Unai Emery’s remit as Arsenal head coach is simple; find the best system for the players he has at his disposal, push on in the Premier League and challenge for the Europa League.
After a comprehensive pre-season and four league games the Spaniard will have already come to certain conclusions over specific partnerships – but there is an untested formula that looks likely to be unleashed in the coming games.
Granit Xhaka has received plenty of criticism since he arrived in north London two seasons ago. His defensive frailties have been scrutinised due to several high profile errors and misplaced passes which have led to goals.
Xhaka was described as a ‘box to box’ midfielder by Arsene Wenger when he first joined, before the Frenchman later admitted that the 25-year-old is a ‘deep lying playmaker’.
The confusion over Switzerland international Xhaka’s best position can be put to bed now, though. The former Borussia Monchengladbach captain has made more passes in the final third than any other outfield player in the Premier League since the start of last season. The self-confessed ‘fake no.10’ excels at floating passes into his team-mates further up the pitch.
On the other hand, he is ranked highest for tackles lost in the Arsenal team this season. It is not difficult to pinpoint his primary area of deficiency.
While playing Xhaka comes with its disadvantages, Emery does has a player at his disposal who can compensate for the Swiss midfielder’s flaws.
Lucas Torreira joined the Gunners after an impressive World Cup campaign with Uruguay and all reports from those who saw him at former club Sampdoria and the raw statistics suggest he is the midfield shield Arsenal have required for years.
Although he he is yet to make his first start since his €30 million (£26.7m/$35m) arrival at the Emirates Stadium , Torreira has looked adept in brief cameo appearances – including the recent win over Cardiff City in Wales.
“He [Torreira] did a very good job [at the World Cup],” former Arsenal midfielder Gilberto told Goal . “If you see the way he plays, he plays the game very simply, he makes things easy for himself on the field.
“He gives protection to the back four and support to the guys up front, he tries to find the best spot to be in. The protective instinct is very natural for him.
“Before he arrived none of the other players were the kind who would sit in front of the back four. It’s a hard job, not everyone wants this job.”
Torreira’s 20 minute cameo appearance in the Welsh capital ahead of the international break saw him win three tackles, recover possession three times and record 100 per cent passing accuracy. His efficient, natural defensive instinct does not limit him to only defending, as is emphasised with his two-touch style.
It’s worth noting that Emery also has Matteo Guendouzi, Ainsley Maitland-Niles and Mohamed Elneny as other central midfield options. The latter pair will be restricted to appearances in the Europa League and domestic cup competitions this season unless injuries occur, but 19-year-old Guendouzi represents a genuine contender to Xhaka’s role in the first team.
Arsenal’s regular 4-2-3-1 formation looks set to remain under Emery, even if he looks likely to adapt it in certain games. Against Cardiff the decision to pair Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang upfront at times suggests that Emery will change specifics dependent on his opponents. However, it is the central midfield area which remains the most important.
Eight goals conceded in four matches certainly backs up the suggestion that protection for the defence stands as the biggest area where the Gunners need to find a solution, and while Xhaka’s World Cup performances showcased his ability to flourish as a creative figure in midfield, he requires a partner to protect the space around him.
While he still requires improvement on certain defensive aspects there can be no doubt that deploying Torreira in that role at St James’ Park agaisnt Newcastle on Saturday is likely to provide provide a piece to the Arsenal jigsaw that has been missing for over a decade.