After last week’s look at the defenders, I’m back for another round of grading Arsenal players and their seasons, this time of the midfielders, and I might have gotten a little emotional. Might. At any rate, this is how I saw the season, and only this season, and how these individual players performed in regards to their role, potential, and actual output.
Arsenal at their best are known for their liquid football, their jazz-like freedom and pizazz. You don’t get to be that free and without limits without having the midfield to create it, and Arsenal has a long legacy of having some of the best midfielders in the history of the Premier League roam the middle of the Highbury and Emirates pitches. The standard for the current Arsenal players has been set by the ones that have come before them, and so my grading of these players is going to be strict but fair.
This season wasn’t a good one for the midfield, it was a trying one. One where many of the players were stretched to the brink were sometimes asked to do more than they could handle.
29 PL 8 EL appearances
Goals: 7 Assists: 4
Xhaka has been one of Arsenal’s most relied upon midfielders in his three years at the club, and the club have failed to make the top four in every single one of those seasons. I’m not blaming it solely on Xhaka, but when you buy a £35 million midfield player, you expect him to make an instant impact and improve the players around him. He did neither of those things, and is frankly a liability defensively.
Xhaka is supposed to be the last line of defense before the defense. An additional, albeit somewhat unfair, expectation is placed on him by being expected to protect the weakest link in our team, and he hasn’t done that in the slightest. The last three seasons have been the worst years for our defense in two decades - Arsenal have given up 51 goals in each of the last two seasons, after giving up 33 in Xhaka’s first season at the club. Again, not all those goals conceded are on Xhaka, but with him as ostensibly a defensive midfielder, the defense shouldn’t need to do as much work as they have.
When you are as immobile as Xhaka is, it only makes the issue worse. The perfect example of this is the Brighton game, where he tracked back to stop a fast break, and due to his lack of agility ended up bringing the attacker down in Arsenal’s box, giving away the penalty that put the last nail in this Arsenal season’s coffin.
On the positive side, he is an extraordinary passer. He often sets the tone for Arsenal by keeping the ball moving from one wing to the other, and his passing in the final third of the pitch is something that is incredibly valuable to this team. He is often our metronome, and on his day he is one of the best controllers of the game in Europe. That said, we didn’t see that enough this season, and on top of the defensive lapses and aberrations, his season was one that he is going to look back on with a good amount of regret. Maybe the World Cup had something to do with it, but he was not up to standard this season in my book.
24(10) PL 5(6) EL appearances
Goals: 2 Assists: 3
Undoubtedly the signing of the season, the Uruguayan Tasmanian Devil was one of the main reasons for Arsenal’s incredible 22-game unbeaten streak this past fall, and brought an edge and toughness to Arsenal’s midfield that hasn’t been seen in many moons (I still love you Francis Coquelin). But after the fall, Torreira was hit hard by the busy winter schedule, and, understandably, tired out due to giving his absolute everything at the World Cup this past summer. When he was on, though, it was not only his tackling and defensive awareness that stuck out, but his quick passing and the ability to draw fouls under pressure which was also a breath of fresh air to Arsenal fans everywhere.
If those traits above are merely a breath of fresh air, then his goal against Tottenham in the 4-2 comeback win was like getting a charge of electricity straight to the heart from a defibrillator. I felt the Emirates erupt after Torreira slipped past the bumbling Eric Dier and blasted a shot past Hugo Lloris, and I live 5,297 miles away. The euphoric surge that pumped through all Arsenal fans seemed to have gotten to our little giant as well, as he ripped off his red and white shirt and knee slid directly into our hearts forever. The cherry on top to a Sunday that we will never forget.
The rest of the season was pretty average for Torreira, as he and Arsenal limped alongside each other to a fifth place finish. But that goal against Tottenham and his titanic performance against Liverpool at home are burned into my memory of a fine first season for a player that just turned 23 in February.
23(10) PL 7(3) EL appearances
Goals: 1 Assists: 0
Arriving from Lorient in the summer, Matteo Guendouzi was someone that Arsenal fans knew little to nothing about. Luckily, our now departed friend Sven Mislintat did, and that six-something million pounds that Arsenal paid for him a little under a year ago has now turned into one of the best bits of business that the club have done since the glory days of the early 2000s. In a matter of six months, Guendouzi grew from a £6 million player to a £30 million pound player, and it isn’t because of his magnificent locks.
