With Lucas Torreira and Mohamed Elneny having started on Thursday, Unai Emery has now used every single first team central midfield player (although Ainsley Maitland-Niles started at left back). It is a testament to both the depth in Arsenal’s midfield and the challenges of negotiating returning World Cup players that this only happened by the middle of September, whereas in previous seasons, Arsenal had run through permutations of midfield combinations by the end of August.
In Matteo Guendouzi, Mohamed Elneny, Aaron Ramsey, Lucas Torreira and Granit Xhaka, Emery has five players who could start in central midfield, meaning that there are 10 different combinations of midfielders who could start together. While I would love to spend time in this column evaluating the merits of an Aaron Ramsey and Matteo Guendouzi midfield pairing, I find it highly unlikely. Indeed, going off of Emery’s midfield usage during the six weeks that he has been in charge of Arsenal games, I am going to use the following parameters: one of Granit Xhaka, Lucas Torreira and Matteo Guendouzi will always be in Emery’s ideal starting lineup (that is, barring injury or suspension). Mohamed Elneny has been a squad player for most of his time at Arsenal, and Guendouzi has climbed above him in the pecking order, meaning that Elneny likely isn’t going to start, unless injury befalls one of the other three. There is no particular order to these pairings (i.e. I am not making a judgement on which is best) but the way in which they’re presented speak to frequency of use and potential.
Granit Xhaka and Lucas Torreira
Probably the preferred option of most Arsenal fans, and one that has seemingly been on the cards given its success as a partnership during parts of matches, after Emery has made a change to his midfield. This column has explored Xhaka’s importance to Arsenal, and the balancing role Lucas Torreira provides. With Torreira charged with the physical ball-winning defensive work, while also a ball-player in his own right, Xhaka has the freedom to dictate from deep. This set-up works with Arsenal’s attacking fullbacks: Torreira can press higher up the pitch, Xhaka can sit deeper, and give some balance to a defensive unit often stretched by the attacking runs from deep that Emery demands from his fullback.
Granit Xhaka and Matteo Guendouzi
This combination has started all of Arsenal’s league games thus far, to mixed results. The predominant issue is not necessarily the players or their performances, but rather, the attributes of Xhaka and Guendouzi, and what that means in a midfield pairing. Guendouzi is an all-rounder, and likes collecting possession deep and pushing forward—similar, in a way, to Santi Cazorla, in terms of off the ball movement. Yet that leaves Xhaka’s role undetermined: is he a 6, or is he an 8? Emery has deployed him as more of an 8 with Guendouzi in the side, and Xhaka’s been uncomfortable off the ball, with the Swiss better suited to have play in front of him.
Lucas Torreira and Matteo Guendouzi
Surprisingly, it was Xhaka who came off against Manchester City, not Guendouzi, for Torreira, and at halftime the following week, the same substitution was made. Since then, Xhaka has finished every Arsenal game, and it has been Guendouzi who has been subbed off for Torreira, which just goes to show that Emery is still juggling his midfield pieces about. Against Chelsea, the lack of Xhaka was easily perceptible. While both Torreira and Guendouzi are good passers of the ball, neither have the passing range of Xhaka to move the ball over long distances from back to front, or another skill—say Aaron Ramsey’s dynamic movement—to overcome that lack of passing range. This isn’t to say that a midfield of Torreira and Guendouzi can’t work, but rather, it needs another element in it to make it work, perhaps best functioning as a midfield three with someone like Aaron Ramsey or Alex Iwobi to add that attacking threat.
Granit Xhaka and Aaron Ramsey
This was the mainstay of Arsenal’s midfield last season, and Arsenal did not have a very good season. That, though, does not mean that Xhaka and Ramsey can’t work as a midfield pairing, but Unai Emery has been reluctant to use Ramsey in a double pivot thus far this season.
Xhaka and Ramsey’s strengths are well-known by this point. So too are their weaknesses. Ramsey is frequently accused of being indisciplined, yet has shown the ability, both for Arsenal, and for Wales, to be a perfectly disciplined footballer. Yet a midfield of Ramsey and Xhaka could be defensively suspect; if you are going to be a possession and attacking side, that generally means pushing Ramsey forward, leaving Xhaka susceptible to counter-attacks. The makeup of the rest of the side would be crucial: would it involve giving some cover off the ball, as Arsenal managed last year in the Europa League, using Jack Wilshere as a #10, or would it be through the wide positions? Ultimately, it seems slightly too adventurous for the cautious Emery.
Lucas Torreira and Aaron Ramsey
A genuine wildcard. I can repeat what I said above: “Emery has been reluctant to use Ramsey in a double pivot thus far this season,” and furthermore, Torreira and Ramsey have never played together in a pivot, whereas Xhaka and Ramsey obviously have. That is why this combination is last. Yet if Emery could get it to work, Arsenal could use Mesut Özil at number 10, and use two of Mkhitaryan, Iwobi or Aubameyang wide, should he so choose. Of course, that could make the midfield too lightweight—much like the Xhaka and Ramsey combination—though one would hope Torreira’s defensive attributes combined with Ramsey’s physicality and engine would give Arsenal structure and strength off the ball. This combination is probably too many ifs for Emery, but the potential is fascinating: the quick passing of Torreira, combined with Ramsey’s ability to stretch play, either through his own excellent range of passing, link play with Mesut Özil or attacking runs, would allow Arsenal to progress the ball to the final third in an exciting fashion.
Ultimately, it would be best for Emery to find one combination and stick with it, form and fitness permitting. He has a lot of options, and there are combinations that obviously offer more. The task now is to match potential with what can be achieved right now; in this transitional state, Arsenal both need to plan for the future and fight to finish in the top 4 this season.