Whatever you think of the departure of Arsene Wenger from Arsenal, or Unai Emery’s somewhat surprise appointment, it’s fair to say that the Spaniard inherited a deeply imbalanced squad.
The Arsenal of 2018 was old, slow and extremely top-heavy. Given Emery’s reliance on build-up in the wide areas, attacking and dynamic fullbacks who are capable of covering lots of ground, as well as a high defensive line with quick, ball-playing defenders, it is fair to say that Arsenal and Emery didn’t really suit each other.
Fast forward one year, and while Arsenal are still undoubtedly a side with many flaws, they are starting to show glimpses of Emery’s truly ideal tactical set-up, with results.
While the Gunners’ 2-1 win against Burnley on the weekend was scrappy in nature – they lost the xG count yet again – it provided an exciting glimpse into what the 47-year old sees as his ideal set up in midfield.
Arsenal started with Matteo Guendouzi, Joe Willock and Dani Ceballos as a midfield three, with Reiss Nelson making his second consecutive start on the left, and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang on the right.
All were involved heavily in the first half, with Ceballos grabbing an assist, Willock breaking lines, Guendouzi building play steadily, while Aubameyang used his pace to win numerous corners, and Nelson had his first league goal disallowed for an offside. For perhaps the first time under Emery, the midfield seemed reasonably well balanced.
THE ANCHOR: MATTEO GUENDOUZI
The selection of Guendouzi as the deepest of the trio shows that Emery philosophically sees midfield defending as a consequence of positional discipline, pressing and tactical acumen, rather than being superior at specific defensive skills.
While the young Frenchman can be poor at these defensive skills and looks one-paced when tracking back, Emery evidently sees this skills as somewhat teachable through experience, and also somewhat hidden by the nature of the number six role itself.
Guendouzi did look good building play on the weekend, but Burnley still managed to exploit the space between Arsenal’s midfield and defence on too many occasions, with the 20-year old being too slow to track back and win second balls.
What he did well, however, was drop deep to help Arsenal play out from the back, getting in between the center-backs and offering a short passing option to all four defenders. His ability to turn on his feet was useful here too and fixes a flaw in Arsenal’s build-up that Granit Xhaka’s immobility in possession and one-footedness was causing.
If Arsenal can reliably play a deep-lying playmaker at the base of a midfield trio, this opens up space further afield for a more dynamic midfielder, aiding Emery’s desire to become a heavy-pressing, hard-running side.
Much will depend on the defensive development of Guendouzi in the deepest role, but it was encouraging to see the thinking behind this move.
THE ALLROUNDER: DANI CEBALLOS
Not much more needs to be said about the loanee’s performance on the weekend: it was outstanding. When he signed from Real Madrid, Emery described him as “either an eight or a ten”, a comment met with skepticism in some quarters given the Spaniard’s lack of obvious end product. However, his Emirates debut put those doubts to rest.
Ceballos’ press resistance allowed him to receive with his back to goal either in dangerous defensive or attacking areas, with his sharp turns opening space and drawing defenders, allowing the fullbacks and wingers to run into the channels with more time.
His passing was tidy, and it was his tackle in the second half which fed Aubameyang for Arsenal’s goal. If Ceballos can add dynamism on the ball in a midfield trio, coupled with his hard running and excellent pressing, he’ll allow Emery to be flexible with his midfield set-up and cover weaknesses in the other two players starting.
Despite Arsenal not having an option to buy Ceballos, on current evidence, finding a way to convince Real Madrid to permanently part with the Spaniard already shapes as the most integral piece of Arsenal’s transfer business next year. It could be a hard ask.
THE X-FACTOR: JOE WILLOCK
Only the most avid watchers of the Arsenal Under-23s could say they genuinely saw Willock coming. The 19-year old Englishman looks completely at home at the heart of Arsenal’s midfield. His confidence is a real asset and means he isn’t scared to put his skills into practice on the pitch, where many young players can be reluctant.
Willock played slightly deeper than Ceballos on the weekend, appearing next to Guendouzi at times, but didn’t look overawed by the extra defensive responsibility given to him.
His ability to move the ball between feet makes him highly press resistant, and he’s a seriously hard runner, creating overloads in Arsenal’s attacking, helping transition, increasing the velocity of the press and adding an extra body when Arsenal defend quicker attacks.
While he can be a little overzealous and try to anticipate opponents a little too much, that is a very trainable weakness. His goalscoring remains an underrated threat, and if he keeps on the trajectory he’s on now, Arsenal will compensate for losing Aaron Ramsey on a free by having gained Joe Willock for nothing as well. Dare I say it: the club my not lose out, after all.
Unai Emery can be a frustrating manager at times, but it seems he is beginning to build the structure he wants to implement in the long term. With Guendouzi, Ceballos, Willock and the returning Lucas Torreira all possessing positive qualities for Emery’s style of play, and all being under 23, the future suddenly looks quite bright in a significant long-term problem area for Arsenal.