By the end of August, Arsenal realized that they had a serious player on their hands. He started the first two matches against eventual champions Manchester City and Chelsea, two of the most dominant English clubs this decade, and Guendouzi was absolutely everywhere. Did he do everything right? No. But he knew he belonged on that field, and after 180 minutes, everyone else did too.
Guendouzi quickly became an Emery favorite, and the Spaniard played the 19 year old practically as much as he could. In a year where not a lot of youth players have been able to break through and make a difference, talented ones at that, the trust that Emery placed in the 19 year speaks volumes to how important he is to the club moving forward.
Guendouzi’s early injection into the squad seemed to take its toll later in the season though, as the all-action midfielder looked exhausted for the last two months of the season. I’m not going to fault him, as without him, Arsenal’s midfield gets extremely sketchy. It was an all around outstanding first season from the youngster, and I can only hope he can be at the club for the next decade.
5(3) PL 5(2) EL appearances
Goals: 0 Assists: 1
One of the more positive guys in the squad, Mohamed Elneny unfortunately also isn’t that good at soccer. He has seen his stock at Arsenal completely plummet; the Egyptian with awesome hair was completely overtaken by a Frenchman of similar hair in Matteo Guendouzi. The reliable backup that was Elneny in recent years couldn’t even get a smidge of playing time, and found himself being left off the team sheet for many games this season. Wenger used him as almost a hybrid CDM/CB and had him in the middle of the back three at times, but Emery was much more reluctant to try and shoehorn Elneny into the squad, much less the starting eleven.
If Elneny wants to get playing time he is going to have to get it somewhere else, and I wish him all the best. I just don’t see a scenario where he can change Emery’s mind over the next few months for him to even justify staying. He had a poor season and didn’t make a difference in any of the games he did get to play in, so I feel like a D is a fair grade.
1(1) PL 2 EL appearances
Goals: 1 Assists: 0
One of the most promising products to come out of Hale End this decade showed flashes of his potential throughout the season, but those were exactly that, flashes. Emery gave pretty much the entire leash to Guendouzi from the get go, but was unable to be able to transfer that same trust to the Arsenal Academy players, and no person was hurt by that distrust than Willock. A scoring midfielder who has a great feel for the game positionally looks like a bargain Aaron Ramsey replacement. Of course he isn’t at that stage now, but he is only 19 and has a couple years ahead in his development. I can only hope that Emery fully integrates him into the squad this upcoming summer, and gives him a fair shot.
Willock didn’t disappoint when he did step on the pitch, scoring two goals in the F.A. Cup, showing off his finishing prowess alongside his ability to handle himself against bigger defenders by being able to run in the box from deep. I give Willock a C+ because while he didn’t necessarily have a bad season, he didn’t really get to show off what he could do either, and I think that stopped me from giving him a B.
14(14) PL 6(1) EL appearances
Goals: 6 Assists: 7
I saved this one for last because I knew how much it was going to hurt, and boy did I underestimate that. It kills. He has been one of my favorite Arsenal players since I started supporting the club, and seeing him walk away to finish his career at Juventus, the all-conquering Italian team that hasn’t lost a league title seemingly since Eisenhower was in the White House, makes my heart hurt. It actually brings pain to my chest to know that the man responsible for the end of Arsenal’s trophy drought with his near-post toe poke, the man who got his leg shattered to pieces, came back, and was one of the best midfielders in the toughest league in the world within two years, the man who came to Arsenal as a 17-year old, and grew up here, is just walking away.
It hurts because even though he was passive aggressively left out of the starting eleven in the first couple of months, he became the most influential Arsenal player by a mile by February. His impact on the team was so clear, and his bursting runs and incredible technical ability launched Arsenal out of the winter hibernation that seemed to take place.
Seeing Ramsey pull up short in Napoli also broke my heart. Knowing that that was it, that he wouldn’t be on the pitch to score another winner against Chelsea in Baku, was almost too much. Things like this reinforce the belief that life is just a mist and nothing matters. Happiness is a myth. Joy is just a conspiracy theory. And I’m officially depressed thinking about Aaron Ramsey. I’m going to miss him, and you can bet your bottom dollar that Arsenal are going to miss him too.