Arsenal Tactics – How can we solve our midfield conundrum?

Arsenal’s midfield analysedby Joe Allyson

So, this Sunday, Arsenal beat Spurs. I’ve never respected them enough to imagine they are a threat (I am a Gunner) so that match doesn’t even register as a possible loss in my mind. Now onto the reason you are reading though, our midfield conundrum at Arsenal.

Opinions have flocked in about what the best possible combination is, from all corners of the world. From the trans-Tasman, to Alaska, Casablanca in Morocco and Cote D’Ivoire thanks to Pepe, to mother Russia.
I think the best way to solve that and possibly understand Unai Emery’s tactics, is first, to try and define the roles of everyone in the locker room that lays their claim as a midfielder with examples of the best-case studies.

The basic understanding of football comes from the 4-4-2 formation, the commonest tactical formation, and other formations are basically remodeled around it. This formation provides for two players that are known as midfielders designated number 6 and number 8. The nomenclature of the roles comes from a more modern tactical understanding of the game rather than traditional one.

S0, what exactly goes on with 6 and 8?
Number 6 has always been the deepest lying midfielder. Similar to number 5 in defense, number 6 was never required to be a hard-tackling rampaging midfielder as most people seem to believe. Just like in the 4-5 defensive pairing, Number 6 was meant to be the smart one. Sweeping up behind number 8, telling number 8 where to move, giving a positional sense as to where 4 and 5 should orient themselves ,monitoring to cut passing lanes between the opposition midfield and attack – and if the worst came to the worst (like in a back to the wall situation) determining whether to ask number 10 and number 8 to come and sit in with him at deep 6 or to retreat back and become a 3rd center back himself. In some formations, number 6 even started as a center back, then just kept stepping into midfield to support.

On the ball, number 6 wasn’t required to be the most skilled player. His job was rather easy. If it was a passing team, and he played as a “regista” (Andre Pirlo at AC Milan) then his role was to drop deep towards his defenders, pick up the ball and find the safest possible pass to progress play. 6s like Emerson of Brazil were even lauded for just playing a long diagonal pass out of play to regain territory from a throw in (much like a rugby number 9 or 10). Number 6 was also required to be available to recycle possession (in Guardiola’s tactics a Tequesta), where he would follow the team into attack and stay close enough to the attackers to receive and recycle possession every time a move had broken down or his teammates needed to reorganize. Note: It did not mean he was responsible for starting attacks, but obviously if a position opened, he would be able to play an attacker in.

Physically, number 6s have always been some of the biggest players on the pitch and it’s interesting to see that it hasn’t changed. For every Andre Pirlo you name, there is a Gilberto Silva, Roy Keane or Fernando Hiero. I know there have been smaller ones that have been brilliant (Claude Makelele comes to mind) but it would be difficult to name as many of them as the bigger ones. Number 6s always tended to be physically slow but mentally fast and always made good leaders.

Onto the number 8:
This has always been the hardest working person on the pitch, in the modern day called the box-to-box midfielder.
Without the ball, it was the number 8s role to harry the opposition, commit tactical fouls and commit actual tackles. Ordinarily, if the midfield is working right, the number 8 is supposed to be more visible than the number 6 both with the ball and without.

More like the number 4 in defense, number 8 was a man marker, a tackler, with the stamina of a stallion and the will and skill to go with it. If the ball was lost in attack, it was the number 8s role to apply an instant press and disrupt the opposing number 6 from playing out comfortably. If he was unable to win the ball back on the first attempt, then he was to retreat closer to his number 6 and move where he’s told.

Number 8s were always more versatile than their counterparts at 6 with the ability to play in both positions effectively and increased agility. (Roy Keane played both positions in his career)
Physically 8s were built like 6s or smaller but with more speed, skill and agility, and some 8s were faster players who started at 6 while some 6s were the reverse.

Fast forward to the 4-3-3/4-2-3-1 age, so many positions have changed but these two have remained exactly the same, and yet the lack of such knowledge has caused people to mistake the roles of so many players. I needed to explain all those attributes so we could understand which players are more suited to do what.

