2019-20 So Far: Midfield Questions Still Waiting For Answers

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.

’til Tomorrow.

20 thoughts on “2019-20 So Far: Midfield Questions Still Waiting For Answers

  1. NM says:

    Unfortunately you are probably right that Ozil is done as a starter, but where did you get the idea that Ceballos scores more frequently than Ozil or that he is more attack minded. Over the course of his career he has scored 10 goals and provided 9 assists, with 2 of the goals coming for Spain’s U21s, or a goal approximately every 720 minutes. Despite not featuring regularly last season Ozil scored 6 goals. His career average is a goal approximately every 400 minutes. If you are expecting more offense out of Ceballos than Ozil can provide, even at this stage of his career, you may be disappointed. The argument for Ceballos over Ozil is all down to defensive contribution.

  2. YW says:


    Don’t know where you got your stats from but they are hellishly out of date. Or just plain wrong. DC has 12 La Liga goals to begin with. Ceballos played 1,245 minutes in La Liga last season, scoring 3 goals, making it 415 minutes per goal. Ozil’s 5 Premier League goals came at a rate of 1 every 348 minutes. Not much different.

    Ceballos made 34 appearances in all competitions last season, 15 of which were from the bench. Ozil made 24, 4 from the bench but in terms of minutes, Ozil played 1,741 which is 496 minutes longer. Effectively, it is 5.5 matches. More importantly, they played different roles. One was an attacking midfielder (Ozil), the other was a more rounded central midfield role.

    The other aspect you left out is age and stage of their respective career. Ozil is seven years older and played close to 650 career games. Ceballos has 174 games at all levels. I expect more of Ozil because of that.

    He’s never scored enough goals and nor is his records of assists that fantastic in recent years. I know this not from the record books but because people keep talking about his pre-assist record. When you have to dig that deep, you know a player isn’t performing.

    However, you’re right. Maybe attacking expectations are over-egged. But if Ceballos turns in the Ozil level of performances for half the wage or less, I’ll be happy.

  3. Adam.Singh says:

    Torreira, Guendouzi and Ceballos would definitely be my first choice. I have high hopes for Guendouzi, he looks like he could be a world class player. Not sure why Emery hasn’t been starting Torreira- maybe he doesn’t fancy him for some reason? Xhaka not good enough, everyone can surely see that, and if Emery persists with him then it raises major question about him as a a manger.

  4. Bill says:

    Great post Yogi

    I agree that Xhaka is not a great fit for the PL and we would be best off selling him and buying a better DM.

    We have talked a lot about Torriera recently and his all energy style can be eye catching and fans like that but we thought he was going to improve the team defense by shoring up the midfield and hopefully making us less vulnerable to counter attacks. So far he has not lived up to expectations and I think its safe to say Emery does not rate him as highly as we do. Time will tell how it works out.

    Its early but Guendouzi is another high energy player the fans love to watch. He is “tweeter”. He is not an attacking mid and not really a DM. He fits best in the box to box role but it would be nice if he developed a bit of end product. For all of his minutes last season he has 0 goals and 0 assists. I think he can thrive in a midfield if he plays alongside a better DM and an attacking mid who brings more end product. Hopefully Matteo can be our Jordan Henderson.

    Its way to early to say what will happen with Willock. He seems like another midfielder who is not a DM and not an attacking creative mid. We already have Guendouzi who fits that role so I am not sure where Willock will fit. Liverpool used Jordan Henderson and James Milner in the same midfield so may be Guendouzi and Willock can give us the same sort of a midfield as Liverpool.

    Ceballos is probably going to struggle and be inconsistent similar to a lot of young players in their first PL season however, if he plays well enough to keep Mesut Ozil on the bench I will be happy. Ozil was once an amazingly talented player but every player in history sees their ability to influence the game begin to fade when they hit the downward side of their career arc and I think its quite clear that Mesut began fading about 3 years ago. Unfortunately no other big team seems to want him and Mesut might not be willing to leave even if we found someone who would take him so we are probably stuck.

  5. Ferkov says:

    Great Post Yogi. Thanks.
    Can’t disagree with your assessments on any of our midfielders. I think your assessment of Ceballos v Ozil is correct. One of them has shooting as an option to passing. The other doesn’t. Ozil does pass the ball into the net with some finesse however. But not from outside the box.

    No one ever discusses the possible merit of playing Xhaka further forward. You mention that that is where he prefers, but don’t explore.
    I don’t think he’s quick enough to play further forward in our team personally.
    I played Rugby League for a couple of years in Oz, …there was no alternative sport!, but a brilliant drill we used was the TurnOver Shout . It’s then a race to get back to defensive lineup… 10 yds behind the ball.
    No one looks for where the ball is going. Just get the fuck back, otherwise the last 3 back do 20 burpees, while the other bastards breath and snigger.
    Ozil, Xhaka and Kola would be doing a lot of burpees.
    AMN was bad last year , but much better this.
    2-3 seconds ball spotting and your man has gone, however quick you are.

