It’s tough to think of many collective entities that aren’t enhanced by the sound structures and frameworks around them. It’s why successful businesses embrace universal “best practices” like establishment of success targets, clear performance expectations, and defined roles among personnel. It’s why many of the best footballing clubs have been as proficient working back defensively as they were in attack.
The truth of the matter is structures in the latter Wenger years gradually deteriorated. Like an onion with many layers, Arsenal’s decent to 6th place and non-Champions League involvement was due to a myriad of factors. Lack of width, players playing out of position, and general off-the-ball values are a few of the overarching team issues many cite. Group problems tend to lead to the scapegoating of certain players: Xhaka as too mistake prone, Ramsey bombing forward too often, Mustafi too rash in the challenge. You see, everything is interconnected in this respect.
Let’s look at Swansea’s first goal in our 3-1 away defeat in January:
Xhaka deserves criticism no doubt. My problem is that many assigned the vast majority, if not all, of the blame to him when it was clearly a collective/systemic failing:
- Ozil’s errant pass
- Bellerin’s run straight into Lacazette’s path into a marked area
- Xhaka not checking hard enough to the ball and not tracking the runner
- Elneny sitting in “no man’s land” and not engaging the ball carrier
- Cech being beat near post with Koscielny’s help coming from the opposite side
Empowerment through structure is what I want to see most under Emery. Look to our neighbors for evidence. Pochettino’s system has made the potential value skyrocket on the open market of both bang-average talents, like Eric Dier and Harry Winks, and good talents, like Deli Alli and Kieran Trippier. Arsenal boast a squad with far greater individual quality, but a lesser assigned market value and national team recognition.
The World Cup and international competition in general provides the perfect opportunity to analyze Arsenal players, or potential ones, in a different context. It’s a shame really that the sample size is small for this World Cup. We have no Mustafi, Ramsey, Wilshere, and Lacazette to judge. We have too small a sample in regards to Iwobi for Nigeria. Ozil was in an open, Arsenal-esqe system with Germany that saw him dropping deeper to fix midfield issues against Mexico and with more creative freedom against South Korea. Elneny was his usual ever-present self offering midfield control but little progression.
Current and potential midfielders, Granit Xhaka and Lucas Torreira respectively, and the Swiss and Uruguayan approach with them involved, is where I’ll focus my attention.
Xhaka and Switzerland: Complimentary Pieces and a Multi-Functional Approach
For Switzerland, Xhaka starts in a midfield two with Valon Behrami. It’s amazing to me how different game phases shape the way Behrami compliments Xhaka. Both on and off the ball, Behrami can be seen slotting in-between the CB’s, working in a double pivot with Xhaka, or even slightly advanced as another option for Xhaka to find between the lines. He does what is necessary for Xhaka to dictate play from deep.
Here we see Behrami and Xhaka playing close together and making a triangle with Shaqiri dropping in. It eventually leads to Behrami sitting in deeper, the Swiss offense slightly changing the angle of attack, and a dangerous ball played over the top of a packed Serbian defense.
Here is Behrami pressing high to win the ball back. He is a complimentary part to a Xhaka midfield and is adept to the occasional pressing game, tracking runners between lines, and participating in build play to open up space for playmakers like Shaqiri and Dzemaili.
Switzerland’s system requires multi-faceted players, the fullbacks push high up the pitch as creative outlets and the team wants to dominate possession. This screams Arsenal stylistically and as long as we find that “Swiss Army Knife” of a midfielder to compliment Xhaka, we will see creators (Mhki, Ozil, Ramsey) and fullbacks (Kolasinac, Bellerin, Lichtsteiner) become empowered.
Torriera and Uruguay: Platform Empowerment
Uruguay understand the importance of a stable platform for their star strikers, Suarez and Cavani, to have attacking freedom. It speaks to their clarity of approach and team values that they prioritize defensive and midfield stability over the embodiment of a free-flowing attacking identity.
In this year’s World Cup, Torreira got a brief cameo against Egypt, 30+ minutes against Saudi Arabia and the full 90 against Russia. My in-depth analysis: dude is a baller. Despite slightly different midfield setups in his two main appearances, he provided deep-lying security, covered large amounts of ground, and was adept in his ability to close down the opposition. He did it in more of a flat midfield 3 (sometimes 4) against Saudi Arabia and as the base of a diamond against Russia. If his attributes don’t scream “stylistic fit” for Granit Xhaka, I’m not sure what does.
Torreira is very much a player that is tidy and keeps it simple in possession. If/when he comes to Arsenal, Xhaka will be the man to break the lines. Here is Torreira against Russia also showing his ability to build play and thread the needle. All great teams have multiple ways to build play from deep.
I always felt it was too simplistic when people said, “Xhaka needs a partner that can do the running for him.” I’m starting to realize this isn’t too far off. Here we see him pressing a man on the ball, disrupting attacking fluency, and quickly recovering to keep the defensive shape.
Lacazette is still a key asset to this Arsenal side and it is unlikely he will be sold this summer. This means, barring injuries, we have 2 prolific strikers that need game time. Maybe Emery can use Uruguayan template at times next season. We know about the freedom given to Cavani and Suarez, but with Ozil dropping slightly deeper as his career progresses, it’s not crazy to think he could play the role of the slightly advanced Bentacur.
To me, issues associated with the latter Wenger-years were most evident in analysis of space. Offensive and defensive distances didn’t seem healthy, and out of possession we were exposed due to large areas of uncovered pitch. We don’t know if this will change under Emery but it’s fun to speculate. It’s time the individual talent that makes up the Arsenal became empowered due to structural values rather than minimized.
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