The best examples on number 6s in the world today: Nemanja Matic, Sergio Busquets, Javi Martinez, Fernandinho, Fabinho, Luis Gustavo, the list goes on, but you can see what they have in common.

The best examples on number 8s in the world today: Ngolo Kante, Ivan Rakitic, Thiago Alcantara, Arturo Vidal, David Silva, and you can see what those also have in common.

Now coming to our beloved Arsenal, we have a magnitude of players who tick all the number 8 boxes but are badly understaffed at number 6.

Number 6
Granit Xhaka, Matteo Guendouzi, Joe Willock.
The above 3 are the best examples of number 6 in the current arsenal squad because they match the description above. Currently, Granit is the starting option because he is more experienced and also the coach seems to value him a whole lot. They all are careful in possession, choosing the safest possible pass rather than the more adventurous options, two of them (Willock and Guendouzi) are good with ball at feet but because of their natural disposition to be safe, they dribble more to hold the ball than to progress through lines of press. They all have excellent passing ranges, and they are all similarly more likely to be patient and wait for an opportunity to intercept rather than go in immediately for a tackle. It also bodes well for the future considering all the 3 of them combined got dribbled past once in a game where we were heavily pegged back. (Joe Willock was beaten on one dribble).

Number 8
Lucas Torreira, Dani Ceballos, Matteo Guendouzi, Joe Willock
Obviously the best number 8 at Arsenal is Lucas Torreira. The diminutive Uruguayan boasts great stamina, great fight and daringness to the way he plays his game. He is comfortable with the ball at his feet, fast and strong too. All the others on the list can play number 8 but they all have their limitations. I think Dani Ceballos is the next best 8 at the moment, because of his propensity to pick the ball from deeper on the pitch and his more lateral rather than vertical passing. Both players boast an ability to carry the ball forward at feet and also pass their way out of tight spaces. Matteo and Joe qualify for this list because they have the mental and physical requirements to play like 8s and have done it multiple times in their careers, but their propensity to take fewer risks with the ball and their patience in the tackle makes them more of 6s with the potential to be 8s.

Hope you had a good read.



    1. Just try this one RW lacazette LW Neilson CF auba and a 10 lets have Pepe 6 xhaka 8 torreira/willock
      Kolasinac,sokratis,Luis and niles

      1. Why buy a world class winger where we need him to try him in midfield? What are you smoking mate

  1. Sorry to go OT.. but just saw that Luis Enrique’s daughter has died of bone cancer, aged 9.. that is just horrible… how on earth would you ever get over losing your child? Only 9 years old, absolutely heartbreaking… sincere condolences to him & his family.

  2. great post. I have always tried to explain this to others but to no avail. At least someone with a technical brain. Our best midfield combo options are xhaka-torreira-ozil(on his best day) or xhaka-torreira-ceballos. Either way xhaka, torreira have to start.

    1. Just try this one RW lacazette LW Neilson CF auba and a 10 lets have Pepe 6 xhaka 8 torreira/willock
      Kolasinac,sokratis,Luis and niles

  3. Well written article and I must say you’ve enlightened me.
    I was about to disagree with you on the Joe Willock part until you also included him as a No. 8.I personally feel Joe Willock is a prime example of a box to box player(No .8) who can rather play as a No. 6 not the other way round.His record last season at youth level speaks for itself.He had double figures for the U23’s in his box to box role.He might safe on occasions but the way he drives forward with the ball forward on occasions suggests there is more to him.This was the same way Ramsey started.
    Guendouzi’s role too is kind of debatable imo.
    Apart from that I agree with you on everything.

      1. He based his argument on the qualities he outlined for a number 6 and 8 respectively.
        When you consider that it isn’t confusing.Its more of case of some being debatable than confusing

  4. I think the poster has things a bit arse about face as we say here. He says the 8 is a box to box midfielder and then says Torreira is the best 8 we have but he’s not, he’s the best DM we have.