  6. NM says:


    Actually, if the rumored £15m loan fee is anywhere near correct, Ceballos is costing nearly much per week as Ozil.

    BTW my numbers come from whoscored.com, which only lists 7 La Liga goals for Ceballos, 2 for Spain’s U21s and one for Spain’s senior team and none in the Champions League. He may have additional goals in domestic cup competitions, but not in La Liga.

  7. Woolwich Freddie says:

    A reasonable assessment of our midfield prospects, YW.

    Ozil & Xhaka are defensive holes in the middle, not matter how far forward they are. We can’t afford to let people run past us as they do, especially since the coach & squad are best suited to a high-pressing 4-3-3. The middle “3” in that formation cannot really afford someone who doesn’t tackle (or whom you don’t trust to perform tackles not resulting in a card). I think the pool of Guendo, Torreira, Willock, and Ceballos is a really good start in terms of candidates for this central three. However, all are young. Good investments getting experience certainly make sense but we would benefit from one experienced player being added to that pool. All are good all round players and show good fight but none are outright defensive players, not even Torreira (lightweight, converted winger, likes to get forward). I think we still need that option of a physical DM to round the group out. I suppose AMN might be this player but, frankly, I’ve seen more of him at RB now and just don’t know. Chambers is another possibility but I doubt he has the physical presence we are missing. Neither has the experience the group lacks.
    Also, Ceballos is a loan and Guendo, as YW points out, doesn’t score (although this is something that can be and I think is being worked on). Is there a case for another scoring midfielder too?
    I’ve churned out an essay by mistake but, in summary: forget Xhaka/Ozil and give the youngsters their chance. Throw an experienced, physically powerful DM into the mix to help them shine. Shooting practice for everybody. And keep an eye out for a scoring midfielder if we can’t keep Ceballos.

  8. Paulie Walnuts says:

    It’s a bit early to make Ceballos / Ozil comparisons but they both strike me as having problems a way from home. If someone can get them to become effective on our travels it would make a huge difference for us.

    I’m not sure if I want to have another dig at Xhaka. Oh , go on then….he brings so little to the team that I find it astonishing that he appears to be pretty much the first name on the team sheet.

    As Adam says, on UE’s head be it.

  9. Woolwich Freddie says:

    Paulie Walnuts,

    A little early, yeah. And to be fair to him, he’s coming into a team which had relegation away form last year. He seems a determined and energetic player and that will help in away games if he keeps it up.
    There was some noise in the tabloids that Emery had Torreira foisted upon him when he wanted Nzonzi, which might help explain the selection of Xhaka but I think it might be more the way being a more senior player with a bigger contract seems to get you into the first team these says, regardless of whether a younger player deserves your spot

  10. nicky says:

    Well, we avoided the follow-on and the Aussies had a short second innings. It has all taken precious time.
    Our second innings started with the disastrous loss of Burns and Root before a run was on the board.
    We now have a fight in order to gain a draw before the Oval. 😎

  11. NM says:


    I did, but I didn’t look at domestic cups for either. I’m not interested in what players do against third division sides.

  12. NM says:


    I checked another source and the difference in our numbers is because 5 of his goals were scored in the secunda division for Real Betis. He does not have 12 La Liga goals.

  13. Ferkov says:


    Brilliant caption btw.😂😂😂. As usual I don’t know the film,
    Our 3 in midfield.

  14. freddo says:

    Arsene now saying that there were too many demands upon him and he didn’t have enough time to concentrate on football. In other words, because of his control freakery he could not delegate. No wonder the club was a mess when he left.

  15. Pete the Thirst says:

    @YW of course you’re right about Xhaka!

    The first time I saw Xhaka play live what stood out was his lack of pace. Similar slower players have something else that can make up for this. Take Fabregas for instance and his amazing ability to hold on to the ball and find a pass. It really made his lack of pace a non issue. I still haven’t seen Xhaka’s ‘other’ abilities. His passing is wayward; his tackling is desperate; and his dead ball striking pretty average.

    I’d be surprised if he’s at the club next season.

  16. andy1886 says:


    Totally agree about players not getting back behind the ball quick enough. It’s not solely an Arsenal problem (I watched Roy Keane and Lee Dixon berate England players over the same thing at the weekend) but we are certainly amongst the worst at it. Nothing quite gets my goat as much as watching millionaires who can’t be arsed to make an effort to get back in position when the opposition are on the attack.

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