Why is Unai Emery turning Gunners' midfield on its head?
Background photo: Nazmi Amin-Tai, CC BY-SA 2.0
Last season, Unai Emery had the opportunity to learn what he had at his disposal. This season, the Spaniard should be fielding his best XI with each player in his ideal role. Something else is happening.
In the 2018/19 stretch run, Emery began playing Lucas Torreira out of position. This term, he's taken that even further. As something other than a holding midfielder, the Uruguayan doesn't play bigger than he is. His influence diminishes. Matteo Guendouzi owns the holding role while Granit Xhaka and Joe Willock rotate as deep-lying playmakers in a double pivot. Torreira splits time with Dani Ceballos in a more advanced role. In short, Emery turned on its head the system that went 22 games unbeaten in the campaign's first half.
During that run, Torreira shielded the defence, whether it was a three-man rearguard or the traditional back four. He consistently disrupted opposition attacks. Arsenal benefitted. Getting away from that tactic hasn't improved results. Quite the opposite. The Gunners sit seventh with two wins and two draws from five Premier League games. They've shipped eight goals, cancelling out their success at the other end.
If Sokratis and David Luiz are Emery's best options in central defence, the former Paris Saint-Germain and Sevilla boss should be more concerned about protecting them. That means restoring Torreira to his former role.
As a holding mid, Guendouzi's focus is more on transition than prevention. He lacks the Uruguayan's quickness and instincts. Xhaka's attacking mentality doesn't position him well to provide cover. Already, Arsenal have surrendered three penalties. When you insert two playmakers in front of a shaky centre-half partnership, there are two options. Win the ball high up the pitch or pick the ball out of your net.
Emery is managing Arsenal like a riverboat gambler; it's all or nothing. He needs a man who can do a job without the ball. Last season, Xhaka found joy when partnered with Torreira. The Uruguayan did the dirty work and he made opponents pay for losing possession. That isn't happening with Guendouzi. The Swiss must defend more often and his game is far less reliable than his country's famed timepieces.
In fact, Xhaka is playing out of position to accommodate Guendouzi and Torreira isn't even playing half the time. Emery faces a choice. He must drop either Xhaka or Guendouzi to restore Torreira to the role at which he excels.
If the boss wants to drop Torreira back as a single holding mid behind the other two, he can play only two forwards. With Alexandre Lacazette injured till October, Emery has the perfect excuse to go that route. He can move Zhaka and Guendouzi up the pitch, possibly on either side of a diamond, while Torreira acts as the anchor and Ceballos or the neglected Mesut Ozil at the pointy end.
In that shape, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Nicolas Pepe become the strike partnership. Both Ceballos and Ozil have the versatility to tuck in behind them, float to the outside or overlap. Whatever choices Emery makes, he must choose before the gap with fourth-place widens. Playing Torreira in his natural role can prevent that from happening.