    1. While I agree that Torreira is also an option in the “6” role I think he would be better utilized in the box-to-box “8” role. Torreira actually started his career as an attacking midfielder, basically a number 10, and was even used out wide on occasion. We’ve even seen Unai push him further forward when we’re chasing a game (his goal against Liverpool is the perfect example of this), and given his stamina and aggression he is suited to closing players down and chasing loose balls. I would add that we could even consider Luiz or Chambers in the more defensive role. They’ve both played there before (for Chelsea and Fulham) and the best performances I’ve ever seen from Luiz were in this role. This would also allow us to change formations mid game as either could drop back if we want to play with three defenders with the attacking midfielder (I’m thinking Ceballos here) moving into a deeper position. This could be really useful in game where we want to push our wing-backs forward when we want more width, especially when Bellerin and Tierney are fit, or Kolasinac and AMN are playing. This kind of flexibility would be fantastic and may negate the need to make half-time substitutions.
      All in all this was a really good article and extremely well written- there’s nothing arse about ace about it.

  5. It’s a problem that will never be solved if like Wenger, Emery keeps picking Xhaka. One manager is bad enough, but now it’s two on the trot that seem to love Xhaka!

    1. I think the coaches were hoping players like Xhaka and Jorginho to be a world class regista like Pirlo one day

      Unfortunately the day has not come yet

    2. I asked if anyone liked Xhaka on here and had zero replies. So the answer ids obvious. Just Wenger and Emery. Both foolishly! Picking Xhaka egularly when fit is Emery’s major weakness as a manager. I still like almost all else about him but cannot abide Xhaka ,in common with all Gooners(unless someone is still a fan, but is too embarrassed to admit it on here).

      1. The Swiss national team, Borussia Mönchengladbach, and Basel manager picked him too, just saying…

        1. @350 oz Mind you mate you were asked if “you” personally
          liked Xhaka and you did not say if you liked him.
          Just saying.
          Xhaka could leave tomorrow
          and we would not notice his absence.
          Yet Wenger did and Emery does.
          Xhaka and Arteta are totally loyal and consistent.
          Limited but strong on consistency and loyalty.
          Monreal Mertesacker Koscielny Arteta and Giroud… same.
          Arteta today is the diligent teachers pet under Pep.
          Xhaka will be top club mamanager
          Too many temperamental prima donas disrupts unity and moral so the plodders like Xhaka provide balance.

          1. Agu Emen I AM CONFUSED about your personal Xhaka opinion. You say he provides balance, yet call him a plodder! CARE TO EXPLAIN PLEASE? Surely he cannot do BOTH those things?

          2. @Agu Emen, I responded specifically for this claim: “Just Wenger and Emery. Both foolishly! Picking Xhaka egularly”

            Actually I’m neutral on Xhaka, while his curved long pass is excellent, I do believe his all around game is lacking. We missed Cazorla type of player, who can dictate the game, intelligent, and have superior close ball control. When Wenger used Cazorla-Coq-Ozil, Cazorla primarily supplied Ozil, but he is capable of operating in the final third and act as another number 10. This in turn draw markers and provide space for Ozil to wreak havoc (his number of assists in his first season backed this).

          3. Xhaka a top club manager???

            ROFLMAO literally.
            The guy is dumb f. lacking leadership, so yeah go and compare him to Arteta, and everyone will laugh.

      2. I don’t like xhaka at times too but just to rekindle our memories remember the 22 game unbeaten stretch last season ? We had xhaka and torreira in midfield and only if emery could come up with the same chemistry this season catalystized by the new signings and we are up top there in the mix

      3. Jon
        You might not know it but I am one of the biggest anti xhaka fans on here and to let it known also ozil
        They would be great for someone else but we have moved on from this pair. Let’s see how the boss shapes up too once everyone is up to match fitness and if he in ludes them in the first 11
        I would also like to throw in to the mix amn. Right now he is covering a pistion whi h doesnt really suit him but doi g a job for the team
        Moving him in and more as a 8, box to box
        He has the legs. He has the lung power. Have to see on his positonal play

        As for our manager.
        Not my first choice but we were limited to who we could attract and since he is in the firing line we need to back him.
        He has a hard job in front of him.
        Following a man who had 22 years at a club.
        A team full of misfits
        Lost the heart beat and soul of the club over the years
        And a board who I still believe is playing us for fools..
        Time will tell…

        1. A. ball08, With you all the way on your post. I feel for AM-N who has been pillaried because he has been played out of postion , as virtually all Gooners on here agree and say. He is clearly not a defender but as you say, has many qualities when used in the right position. I see him as a midfield sort of Emmanual Petit, potentially. He has not the power of PETIT OR THE SAME HUGE PHYSICAL FRAME EITHER BUT WILL, I THINK, FAST DEVELOP WHEN GIVEN A PROPER CHANCE. Sadly, he has been misused as RB. That must stop ASAP.

