Arsenal are weakest at their core.
The beating heart of any team is its midfield. The engine room. The link between front and back. The area where matches can be won and lost. Arsenal have one that exists solely on the halfway line.
A backboard that can only turn 90 degrees left or right when facing its own goal; receive the ball and it could go left, it could go right, or it will go straight back to the point from whence it came.
This is nothing new. It’s become a staple of this side.
Arsenal’s play is exclusively restricted to operating through wide areas. Yesterday it was the left that was issued with the lion’s share of the play up until the 60-minute mark, via a combination of Kieran Tierney, Bukayo Saka and Joe Willock. They’d receive the ball through Granit Xhaka, play it around a few times, then give it back. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang would sit motionless in no man’s land.
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Upon reclaiming possession, Xhaka, or Ceballos, would try the other way. As if there were an invisible wall just beyond the halfway line with the only route around it via either flank, the rinse and repeat nature of the passing lanes brought tears of joy to Wolves and tears of despair to the supporters.
Predictable in every sense, this hit and hope approach only differed on Sunday as the trudges up towards the corners of the penalty box resulted in more crosses than cutbacks. How revolutionary. Let us rejoice.
Matteo Guendouzi, Lucas Torreira, Granit Xhaka, Dani Ceballos, Joe Willock, Thomas Partey and Mohamed Elneny: Arsenal’s central midfielders.
Ceballos was supposed to add flair. He hasn’t. Guendouzi was tipped to bring ball progression and bite. Fleetingly so. Torreira joined to allow his fellow midfielders more freedom. No such luck. Willock does add a different skill set. Not as a No. 10, though. Elneny wasn’t even meant to be here. He’s stepped up considerably. Xhaka had some of the best distribution in Europe. His decision making is as negative as his movement is slow. Partey is world class. He still is.
How do you craft a midfield capable of seeing a different side to the game with those? Two of them aren’t here, already deemed unusable. Even if there is too much similarity within that crop, it’s ludicrous to assume not any of those available are able to open up their bodies and move up the pitch in a different manner.
Partey was brought in to do that and in what little time he’s been here we can see he has those traits. We won’t see him again for a few weeks.
Long gone are the days of midfield triangles popping up in all areas of the pitch, utilising all spaces in front and not shackled by the robotic nature of visualising only two, narrow routes to goal.
Those players don’t have the qualities needed to play in the way Arteta idolises, but they’re restricting themselves by falling back into old habits. The best way of seeing it is as if Arsenal are still playing with a back five.
The way they moved up the pitch was fluid and clever. Flooding one flank with the intention of drawing the opposition in, the quick shift of play diagonally across meant Aubameyang had acres of grass to attack into. When he has that space he’s at his most dangerous.
Now operating with four across the back, precious little has changed with the exception of removing the fast switch of play for recycled, lateral placidity. The midfielders don’t know what they are, so instead their methods stink of blame shifting. The easy option becomes the only option.
What Arteta has is not the right personnel for ball progression, but that doesn’t exempt him from blame. However, there was a moment in the second half of the Wolves match that encapsulates the negative, unimaginative disposition of this midfield.
Gabriel won the ball aggressively pushing out from the back with his body open ready to make venture forward. As happened on numerous occasions he was stopped in his tracks by Xhaka, who immediately punted the ball back to Leno. One step forward, 45 yards back.
One-dimensional, the midfielders are taking after one another. The traits of the individuals are merging together, forming one incoherent pattern of play that shows no leadership or inventiveness. Neither here nor there, they’re nowhere.
Make no qualms about it, squad surgery is paramount. However, until such dreams can be realised, this area of the pitch needs fast-tracking to the very top of the agenda. Find ways to build through the middle, not disregard it entirely. It’s killing the joy and removing potency, not to mention isolating the best goalscorer at the club.
In need of stripping back and restructuring, the rut will continue without amendments.