games vs. the rest
Although the Premier League looks more competitive than last season, in terms of the gap between the top six and the rest, Arsenal will be expected to win all their other home fixtures, with only Leicester and Wolves posing a genuine threat at the Emirates.
With such dominance in mind, experimentation, youth and possession retention is key. Arsenal are likely to have significantly more of the ball than their opposition, and as such, need to prioritise their build-up over all else.
This will likely come at the expense of a genuine defensive midfielder, with firepower the more realistic path to victory, as seen against Aston Villa over the weekend. However, it is not for Arsenal to forget their defensive responsibility either.
Rather, a more proactive approach to defending is needed, with Arsenal counter-pressing intensively upon loss of possession. For this reason, two mobile attacking midfielders should be selected.
Ultimately, the Arsenal should win these games regardless of the midfield, but it would be beneficial to develop an approach that makes these wins more comfortable than we’ve seen so far this season, and gives games to players who’ll be some of the most important players in the years to come.
Best line-up (4-3-3): Dani Ceballos, Matteo Guendouzi, Joe Willock.
Away games vs. top six
Despite Arsenal’s away woes in recent years, Unai Emery actually had a reasonable record in these games last season. While he failed to win any of the five fixtures in 2018/19, draws with Manchester United and Spurs, along with a helter-skelter 3-2 defeat to Chelsea early on, were all games in which Arsenal were arguably the better team and should have won.
Emery’s tactical approach differed across all five fixtures, but there were two common factors across the fixtures: one was a surprising willingness to retain possession, more so than Arsenal did in these games previously.
However, the other factor, partially caused by this possession retention and the team selection that went with it, was an openness on the break that cost Arsenal twice at Chelsea, four times at Liverpool, once at Spurs, and once at City.
This season Emery set up in a 4-1-2-1-2 at Liverpool and conceded lots of territory, attempting to play purely on the counter-attack. This is an approach that could work for fixtures against Liverpool and Manchester City, but it is unlikely Emery will cede the wings so willingly again.
Ultimately, if Arsenal are looking to create through a devastating counter attack, it will require speed above all else. Sitting deep probably removes the need for a covering defensive midfielder as well, giving Unai Emery more variety in how Arsenal attack.
Best line-up (4-2-3-1): Granit Xhaka, Matteo Guendouzi, Dani Ceballos
Away games vs. the rest
It is these fixtures which have generally caused Arsenal problems, both in Arsene Wenger’s final seasons, and Unai Emery’s first two years at the helm.
Fundamentally, this is down to the lack of quality options Arsenal have at their disposal, however, they are still a top-six side who should win at places like Watford, Burnley and Southampton a lot more than they do.
As such, a consistent and balanced tactical approach is required in order to gain the required points from these fixtures to make it back into the Champions League in 2020/21.
Arsenal were often cut open on the counter-attack in these games last campaign, with the opposition feeling emboldened to commit more men forward when at home and Arsenal unable to change their approach to counter this.
Emery has tried to adapt this season by sitting deeper, but poor defending, and a lack of midfield mobility has meant that Arsenal have generally just ended up conceding far more shots to the opposition, and having less themselves, with this approach.
With that in mind, a possession-orientated approach, albeit a more cautious one, is required. Defensive aptitude is a must, but Arsenal will have their share of the ball and so playmaking will need to be a factor too.
Ultimately, territorial superiority will mean Arsenal have to spend less time defending, and with Nicolas Pepe working his way into form, means Arsenal have a dynamism with the ball they were previously missing.
It’s a different approach to what Emery’s Arsenal is used to in these fixtures, but if Arsenal can stamp their technical superiority on the opposition, it might go a long way to fixing their away woes.
Best line-up (4-2-3-1): Lucas Torreira, Dani Ceballos, Mesut Özil