          As to Emery , I guess none of us saw him as our next manager. It was a surprise to all, I’d say.. I am a bit more hopeful than you and see us already as a far better squad than the one he inherited 16 months ago. He has been unlucky with key defenders injured(as far as ANY of our existing outfield defenders can truly be called KEY). He badly now needs to settle on a regular PREM FIRST TEAM AND STOP TINKERING SO MUCH THOUGH. With Holding Tierney and Bellerin all soon back, things will soon look far rosier.

  6. Great article, but the two midfield combo in 4-4-2 and 4-2-3-1 is getting old and predictable

    Rather than having traditional number 6, 8 and 10, I’d prefer Arsenal to have one specialist DM and two box-to-box CMs than play wider. Guardiola uses De Bruyne and Silva to create crosses, therefore I believe Emery can also use Ceballos and Xhaka or Ozil as mezzalas:

    Maitland-Niles . Sokratis . Luiz . Kolasinac
    ……….Ceballos …………… Xhaka/ Ozil
    Pepe …………………………….. Aubameyang

    1. We want wingers to create crosses and the midfielders to supply through passes and assist the defence. Wish we could go back to the original 2-3-5 but you young ones have never seen that before.

    2. I want to see that too, it’s amazing how Guardiola can play De Bruyne and D.Silva at the same time.
      But it needs a superior DM who can read the game, both attacking midfielder have to contribute defensively, and the team must be excellent in the transition.

    3. gotanidea
      Dont always agree with your comments but I totally agree with this one
      A DM who is disciplined to hold the position and not scuttling off up top every 2 mins

  7. if xhaka wasn’t slow of thought and read the game better he would be a very good number 6. He has the physical qualities, he can play play rough and takes responsibility on the pitch. good passing skill and has a thunderous long shot as a bonus. his slow thought means he takes too much on the ball thus slowing play as well as allowing opponent to press him thus resulting in either loss of possession or attack negated.

    guendouzi is a work in progress, he is a Swiss knife capable of defending or attacking. he can tackle, pass the ball, dribble forward and he has the workrate to play number 8. But he is a rough diamond that still needs to be polished. I have big expectation for him.

    Torreira is our best defending mid which he impressed last season but without a replacement for ramsey he is forced to play further forward thus the reason why he faded as the season progressed.

    AMN has all the tools to play a box to box mid but i have seen no improvement in his mental qualities which are arguably his biggest weakness.

    Ceballos is a younger cazorla but without the experience thus he is also a work in progress while still good at the moment. He will make mistakes, take risks and hopefully learn from them. wish we had an option to buy.

    Basically our midfield is like a combination of different puzzles pieces who will never really flawlessly fit because they both have different requirements no matter how many times emery tinker to find the right balance. Xhaka for me is the odd man out because he will never fit the system emery wants unless other have to sacrifice for him. e.g torreira has to play cm because xhaka play deep lying midfielder, xhaka and ozil is incompatible as too immobile, guendouzi /xhaka is too defensive and lack impact in opponent half.

    Torreira with someone with xhaka build but quicker thought and ceballos in a 3 central midfield is it for me.

    1. So what you’re saying is that Xhaka can only function well alongside Torreira and Ceballos among the players we have.

      A perfect argument for why he has to be sold even at a discount price.

      Off topic, though: the huge chance when Auba lobbed the keeper at Anfield was created by Xhaka stealing the ball in our own half. And the Xhaka-type mistakes have this year all been the work of Ceballos.

      I would still prefer Ceballos, because at least there’s still hope with him, but it ain’t all as straightforward as it seems.

      1. Yes that my argument for xhaka being sacrificed for the balance of the team. There is a good player in there but he isn’t suited to our current set up.

