Up until February, Arsenal’s midfield pivot lacked cohesion and balance. However, the introduction of a Xhaka-Ceballos duo in the engine room has changed everything. The question is: why do they complement each other so well?
During the first few months of Unai Emery’s tenure, many believed Arsenal had a duo in their midfield who would go on to be the base of their team for years to come. A tenacious Lucas Torreira was breaking up play expertly and Granit Xhaka was seen to be in control of Unai Emery’s midfield whilst in possession.
It’s roughly 18 months since the fruitfulness of that partnership began to diminish. A combination of a dip in Lucas Torreira’s form and a shift in tactics leading to a 3 man midfield being introduced by Unai Emery were contributing factors behind this duo’s demise.
However, Granit Xhaka has retained his place in the team. In a season when he’s gained the captaincy, swore at the Arsenal faithful and lost the captaincy, Granit Xhaka has still managed to nail down a consistent spot in the Arsenal midfield. All three of the managers who have taken charge of Arsenal this season have relied on the seasoned Swiss international at some point this campaign.
Little did Arsenal fans know that the key was to find an effective partner for him. Little did anybody know that Arsenal already had the perfect partner for him within their ranks. From the outside looking in, it seems that even Mikel Arteta didn’t realise this until Arsenal’s mid-season training camp in Dubai.
Upon Arsenal’s return from Dubai, the Granit Xhaka and Dani Ceballos pivot was given its first opportunity at centre stage against Newcastle. I attended this game at the Emirates Stadium, a game which is something of a distant memory now. Nevertheless, I do remember the bemusement on many Arsenal’s fans faces when Dani Ceballos was called out on the loudspeaker as Granit Xhaka’s midfield partner.
Up until the Newcastle rout in North London, Mikel Arteta had reverted to Unai Emery’s trusted Torreria-Xhaka pivot. Arteta must’ve realised something was lacking here. Perhaps Torreira wasn’t offering enough offensively for Arteta’s liking. So, Torreira was dropped and Ceballos was brought in.
Bizarrely, in spite of a brilliant debut from deep midfield in August, a large portion of Arsenal fans thought Dani Ceballos was a number 10 prior his recent extended run in the team. As we’ve learnt lately, this just isn’t Dani Ceballos.
Nonetheless, Xhaka and Ceballos are still two very different players and this is perhaps why they compliment each other so nicely. Ceballos has more of an intricacy about his game, a lot of his progression comes from ball carrying and neat turns in the midfield. Meanwhile, Xhaka is a notably more imposing physically and he rarely carries the ball forward on his own. The different ways in which they do similar jobs means there is still a bit of variety in Arsenal’s midfield.
Their jobs are similar because their personal objectives on a football pitch are similar. They both like to progress the ball from deep to allow the offensive players to wreak havoc up top. They are not players who looks to split a defence open on their own or break into the opposition’s penalty area to grab a goal. Basically, neither of them are Aaron Ramsey.
And when you want balance in your midfield, this works. Both Xhaka and Ceballos excel in moving the ball up the field. In a season when both players have been in and out of the side, as per FBREF, Xhaka and Ceballos have racked up a combined total of 295 progressive passes in the league.
Unfortunately, without effective creative players in front of them, their hard work concerning progression is not rewarded. Thus, there is a huge onus on the Arsenal recruitment team to solve these creative issues. We have the progressors, we have the finishers, but we don’t have the connectors.
And it’s not as if all Xhaka and Ceballos can do it progress. Their defensive output has improved tenfold under Mikel Arteta. The number of interceptions Ceballos has made this season is double the number he made last season, 15 to 30. Meanwhile, it’s clear for all to see that Xhaka’s defensive discipline has increased significantly since he was rehabilitated back into the Arsenal squad by Mikel Arteta. The duo are representative of a brilliantly complete deep midfield pairing.
The message here is not that this partnership is the be-all and end-all. In fact, there are players out there who can do the job these two do collectively singlehandedly. However, with the resources he’s got available to him, Mikel Arteta has unlocked a particularly effective pivot.
Hopefully, Xhaka and Ceballos can help us on our way to an all-important FA Cup win later today. It’s all or nothing at Wembley for Arsenal.