Exploring Arsenal’s Midfield Crisis
At the beginning of the season, I lauded Arsenal’s midfield as one of the club’s key strengths, with Matteo Guendouzi blossoming into a great player and Lucas Torreira hopefully returning to some form being combined with the loan signing of Dani Ceballos generating excitement across the entire fan-base. Finally, it seemed, Arsenal were reaching something approaching a balanced midfield- something which we had lacked for some time. This strength, however, has quickly become a significant weakness for the Gunners, and this article will seek to explore why.
It is safe to say that Granit Xhaka is a very divisive character. Named club captain in September, he appeared certain to be one of the first names on Unai Emery’s team sheet. One thing is clear though. Whilst his antics against Crystal Palace were not acceptable, he has been made a scapegoat for the problems that currently surround the club. Stripped of the captaincy, Unai Emery has said that he is unsure if the Swiss International will ever represent the North London outfit again, with rumours gaining traction that he will depart the club in the January transfer window.
As a deep-lying midfielder, the view of many fans is that Xhaka has been blocking the progression of team-mate Lucas Torreira into the starting XI. Whether or not this is the case is impossible to say, but the fact remains that if the Swiss leaves in January he will have been hounded out by his own “fans”, whilst the club only served to add fuel to the fire. By allowing outsiders to win, the club has given the fans further incentive to scapegoat players who they dislike, in the knowledge that they have been able to end Arsenal careers previously. An altogether disgusting and completely unnecessary set of events.
The logical successor to Granit Xhaka’s position screening the defence is Lucas Torreira. The fiery Uruguayan formed a good partnership with Xhaka last season, as the pair operated in a double-pivot. The arrival of Nicolas Pepe and lack of a liked number 10 however, has seen Emery morph into a 433 formation from his traditional 4231. Torreira has been the biggest loser in this, seeing his role reduced to the odd appearance and nowhere near a sufficient number of minutes.
Even when Emery does favour the 23-year-old, it appears that the Spaniard sees the midfielder as more of a box-to-box player than a defensive one. This is a position that Torreira is not natural to, nor does he look comfortable in it. Against Leicester, for example, he often looked lost on the edge of the opponent’s box. Rumours around the Uruguayan have persisted since the summer, when he was linked to AC Milan, and ahead of January appear to be picking up pace once again. Given his position on the fringes of the side at the moment, it would not be at all surprising if they hold some credibility.
Losing Granit Xhaka as well as Torreira would represent a huge loss for the Gunners. Currently, they are the only two recognised “defensive” midfielders in the squad, and bringing in fresh faces in January is always difficult and entails inflated prices. On the other hand, Arsenal will probably be forced to sell relatively cheaply, especially regarding Xhaka, or seek out a loan move that would suit neither party. A tragic state of affairs for a club with serious ambitions.
Having followed Dani Ceballos since his time in Spain’s second division with Real Betis, I was over the moon when Arsenal announced the loan signing of the Madrid player. He announced himself to the club with a MOTM performance against Burnley, in which he gave his best impression of Arsenal’s cult hero Santi Cazorla. Since then though, his performances have been tepid for the most part. This undoubtedly has something to do with his positional uncertainty, being deployed both as a no.8 and as a no.10. He has mustered just three shots on target in his 11 total league appearances for the Gunners, and despite having two assists to his name, the Spaniard is yet to create what the Premier League define as a ‘big chance’. Not a great start to life in North London then.
Of course, he cannot be held accountable for Arsenal’s overall poor performances, but it is clear that he is a contributory factor. His only saving grace is that the manager may be an even greater factor.
With Ceballos’ stuttering start, as well as the supposed murmurs of discontent from Lucas Torreira already adding to the poor treatment of Granit Xhaka, midfield options are severely limited. Such is the state of affairs that Mesut Ozil, a man who I had given up for dead under Emery, has been reinstated into the starting side. However, with both defensive players unhappy and reportedly wanting out, it is very difficult to see how Emery and Arsenal can solve this crisis that is largely of their own making.