    2. Agree with you. Our midfielders are all just different kinds of players, and Emery tends to treat them like they are like-for-like swaps at times. Ramsey at CAM to replace Ozil last season did not work out well, because that is not even Ramsey’s best position at all. He’s played Willock in that same role at times. He needs to stop playing box-to-box players in mostly advance positions. Xhaka in theory has attributes to be a good player, but it never pans out that way of the pitch, and his role in our midfield kind of becomes a big question mark because of this. He’s supposed to be anchoring the midfield but does a pretty poor job of it, and Torreira ends up being the one in and out the side because of UE’s insistence on sticking with him. I think the first step to solving our midfield problem is for him to find a consistent midfield in the first place. He needs to stop changing people around, changing their roles every single game, or these puzzle pieces will continue to look disjointed. And Guendouzi in general needs to become more disciplined. He’s been better this season but I feel like he makes our midfield look like chaos through his constant chasing after the ball like a headless chicken. Sometimes it is helpful, but better teams can sus him out, and I’m not really satisfied with his ball distribution when he does recover it. Still young of course, but just an observation.

    3. Ann’s talent is being wasted at RB.Sometimes I wish he was never versatile and could play only DM or CM.It was always going to be tough asking a youngster to play completely out of position for a condistent run of games and especially in defense.
      Contrary to what many say he has had several good games at RB but his performances are blighted by costly mistakes for e.g UEL final where he was pur best play in the first half before his capitulation in the second and o the games.
      Good player and who knows how he could have been after that Utd match if he had a consustent run of games in his own position?Mentality might be an issue but I still hope he will one day get his chance

      1. Absolutely agree with you. He is an incredible athlete and would do well in RB or even as a right Winger but he would be best as a b2b alongside Torreira.

        Ideally when Bellerin is back, Unai tries to play AMN-Torreira-Ceballos midfield, even Ozil sometimes instead of Cebalos as the two players behind him would provide enough cover.

  8. That was a great description of the basics through two CM positions. I don’t know why but I expected to hear/read something else and then see at least one player being singled out as not even doing the basics or something. But it was just what it said on the tin, good read Admin.

  9. Well thought out argument/article even if I don’t see 100% eye to eye, I agree with much of the content.

    For me, the balance of our midfield breaks down as soon as we start Xhaka largely because of his lack of mobility but also because he seems neither box-to-box not DM to me.

    If your defense is as poor as ours is, your midfield needs to dominate which ours doesn’t against top 6 teams. Part of dominating the midfield is being mobile as a player and covering a lot of ground. Being available as an outlet both to defende3rs but also to forwards. Our midfield always seems a man short when we play Xhaka.

    1. The reason Xhaka doesn’t seem either b2b or DM is because he’s a defensive playmaker – like Jorginho for Chelsea or what Pirlo used to be, or what Gundogan is when he replaces Fernandinho in the DM role, or Henderson for Liverpool.

      None of these players are pure DMs, but if there’s another reasonably defensive-minded player alongside them, they do nominally play as a regular DM. City is the exception, often playing Gundogan without another defensive midfielder.

      It’s not actually easy to clearly define these differences.
      Busquets for Barca is their DM, but again for me is more of a defensive playmaker (which hurts Barcelona when they play without having the ball as much of the time – away games against Liverpool and Roma in the last 2 years.

  10. So, would the Arsenal mid-tridient for Spurs be: Ozil, Xhaka & Torreria then. This will be an interesting combination which could work very well if Emery deploy them in action on Sunday. I implore him to try the combination. Of course, he can substitute Ozil off as he gets tired in the match to replace him with Ceballos. But would Arsenal adopt the 433 match set-up to line in battle array against Spurs to accommodate the Arsenal fearsome strike force of: Pepe, Lacazette and Aubameyang starting the match together? I should believe so.

    AMN Luiz Sokratis Kolasinac;
    Torreria Ozil Xhaka;
    Pepe Lacazette Aubameyang.

    Most ideal to start the Spurs game. What is Emery waiting for? Let him start them without doing any changes to them.

