Four games in, four different midfield setups.
If that suggests anything, then Unai Emery himself can’t answer the question. Someone who possesses an uncontrollable urge to tinker with his side to accommodate the opposition, it feels like the time has come to cement a midfield trio that best brings out of the magic of the front three.
So which three should he go for?
I don’t really know.
But, I have a suggestion that could work. It appears to be the wisest choice. So, here goes.
First of all, it’s best to settle on the formation Emery will adopt. At Liverpool he went for an unconventional diamond setup, which we can safely assume won’t be a recurring theme and was merely a bizarre attempt to stifle one of the best sides in Europe.
A 4-2-3-1 is the most viable option, which could also be perceived as a 4-3-3 that includes one more attack-minded midfielder.
While deciding on the trio as a whole is tricky, the number ten role picks itself.
Dani Ceballos showed his class in his first league start during the 2-1 win over Burnley. What was prevalent from that performance, as well as in his cameo against Tottenham, was a level of fight so enriching it melted Gunners fans’ hearts almost immediately.
As vocal as he was energetic, nobody could claim he was anything other than dedicated to the cause in both matches. Moreover, he actually looked the part both technically and creatively. The passion was there for all to see, but that classic Spanish trait of quick feet and technical craft had fans reminiscing of former Gunner Santi Cazorla.
Two assists against the Clarets is beneficial to his cause. An assist apiece for Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang is the cementing of his spot.
With Mesut Ozil either injured or overlooked, it frees up the space for the 23-year-old to stamp his authority on the role.
Lacazette‘s tendency to drop deep and link-up play is valuable string to Emery’s attacking bow, but Ceballos’ energy will allow for the all-important deep midfield runs into the box that were the forte of the now departed Aaron Ramsey. With a season to prove himself to Zinedine Zidane, he’ll be up for it.
So, Dani Ceballos IN, Mesut Ozil OUT.
The hardest part of this conundrum, however, is the two behind.
Balance is a valuable commodity in football. Certain players possess particular qualities that, when coupled with a fellow teammate, bring the best out of one another. And striking that desired blend of abilities is what has caused Emery, and Arsenal fans, the biggest headaches thus far. Well, barring the obvious defensive shambles, that is.
Having played all of his midfield cards so far this season, that aforementioned balancing act has so far failed to come up trumps, with the increasingly expected weekly alterations set to continue under the Spanish boss.
Firstly, Matteo Guendouzi. He was the best player on the pitch for Arsenal in the draw with Spurs, with the fierce atmosphere providing the perfect stimulation the 20-year-old needed to showcase why he was worth plucking from French second division obscurity.
Not a defensive midfielder, and neither an attacking one, his presence in the middle third of the pitch was one that injected excitement among the home support. Intercepting passes, as well as finding the crucial ones, the Frenchman has clearly benefited from the 33 Premier League outings he accumulated last term.
Many Arsenal fans questioned what exactly his job was in the side. Now they know.
He played a starring role in the match when Ceballos came on, too. With the Spaniard pinning the Tottenham defence back, Guendouzi was able to perform the box-to-box role efficiently, both contributing in a defensive sense while also driving forward with the ball and asking questions of the opposition.
It’s early days, but it appears as if a player is emerging who has not only realised his own potential, but relayed that confidence into performances that warrant his ‘wonderkid’ tag. His being there is only going to benefit the front three.
Elsewhere, Arsenal have another blossoming talent who will most certainly be a regular feature as they battle on all four fronts. Joe Willock does a lot of what Guendouzi does, perhaps with a more attacking mindset, and not playing the youngster is not an easy choice to make.
Deservedly breaking into the first-team last season, some frighteningly good showings during the club’s pre-season had many urging Emery to start the 20-year-old in the league. Solid outings in both of the Gunners’ opening top-flight matches appeared to make his place in the starting XI a certainty moving forward, but he was soon dropped.
He was consigned to a place on the bench against Spurs as Emery changed the system, but nevertheless it is clear that the man at the helm rates the Englishman. However, the Premier League experience of Guendouzi means he shades it, and lacking the physicality to play a holding role means he gets dropped.
So, Matteo Guendouzi IN, Joe Willock OUT.
Yes. It’s coming.
And no, the tough-tackling holding midfielder who will do the dirty work thus allowing for Guendouzi and Ceballos to fulfil their duties is, unreservedly, not Xhaka.
Is there really anyone more prone to making mistakes in the entire Premier League than Xhaka?
It’s incredibly difficult to think what the Swiss midfielder actually brings to the team. The only possible facet is his range of pass, something that can on occasion strike a cord. But no matter of five or 50-yard passes can condone a holding midfielder who commits more fouls per match than any one else in the history of mankind.
Essentially, that leaves just one left.
Lucas Torreira has already won over the fanbase with his tenacity and ferocity and, barring Xhaka, is the only naturally defensive midfielder in the group.
The Uruguayan is likely to be in a straight battle with Xhaka for the remaining midfield spot. Sitting deep, Torreira would allow the other two of his midfield partners to flourish. Sticking to his duties as an enforcer, the 23-year-old would allow Guendouzi and Ceballos to perform similar roles as they did against Spurs.
With two of the finest strikers in the country, and a winger with promise by the shedload, getting Ceballos and Guendouzi in positions where they can aid the front three is paramount to Arsenal if they intend of returning Champions League football to north London.
A creator who has already demonstrated he can assist the forwards, along with a promising Frenchman to fill in the gaps, placing a trusted and defensively-minded Torreira in behind will open the door for a forward line that have all the ability to unpick any defence in the division.
So, Lucas Torreira IN, Granit Xhaka OUT.
Possessing the youngest squad in the division, what may seem an inexperienced midfield only in the infancy of their careers, that isn’t the case. Yes, none of the trio have played 100 Premier League matches, but they are all international footballers who have a dogged and full-throttled approach that has been severely lacking in recent seasons.
Time will come to make changes, with heavy scheduling likely to see adjustments being made, but not at the level Emery is doing it at. Stick with these three for a run of games, and see whether they’re capable of performing together. With the attacking trio the club have, quality is in abundance. However, making that quality sing demands a backing choir in tune with the rhythm of their game.
This could be the three.
Give them a run in the side together. Wait and see. Boost their confidence as a trio.
Oh, and don’t play Xhaka.