It’s international fortnight and everybody’s desperate for the return of club football. Thank god we haven’t got to wait until Monday night for our trip to Watford. Almost but not quite.
In the meantime, it’s the young’uns taking the world by storm. Dani Ceballos added a comma to his value with one pass against Romania but saw it rubbed out by the rest of his performance. Good, but not that good.
Last night, it was Reiss Nelson and Eddie Nketiah who took the points for England Under-21s. They were going about preparations for the senior team the right way, losing a game they were expected to win. Enter the Arsenal pair and it ended 3 – 2. Bravo.
Thankfully, we’re now just eight days from proper football returning.
Which begs the question, which is Unai’s best midfield selection. I’ll preface this with I’m not Granit Xhaka’s biggest fan. I might be critical of him after this point but I’ll be pointing out the strengths and weaknesses of others. Usually to his detriment, but I’ll be fairly even-handed about it.
If people critiquing Xhaka’s performances upsets you, don’t read on. I’m bored with international football and bored with people telling me I’m wrong about Xhaka but offering no tangible reason why.
Anyway. Let’s assume that for the most part, Unai will play with three in midfield. The narrow trio he selected against Liverpool and Tottenham only really makes sense with five defenders behind them. If it was the panacea to our ills, we wouldn’t have been 2 – 0 down in the North London Derby.
We were and it didn’t really work at Anfield. The problem is judging its’ performance when stupid individual errors left us chasing the game on both occasions. That alters the match dynamics and the role of the midfielders.
You Want Protection?
The first point to make is that Granit Xhaka isn’t a defensive midfielder. Lucas Torreira is, snapping and hassling opponents but that’s not Xhaka’s game. Never was and it only took on that aspect fully when he moved to Arsenal. For the Swiss national team, he looks better and more comfortable alongside an ‘enforcer’.
He’s lucky, there’s no doubt about that given he should have been booked well before the 92nd minute last week. But that gets cancelled out by the costly mistakes he makes.
Every player errs on the pitch but few, seemingly, make so many cock-ups that lead to goals. That’s the perception Xhaka has; it’s the one he fights and the one which is getting under his skin. You’ve only got to see his self defence last week to see that.
It is this betwixt and between role that he plays which is at the root of his problems. Put him a natural midfield role and he’ll be happier.
However, for the defensive side of the game, we saw last week Lucas Torreira must play. The centre of defence needs padding to try and cover for their errors, to protect so we survive. A terrier looking for possession, his style makes him popular with fans. We like bustle, energy and someone who breaks up play.
It also covers for his weaknesses. Primarily, that was pass completion in 18/19; 87% is OK but for a man whose job is to win and recycle possession, that needs to be higher.
The pair, however, can play together but only in variation of 3-5-2 or 3-4-3. Even then, the latter is dubious; there’s too much space between the centre of the pitch and the attack. Everything goes down the wings and asks a lot of the wing-backs.
Three Into Two Won’t Go
The complication to that comes in the shape of Matteo Guendouzi. His all-action style is popular for the same reason as Torreira’s; he is ‘doing’. There’s no doubt he will go on to be a fabulous player; he’s been called up this week to the France squad.
Injuries helped his cause but it is just ahead of schedule. He is a quick learner; falling to earth still happens, but not as easily and frequently. Distribution is much improved; everything can get better because every player can improve and Guendouzi is doing that. Nobody can ask for more from the lad.
I’d rather a player with Guendouzi’s attributes alongside Torreira than the slower style of Xhaka; that’s personal preference. The pace of the English game is such that thoughtful players or players who like time to think, don’t fare too well.
But with Guendouzi and Torreira, there’s the question of Ceballos, Willock or Ozil. The former struggled at Anfield and has much to learn; so too Willock. Ozil has more questions hanging over him than an episode of University Challenge. After a promising start at Arsenal, the German has faded. No question about his ability; he is one of the most technically gifted players ever to wear the shirt.
But in his head? There were a lot of issues even before the terrible events of this summer. At £300k+ per week, his contribution makes him one of the poorest value-for-money players we’ve ever had. He isn’t a leader, he isn’t a player who will lift a side or inspire. That’s not him; never has been, never will be. Not at club level, anyway.
Calculators at the Ready
It strikes me as a terrible waste of talent. He should be talked of in the same glowing terms as Bergkamp. He won’t be. Mesut will be quickly forgotten unless talked of as ‘a waste of money’.
So, is he a shot bolt as far as the starting XI is concerned? Of course not; you hope, with this type of player, that the craft will shine through. I’m not sure he serves any purpose as a sub; he isn’t going to make an impact so he’s there to make up the numbers.
Willock is the hope for the future. It’s his breakthrough season, he will get time on the pitch. Like Ceballos, he is adjusting to the Premier League and coming on well. When, as expected, the Spaniard returns to Real next season, Willock is the natural successor. Smith Rowe may stake a claim but last year’s injuries pushed him down the queue for a while.
Ceballos has the craft and guile of Ozil but more attacking instinct about his own play. He scores more frequently but still should probably get more. He is more useful to the side in that he tackles back quickly, the example being against Burnley. Ozil doesn’t do that side; covers the yards, no question but not as effectively.
It leaves my trio of starting midfielders as Torreira, Guendouzi and Ceballos.
Ainsley Maitland-Niles may soon get his chance in midfield when Hector Bellerin returns. For domestic cups, I’d give him the chance in the defensive midfield role and see how he performs. He may surprise a few people in the centre of the park.
The pleasing thing about the squad is that we currently have is that there is depth. For too long, we’ve skimmed the surface and found nothing underneath. That’s no longer the case.
Now, for the midfield to be effective, it’s time for Unai to define his footballing identity. Being a chameleon is good; players should be adaptable but not to the point where they no longer know what they look like.