  11. So, would the Arsenal mid-tridient for Spurs be: Ozil, Xhaka & Torreria then? This will be an interesting combination which could work very well if Emery deploy them in action on Sunday. I implore him to try the combination. Of course, he can substitute Ozil off as he gets tired in the match to replace him with Ceballos. But would Arsenal adopt the 433 match set-up to line-up in battle array against Spurs so as to accommodate the Arsenal fearsome strike force of: Pepe, Lacazette and Aubameyang starting the match together? I should believe so.

    AMN Luiz Sokratis Kolasinac;
    Torreria Ozil Xhaka;
    Pepe Lacazette Auba’.

    Most ideal to start the Spurs game. What is Emery waiting for? Let him start them without doing any changes to them.

  12. No, the system under Emery is slightly different from that. He used a deep lying playmaker and a defensive midfielder (in the most traditional sense), and positioned them deeper. As Jamie Redknamp brilliantly pointed in his in-game analysis, the 2 midfielders sit back when the rest of the team advance (they form a “rectangle” with the 2 CBs). The favoured deep lying playmaker is Xhaka because of his passing range and the defensive one is Guenduozi (for more physical games) or Torreira (when he set up the team to press).

    It was Wenger who used a deep lying playmaker and a box-to-box midfielder (Xhaka and Ramsey). In his system, Ramsey was given more freedom to advance whereas Xhaka sit deep and formed a “triangle” with the 2 CBs. In pre-season, Emery adopted a similar approach when he paired Xhaka and Willock.

    In my opinion, Ceballos and Ozil are number 10 (the fantasista). Ceballos is a modern no 10 because of his speed and work rate, and I think he’d be Emery first choice this season. I just can’t see Ceballos next to Xhaka as we would be very vulnerable that way.

    1. In addition, Xhaka as a deep lying midfielder is never expected to dribble past opponents, his job is to play safe and progress play. Agree with Ackshay, he has the attributes but lacks speed of thought. Xhaka would thrive in Italy or Spain where the games are slower and more tactical.

      The number 10 / fantasista traditionally doesn’t have defensive duties, some are struggling now because of that reason (e.g. Ozil) but a new breed that can adapt his game would thrive (e.g. Ceballos).

      1. So true,old school number 10 free to roam as they please,no defensive duties,orchestring play are a dying breed very sad!

  13. *About Xhaka*

    I sat down and thought hard about the xhaka enigma. Xhaka clearly doesn’t measure up to standard sometimes it still gets playing time.

    A career that has seen two managers but still…

    Then it dawn on me that the only rational explanation could be in the nature of the contract he signed. If his contracts stipulates that he gets to play X-number of games per season? There is nothing the coach can do but to play him. If certain company sponsorships are tied to xhaka playing, there is nothing the coach can do but to play him.

    Because defaulting in any of these could see financial penalties the club is desperately trying to avoid.

    So we can only patiently wait for his contract to elapse and see if it is extended or pray a club comes calling for his services.

    My two cents


  14. Actually a wonderful article, to me it highlights Arsenal most persistent issue, many say it is the defense but for me, it has been the MIDFIELD, the energy levels required to get this team back to the number one slot has been missing for years in our midfield.

    Wenger and Emery have a major drawback they hate playing with real DM, more fancied ball handlers in the DM role, Coquelin was forced out by this and Torreira also has been forced to play higher up from his natural position. The issue facing Arsenal is the fact our so call DMs cannot cover the given space in a quick enough time, therefore our defense will always be exposed to an attacking team.

    The solution of Guendouzi and Xhaka facing the top six will continually cause issues for our defenders, at most we will just have to out score them, we will have difficulty keeping clean sheets. Torreira must be given the right balance of more mobile CMs around him, who have the required work rate, i saw Guendouzi and Xhaka in the Liverpool match giving up on chasing down a Liverpool player several times, not because they were tired but they just could not.

    We need strong mobile individuals to occupy the positions mentioned, we have to take a look in the French market again, where there are a lot of these options at the moment.

    1. Yes, the French market suits.

      The prices give the best ratio quality vs price.

      A player that costs 40 – 50 mill. in England would cost 20 – 35 in France.

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