Arsenal’s victory against Southampton over the weekend was an important one. From a larger perspective, not only did the Gunners secure three points and a shutout, they found themselves back in the top 4 after Manchester United and Liverpool played to a draw at Old Trafford. But what was really important was the performance on the pitch at the Emirates. During the victory, Arsenal looked less like the team that lost ground over December and more like the team that found themselves on a 22 match unbeaten run earlier in the season.
While the match was far from perfect, at no point did Arsenal look like they were in danger of losing their early lead. The defense did an admirable job despite an early scare, and Bernd Leno had one of his best performances in an Arsenal shirt. Mesut Özil even made an appearance as a late substitute. What may have gone unnoticed during the victory was how Arsenal returned to an important tactical alignment, one that was crucial during their early season unbeaten run. And while most people have paid a considerable amount of attention to both Özil and Aaron Ramsey’s utilization in the midfield as of late, the answer to Arsenal’s success seems to lie elsewhere.
For the first time in six league matches, and only the second time since Arsenal’s 4-2 thrashing of Spurs, Granit Xhaka and Lucas Torreira featured in a central midfield pivot.
Surely, you’re thinking, this isn’t the sole reason for Arsenal’s success. And yes, you’d be right. There are many factors at play - injuries, tactics, opponents, formations, etc. But when you look at the statistics, the numbers bear out something that should give considerable comfort to Arsenal fans when the two are slotted in the middle of the pitch.
Over the 27 matches Arsenal have played in the Premier League this season, Xhaka and Torreira have featured together in the center of the pitch in 13 total matches (starting together in 10). While they have certainly featured in more matches together than that, the key element is in their positional deployment, as some matches have featured the two in a 4-3-3 or 4-1-2-1-2 formation. But during the 13 matches where they have been paired centrally, Arsenal have won 10, drawn 2, and lost 1, which means that Arsenal collected 32 points from a possible 39, or 82% of the available points.
That one loss? That was the 5-1 drubbing at the hands of Liverpool, which saw Arsenal go from “competitive” to “outclassed” in a matter of about 15 minutes. While neither looked good in that match, there was plenty of blame to spread around as few Arsenal players were let off the hook for the horrorshow display at Anfield.
A more sobering stat line, however, is this: without Xhaka and Torreira together centrally, Arsenal’s record is pedestrian, with 6 wins, 3 draws, and 5 losses. In those matches, Arsenal have only collected 21 of 42 points - 50% of the available points. Woof.
Manager Unai Emery has toyed with a number of different lineups and formations, to varying degrees of success. But the formation that has been utilized most has been the 4-2-3-1, a favorite of legendary manager Arsene Wenger and an Arsenal staple in recent years. The 4-2-3-1 has been the preferred lineup in 13 of Arsenal’s 27 matches, while a four man midfield with Xhaka and Torreira in the middle has been utilized three other times. While Matteo Guendouzi has been one of the seasons biggest surprises as one of Arsenal’s central defensive midfielders, Arsenal have not fared as well with him alongside one of either Xhaka or Torreira centrally.
So why does the Xhaka/Torreira pivot work so well?
Tactically, the pivot has brought out the best in Granit Xhaka this season. That hasn’t always been the case, though. Although his acquisition from Borussia Monchengladbach in 2016 gave Arsenal fans hopes that he would become a Vieira-esque bruiser on the pitch, it didn’t take long before the carriage turned back into a pumpkin and reality set in. Over his first two seasons, Xhaka’s defensive lapses directly led to chances for the opposition with such regularity that it became something of a running joke among Arsenal fans. His penchant for reckless challenges also began to precede him. It seemed that it was always a matter of if, not when, the Swiss international would give the ball away or get a yellow card for a rash challenge.
On the offensive side, he added a wide passing range and a shooting threat from distance with his powerful left foot, but that seemed to be the extent of his attacking utility. He was often easily dispossessed with his poor first touch, and after several seasons of good-but-not-great play, many had begun to give up on Xhaka as a long-term part of Arsenal’s plans until new manager Unai Emery took the reins.
While the arrival of defensive midfielder Lucas Torreira over the summer was heralded by many for his fearless style of defensive play, few knew that his presence would revitalize Xhaka’s role in the side. It took a few matches before the two shared the pitch as Torreira was integrated into the squad, but once they did, Arsenal went on a seven match winning streak in the league.
With Torreira playing a deeper defensive midfield role, Xhaka was freed from the majority of his defensive responsibilities and was able to push the ball upfield as a holding/distributing midfielder, much like he does for the Swiss national team. Alongside Lucas Torreira, the center of Arsenal’s midfield quickly became a puzzle that few teams have been able to crack, forcing teams to have to work harder for their shots.
A dive into the more detailed stats via WhoScored.com show an improved Granit Xhaka in several key areas. So far in the 2018-2019 season, Xhaka has netted three goals, more than he has in any other season at Arsenal. According to WhoScored, his defensive statistics have shown progress from last season. Despite a drop in tackles (2 per game vs 2.1), his clearances are higher (2 per game vs 1.7), and he is committing fewer fouls (1.4 per game vs 1.5). On offense, he is making more key passes (1.3 per game vs 1), committing less bad touches (0.6 per game vs 0.9), and is getting fouled far more than before (1.9 per game vs 1.1), a stat that is usually correlated with higher ball retention.
Emery has come under scrutiny at times this season, largely due to the handling of Aaron Ramsey’s contract and Mesut Ozil’s playing time. But to his credit, Emery has managed to successfully bring out the better part of Granit Xhaka’s skill set. The addition of Guendouzi and Torreira have turned Arsenal’s defensive midfield situation from a weakness to a strength, and have in turn allowed Xhaka to flourish in a way he had not yet been able to at Arsenal.
Perhaps the success of Arsenal is not a simple byproduct of this new partnership but of the bigger picture. But a large amount of credit can be given to the chemistry that Emery has managed to achieve between Xhaka and Torreira as Arsenal’s best central midfield pairing. With an important slate of matches ahead of Arsenal in the next two weeks, the fate of Arsenal’s season could be decided before March is even over. Although numbers and statistics don’t ever guarantee anything, what they tell us is simple - with Granit Xhaka and Lucas Torreira together centrally, Arsenal’s odds of success are that much better.