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After the 35m signing of Granit Xhaka in the summer, much has been made of the depth of central midfield options available to Arsene Wenger. Indeed, the Arsenal manager has so many choices that he felt it reasonable to loan Jack Wilshere to Bournemouth and reduce the clutter.
However, since injury removed Santi Cazorla from the equation in mid-October, Arsenal have failed to find balance in the two positions at the base of the midfield.Without that balance, the team does not function properly. Mesut Ozil is playing the #10 role, but it is a very advanced interpretation of the position and this season he has spent a lot of time on the shoulder of the opposition’s defenders, looking to run behind them. With Alexis dropping deeper to compensate this has been an effective tactic offensively, but it has also left the central midfielders without much support and at times, outnumbered.
Let’s review the options:
Santi Cazorla: His injury has coincided with the team’s loss of form and no Arsenal fan will be surprised by this. He is in many ways the team’s most important player. Skillful on the ball, tactically and positionally aware, equally adept with both feet, Cazorla’s control in tight spaces and incredible range of passing make him indispensable. He only really gets the credit he deserves when he’s out injured, because it takes his absence for many to realize how utterly brilliant he is. Could easily have played for Pep’s great Barcelona sides and had he done so, would be talked about in similar terms to Iniesta et al.
Francis Coquelin: The ‘DM’. Coquelin is the only pure defensive midfielder of the group. He’s also the only one that has any real pace and athletic dynamism. He loves tackling and intercepting, he’s positionally disciplined and Arsene finds him – quite rightly – very difficult to leave out.
Granit Xhaka: A beautiful, cultured left foot, Clive. A blistering shot. A Xabi Alonso-esque crispness of pass.. Leadership abilities, a lovely face. However he’s also very slow, collects cards like children collect Pokemon and doesn’t have the close control to dribble out of tight areas. It is odd that Wenger has used him so selectively thus far given how much was spent on the player, but his deficiencies are quite obvious and can be problematic if paired with the wrong midfield partner. Xhaka and Ramsey, for example, would leave the team very open.
Mohamed Elneny: The Egyptian is like the candidate on The Apprentice that Alan Sugar decides is “just a nice bloke”. Elneny is a tidy footballer. He’s disciplined, works hard, has a shot on him if he ever gets close enough to the opposition goal and he recycles possession well. However, he’s neither one thing nor another. In a central midfield pair he’s too slow and not sharp enough in the tackle enough to play the Coquelin role, but his passing isn’t incisive enough nor does he have the ability to carry the ball that the player in the Cazorla role needs to have. A very useful squad option.
Aaron Ramsey: Such an enigma. At his best he can be powerful, driving, clinical in front of goal and a key player. At his worst he can be a saboteur, confused, indisciplined, technically incompetent and far too slow on the ball. The fact is that Ramsey doesn’t have the discipline or defensive awareness to play in a midfield two. Whenever he does, the more defensive midfielder and centre-backs get exposed, overrun and overwhelmed. We’ve seen for Wales that Ramsey flourishes being the most attacking midfielder in a three, but while Ozil is around he will never get that role at Arsenal, hence being played wide where he can attack without being a defensive liability. Ramsey is a blessing and a curse.
Evidently this is a group of players with very disparate attributes and the number of combinations available mean that Arsene has not yet been able to find the one that adequately replaces the first choice Coquelin-Cazorla axis. It is also funny to think that Arsenal’s third best midfielder this season has been Jack Wilshere, who is now really finding his his form at Bournemouth. His attributes make him the player best suited to replacing Cazorla in the long term, but clearly fitness is a shadow that looms over his career.
While none of the combinations are perfect, of the current options I think Arsenal have to give a Coquelin-Xhaka combination a real go. Coquelin is undroppable as the only true defensive midfielder and the only one with any speed, but next to him needs to be someone who can pass quickly, incisively and isn’t going to abandon his position. That rules out Elneny and Ramsey respectively.
Let us know what you think @Under_thecosh