In the 2007-08 Premier League season, Arsenal came within touching distance of winning the league. The team was ahead of the pile in February and even Ryan Giggs, the-then electric winger playing for Manchester United and one of the captains admitted it was going to be hard to catch the Gunners.
Arsenal suffered injuries in midfield and the Premier League onslaught came crashing as the Gunners finished third, four points behind eventual winners Manchester United and two behind Chelsea. Despite the failed Premier League campaign, the Gunners accrued 83 points, a tally they are yet to beat.
Figure 1: Rosicky, Hleb & Fabregas
At the time, Arsenal had an embarrassment of riches in midfield: Spanish dynamite Cesc Fabregas pulled strings in midfield and had Matheu Flamini doing the dirty work with Tomas Rosicky and Aleksandr Hleb completing the quartet mostly occupying opposite flanks. The combination of Cesc, Rosicky and Hleb was dubbed the ‘holy trinity’ for their style, technique, precision and dominance on the ball. The team played attractively, created chances at will and entertained masses in ways not seen by many teams across the country.
11 years later, Arsenal finds itself with a new manager, a new set of players and new problems. Arsenal’s defensive frailties are well documented and so is its tendency to slip up when least expected. On top of these inherent issues, midfield problems have began to take prominence in this campaign threatening to rip apart a team that looked destined to nail a top four spot with Tottenham Hotspurs struggling, Man United stumbling and Chelsea fumbling. 10 match days in and that thought remains as faint as Unai’s future beyond this season, his main undoing; his midfield selection.
Figure 2: Guendouzi, Torreira & Ceballos
The Spaniard only may be in his second season in the premier league but his midfield selections are unforgivable. Emery’s midfield cannot protect the back four, cannot create chances nor at the very least even keep the team ticking for long. Unai has mostly played Xhaka, Guendouzi, Torreira, Willock, and Ceballos through the middle in this campaign. Not only does this midfield lack creativity but also a spine to hold down a team with ambitions as big as Arsenal’s this season.
Granit Xhaka has been used as an anchorman and his best contribution has been conceding penalties and picking up cheap yellow cards every match day. Guendouzi is young and still has a lot to learn but clearly those lessons can’t come from Xhaka. Young Willock is only getting used to first team football while Ceballos for all his good play hasn’t done enough to warrant him a permanent position in a top four team in the toughest league in the world. Torreira can defend but the manager seems to have other ideas for him, ideas that involve him poking up in and around the opposition’s box rather than his own.
Figure 3: Willock and Xhaka
Unai Emery recently remarked that the Arsenal hierarchy is well in tune with his decision to shut out World Cup-winner Mesut Ozil. It is a no brainer that Ozil is beyond his peak but it’s less obvious about whether he can still contribute creatively to this Arsenal side or not. The German may not innately possess the physicality Unai craves but has bundles of creativity in him. Surely a player with over 200 career assists knows a thing or two about carving out chances for teammates.
The German doesn’t have to be an automatic first choice pick but could benefit Arsenal greatly coming off the bench in games where the score is tied or uneven at the Gunners’ disadvantage. He could also get a run in the Europa league and cup games to keep him match fit. While none of these has been happening, no arsenal player has stepped up to the creative mantle just yet. Arsenal have now started scraping goals off corner kicks as witnessed at the Emirates on Sunday against Crystal Palace with centre half goal scorers.
Figure 4: Emery and Ozil
While Unai’s pride won’t let him admit this team’s lack of creativity and need to reintegrate Ozil, the thought of being jobless at the end of the campaign should be compelling enough. He needs the German even if it is on a bit-part role so that a team of Arsenal’s caliber doesn’t feed off corner kicks’ luck.
Much has been said about Nicholas Pepe’s struggles at Arsenal. But with a midfield trio of Willock, Guendouzi and Xhaka you don’t expect him to get too many balls in the right areas. Aubameyang is a centre forward of world-class finishing ability. However his goals have decimated due to among many reasons a lack of creativity in the team. It must be really hard for him to go from lining up ahead of Ousman Dembele, Marco Reus and Gotze to having Xhaka, Guendouzi and Torreira in his feeder channel.
A close look at opponent’s midfield options makes Emery even more culpable. Liverpool and Manchester City have midfield options not many teams in the world have. Chelsea has brilliant midfielders in Jorginho, Kovacic, Kante, Mount and Barkley. Man United for all their struggles have Pogba who is world-class on his day with a supporting cast that isn’t too illustrious but industrious. Tottenham Hotspur has by far a better midfield than both Man United and Arsenal. In fact many pundits hold the opinion that Leicester City’s midfield trio of Ndidi, Maddison and Tielemans may be better than any of the three Unai has lined up at the heart of the Arsenal midfield all season.
One thing is clear about this season, if Unai Emery doesn’t get Champions League football, he gets the sack. If these early signs are his preparations for a grand finale come May 2020 then a lot of shake ups have to be expected and most importantly in the engine room. He must get his midfield to do at least one job right. Failing to both protect the back four and create chances is the ultimate definition of midfield malfunction.
Follow Luke on Twitter @LukeSparrow3