Arsenal’s midfield has been the most discussed part of the team this season. Whether Unai Emery has opted for a diamond or a midfield three, a high press or a low-block, Arsenal have looked extremely open. This has resulted in the defence being exposed and Berndt Leno being pressed into as much action as any keeper in the entire league. Arsenal cannot continue to rely on Leno and Aubameyang to keep them in games, so the midfield problems need to be sorted out.
I think it’s fair to say, with Granit Xhaka, Lucas Torreira, Matteo Guendouzi, Dani Ceballos and Joe Willock all as options, a lack of ability is not what is causing Arsenal’s problems. So, if it is not a lack of talent that’s to blame, the ease at which opposition teams are playing their way through Arsenal’s midfield must be a structural issue.
When you look at the personnel that Arsenal have at their disposal, there is no reason why they should be getting outplayed by the likes of Watford and even at times Aston Villa. The frequency with which an opposition player seems to be running at the Arsenal centre backs is frightening, in particular, when you consider how prone to a rash challenge David Luiz and Sokratis are. This has already spelt disaster for Arsenal this season conceding three penalties in the opening six league matches, which is the most of any team in the league to this point. To compound this stat, Berndt Leno has also made the most saves of any goalkeeper in the league, showing just how open Arsenal have been.
The problem, in my opinion, is that Unai Emery hasn’t committed to any style of defending. Arsenal seem to play with half pressing tactics and half sitting back. This has just lead to complete confusion and huge gaps all over the park.
Granit Xhaka is a much-criticised member of the Arsenal midfield, with me being amongst his critics. While I’m definitely not Xhaka’s biggest fan, I still think that other than Manchester City and Liverpool, he most likely starts for every other Premier League side. When you look at Tottenham’s midfield, with Harry Winks starting every week, there’s no way Granit Xhaka isn’t a superior footballer to Winks.
Due to Spurs set-up and organisation however, they do not get played through nearly as often as Arsenal do. The same can be said for the likes of Wolves and Everton, Arsenal undoubtedly have better players in their midfield than these teams but they are substantially more solid and difficult to breakdown.
The use of Lucas Torreira is possibly the most puzzling aspect of Arsenal’s midfield structure. The Uruguayan burst onto the scene at the Emirates last season putting in exceptional displays against Tottenham and Liverpool in the Premier League. Torreira did this being used in a defensive two with Granit Xhaka.
This tandem seemed to work nicely as Torreira provided the tenacity and ball-winning ability while Xhaka was charged with dictating Arsenal’s play and setting up attacks as the anchor of the midfield. The young Uruguayan experienced his struggles in his debut season at Arsenal which is no surprise at his age and relative inexperience but big things were expected from him in his sophomore season in the Premier League.
Emery has not used Torreira as a holding midfielder so far this season. Yes, Torreira’s energy levels and tackling ability can help Arsenal play with a high press when he is used further up the pitch. This has proven ineffective though as opposing teams are able to beat Arsenal’s press easily and then have the opportunity to run at the back four. This is because Torreira can go and press, but if he is not joined by Xhaka and Guendouzi with the same intensity, then Arsenal only expose themselves to attacks.
It is the gaps between the lines which are the most alarming part of Unai Emery’s “tactics”. When you speak of a high pressing system, it is impossible not to look at Liverpool. Jurgen Klopp’s side are the masters of this and use it to phenomenal effect. The difference between what Liverpool do and what Arsenal have been attempting to do though, if that Liverpool press as a singular unit, not as individuals.
You could see perfectly how well drilled this high-press is when Arsenal visited Anfield earlier in the season. The gaps between the Liverpool back four, midfield and front-three were almost non-existent, making it impossible for Arsenal to play out.
When Arsenal attempt this high press, the gaps between the lines are far too big. This means teams only need to string two or three passes together and they are free to run at an exposed Arsenal backline. This is not something that can continue.
If the high press isn’t going to work then Arsenal would be better advised to play Torreira deeper where he can use his ball-winning and tackling ability to stop opposition attacks and launch counter-attacks. With the attacking players, Arsenal have in the squad, they are perfectly set up to play on the counter-attack. Torreira in a deep-lying two with Guendouzi or Xhaka with Ozil or Ceballos playing behind an out and out front-three is a mouth-watering prospect.
Arsenal attempting to emulate Liverpool and Man City’s style has not been effective so it is time to play to their own strengths. With Bellerin and Tierney returning to competitive action in the League Cup last night, both looking impressive going forward, the pace and attacking potential in Arsenal’s side should worry any teams defence.
Arsenal cannot continue to play the way they have been playing if they want to finish in the top four this season. Something has to change and I think it is Unai Emery’s approach to how he sets up his midfield. Most importantly he needs to decide whether he wants his team to press or to sit back and play on the counter, doing a little of both but not enough of either is not going to be successful.