By the time Granit Xhaka threw down the captain’s armband in protest against the fans, it seemed that his time was up. Signed by Arsene Wenger three seasons ago, the Swiss midfielder was expected to solve all of Arsenal’s midfield problems. Alas, he couldn’t and even seemed to contribute to it. Despite a wonderful knack for scoring from thirty yards and elite distribution abilities, he couldn’t block the midfield from being consistently overrun. This season seemed to be the last straw: the team was performing very badly and now he had disrespected the image of the club. By January, everyone assumed, he would be gone.
That was before the appointment of Mikel Arteta who promptly redefined his role and brought out the best qualities of the midfielder. Nowadays, Xhaka seems indispensable to our football.
Torreira has a less toxic story. The closest he has been to a departure are rumours of a silly loan-with-option-to-buy bid from Italy. But the Uruguayan has been in and out of the team throughout the season and when he was in under Unai Emery, it was largely out of position as an advanced 8 where his qualities were diminished and he was rendered ineffective.
That was also before Arteta got appointed and returned him to his preferred position in front of the defense line. He has mostly returned to being good before an unfortunate injury against Portsmouth in the FA Cup.
Guendouzi’s story has a different arc from either of Xhaka and Torreira. Representative of Emery’s imbalance and chaos in the midfield, the 20-year-old had a better start to the season than most. Very impressive with commanding performances in some games in which it seemed as though he was carrying the team through by sheer will, the Les Bleus youngster reminded everyone of the ferocity of his talent. But the chaos eventually got to him and the Emery poster boy lost his position both on the field and in the first team.
Unai Emery was lampooned in some quarters for overplaying the precocious midfielder and relying too heavily on him. Mikel Arteta has taken the other approach. Used sparingly since he was appointed, Matteo Guendouzi has not been playing much in this new regime.
All of these three midfielders have their advantages and disadvantages. Granit Xhaka, for instance, dictates the rhythm of the team and is consistently the distributor from the middle while also covering Bukayo Saka’s behind when the 18-year-old flies forward. But he can be slow, unreliable, too timid in the attacking phase and lose his concentration in the defensive phase. Those are admittedly less of an issue now under Arteta.
Lucas Torreira adds much bite, athleticism, mobility and defensive steel to the middle while being capable on the ball but his passing range, ball control and height is not optimum.
On the other hand, while Matteo Guendouzi is a very good passer of the ball, mobile, possesing an infectious top-shelf mentality and more technique on the ball, he’s prone to drifting out of position, lapses in the defensive phase and a little tendency to be physically bullied off the ball.
One of these at least must be sold and it’s all a question of what Arteta wants from his midfield versus what he can get in the summer transfer market and the price they could be sold for.
Torreira and Guendouzi are the most valuable of the bunch. They are also the youngest, being 23 and 20 years old respectively. Either of them is worth something above 40 million euros and both seem to have a bright future going forward. On the other hand, Xhaka provides the least transfer value out of the bunch, despite being in the very prime age of 27. His earlier contributions to the team do not seem enough to convince most prospective buyers that he’s worth more than 30 million euros. No one knows how he will evolve going forward.
Assuming that Arteta’s midfield might look a little like Guardiola’s, both Guendouzi and Xhaka seem to fit best the pivote role that the Man City coach employs in front of the defense: a tall midfielder who can control the game by distributing the ball, serve as a defensive midfielder who will win tackles and headers and protect the backline from counterattacks. Both Xhaka and Guendouzi can be that distributor (with Guendouzi being more generally ambitious). They are both not the best DMs: Xhaka is slow, not very athletic and while Guendouzi is better at both aspects, he’s likelier to have strayed out of position. Xhaka is OK at headers while Guendouzi is atrocious and the Swiss midfielder is more reliable at staying back and protecting the backline than Guendouzi who can actually do a better job but only if he’s in the right position on the pitch to do so. Torreira has better defensive qualities than either while being slightly worse on the ball.
It seems then that Arteta’s prime deep-lying midfielder is scattered between the three. And something must give this summer.