Setting Up Arsenal’s Midfield for the 2019/20 Season
For the first time in a long while, Arsenal fans are genuinely buoyant coming into the Premier League season.
The positivity that – for the most part – surrounded the beginning of the Unai Emery era was nice to see, but it has been our brilliant activity in the transfer market under the guidance of Raul Sanllehí that has Arsenal supporters chomping at the bit to get underway.
A deal struck for AS Saint-Étienne’s highly-rated youngster William Saliba has been followed-up with a blockbuster (and unexpected) agreement for LOSC Lille’s Nicolas Pépé, the acquisition of Ituano’s Gabriel Martinelli, and continued interest in Celtic’s Kieran Tierney. But it is the loan agreement for Real Madrid’s Spanish international Dani Ceballos that could have the largest impact this season.
Fresh off his impressive summer on international duty where he featured prominently for Spain’s U21 European Championship-winning effort, the native of Utrera gave but a small glimpse into what could be on offer at the Emirates during the 2019-20 Premier League campaign. Perhaps far more regularly than first expected.
A Ramsey replacement in position only
One of the main concerns coming into this summer was the loss of Aaron Ramsey, and whether or not the Arsenal brass had plans to “properly” replace him via the market.
There were many to suggest that shifting Ainsley Maitland-Niles centrally, even more responsibility for Mattéo Guendouzi, or further trust in Joe Willock, were in-house solutions to a potentially season-defining issue.
The loan deal for Ceballos, where no further commitment has yet been agreed (but in theory could be down the road), gives us the ideal solution for a short-term fix provided by a very talented young player. More importantly, despite predominately deploying in the number eight role for both club and country just as Ramsey does, Ceballos is a very different player when in comparison to our recently departed favourite Welshman.
Very technical when on the ball – and can run at you with pace when in possession – Ceballos offers a more mobile option than Ramsey. Loved him we did, but Ramsey lacked real consistency when in possession or asked to beat his man if we were up against deep blocks or properly prepared defences.
In the case of Ceballos, he thrives in these scenarios. Often picking the ball up from deep or after being laid off during a build-up, he is the type of player to beat one or two men and then reassess the situation to either tap into the creativity he can display, or keep his run going into the final third. To say that we have missed this since the likes of Santi Cazorla, a fit Jack Wilshere, or Tomáš Rosicky were in their pomp with us, is an understatement.
In Ceballos, we once again have a real dynamic option in the midfield who can change the tempo with little effort.
Much-needed midfield depth
Everyone knows the old adage that titles are won and lost in midfield. A quick look at the recent Premier League winners – all of them, really – is that they arguably had the strongest midfield in the league during the season in question. But midfield control is not just about putting your best foot forward; it’s also about the depth of quality in an area as key as the centre of the park.
Regardless of how well both Guendouzi and Lucas Torreira started last term, both suffered in the latter stages of the season. With Guendouzi, it was expected; a young player, who found himself at a level far ahead of the previous season at Lorient.
But with Torreira, his form puttering out in the second half of the season cost us dearly. With Mohamed Elneny not really trusted, Maitland-Niles deputizing at right-back, and Ramsey suffering yet another injury, only Granit Xhaka was left to be reliable in the centre of the back…and that comes with its own set of issues.
The performances received from Willock were certainly a bright spot, but when push comes to shove, our depth lacked quality enough to trust rotation in it. This all changes this season, especially with Ceballos being included.
Furthermore, Ceballos’ inclusion, coupled with Willock’s continued development, speaks to us having real genuine tactical options that differ and provide balance on any given day. This fact alone moves us ahead of where we were last season regarding what we are able to produce on the pitch.
2019-20 tactical options
It is fair to suggest that Emery will want to deploy us predominately in a 4-2-3-1 this season, as he has done at Valencia, Sevilla, Spartak Moscow, and for spells at PSG.
Much of our pre-season fixtures reflect this regarding team selection as well, and in truth, it suits given the look of the squad. But in terms of our realistic midfield options (youngsters like Robbie Burton aside), we are presented with the ability to be flexible; not just who is selected in the XI, but also in the types of tactical systems we can employ. If in a 4-2-3-1, it is likely that Emery will look to use the tried and tested pairing of Xhaka and Torreira, but once Ceballos settles, other interesting considerations are presented.
Our annual struggles to consistently break down deep defensive blocks have suffered – even with Ramsey in the team – because we’ve lacked a ball-carrier coming from deeper areas. Against the likes of Brighton et al, who will undoubtedly sit deep, organized, and look to counter, Ceballos could easily start alongside Xhaka.
In a match we’d be expected to dominate possession in, a balanced midfield pairing that can retain possession and pick a pass from deep through Xhaka, while Ceballos presents an option for us to break the lines with a bit of technical quality on the ball, but also – and more importantly – provides us with increased press resistance.
The beauty of this pairing is that we can easily supplement it with our depth in the centre of the park. Guendouzi has shown himself to have a bit of creativity from deep, and confidence on the ball. Willock, much like Ceballos, likes the ball at his feet and will get further forward when on it. This allows Emery to be far less hesitant to take someone like Xhaka out of the side. Avoiding tired legs throughout the season is an option that should be welcomed.
Additionally, if the unfortunate sight of Mesut Özil failing to put in the performances we expect from a player of his level turns from opinion to reality, we have the balance of midfielders to shift to a 4-3-3 and be more direct. In particular, a midfield trio of Ceballos, Xhaka, and Torreira offers a balance of technical quality, press resistance, deep creativity, and defensive stability. One that could then be highly effective at springing on the counter, and truly utilizing the pace of both Pépé and Pierre Emerick Aubameyang.
No excuses for Emery
Going into his second season at the club, and with the right reinforcements coming into the team this summer, there is nowhere to hide for Unai Emery.
The right utilization of our depth, ensuring we are balanced throughout the match-day XI, and tailoring our approach to suit our players must be a base-level tactical remit for the Spanish headmaster.
With the period of adjustment – to both the country and the club – well and truly out of the way, it really is make or break for a man going into a season that either ends in him being extended, or out of a job come next summer.
This is not a season where we can or should be considered genuine title challengers, and no one in their right mind would ever claim that. But the truth of the matter is that this team was good enough for top four last season, and with the way the summer has gone, it certainly is for the coming campaign; arguably even good enough to finish third.