Central midfield is the strongest department of Arsenal’s squad, but it is currently the most troublesome area of their team. Even without the injured Santi Cazorla and on-loan Jack Wilshere, Arsene Wenger still has Francis Coquelin, Mohamed Elneny, Aaron Ramsey and Granit Xhaka competing for the two spots in behind Mesut Ozil. Arsenal’s performances have suffered once again in November, even if results have not been quite as damaging; this time last year they lost at West Brom and drew at Norwich, compared with league draws with Spurs and Manchester United in recent weeks. The Gunners’ displays have been noticeably scratchy however, particularly in possession, which has led many onlookers to question Arsene Wenger’s reluctance to make Xhaka the heartbeat of his team.
Arsenal have started with three different midfield partnerships against Tottenham, United and PSG and finished all of those games with a different axis to the one they started with. This is indicative of a slight change in approach from Wenger in recent years. The high profile away thrashings of the 2013-14 season scarred him, and led him to move away from a ‘one size fits all’ tactical approach. The purchases of Elneny and Xhaka, who can broadly be defined as defensive midfielders, were further proof that he wanted a rounded set of midfield options to tailor his team according to the task at hand.
However, there is a fine line between tactical flexibility and making so many changes that you disrupt your rhythm and dilute your identity. One thing that rarely changes is Arsenal’s desire to play football from the back, and Xhaka was brought in to facilitate this. The Gunners were without the injury stricken Mikel Arteta for the last two years, and have missed a player that can make angles to receive the ball from the centre backs and build play in deep areas. Santi Cazorla has become Arteta’s successor, but has required the athletic presence of the ball-winning Coquelin next to him to compensate for his own physical shortcomings. By the same token, the dynamic Frenchman relies on Cazorla’s technical security and nimble footwork to counterbalance his own limited skillset on the ball.
The pair have a fantastic record together, and recent performances are evidence of why Wenger was so keen to stick with them early in the season. To win the league however, you can’t have one functioning midfield partnership (Arsenal lost both players to long-term injuries last season, and effectively fell apart). Moreover, there has always been the sense that there is something a touch contrived about them. Coquelin and Cazorla perform the ball-winning and ball-distributing duties that one top class deep-lying midfielder might be able to do alone. In short, Wenger is using two players to the do the job of one man.
A £35 million summer purchase, Xhaka looked like being the player who could combine both roles and given time he probably will do. However, Wenger hasn’t committed fully to him yet. This is unusual for a player who cost such a large transfer fee; Ozil, Alexis Sanchez and Shkodran Mustafi arrived for similar fees and start every game. A period of adaptation must always be allowed for new arrivals in the Premier League, but the former Borussia Monchengladbach is a strong unit so a physical issue seems unlikely. Wenger often recalls the tale of a horrified Robert Pires sitting on the bench next to him as the tackles flew in at Sunderland in August 2000. The Premier League is far less physical nowadays though, and Xhaka is certainly not a flighty wide player. Wenger was also effusive about his quality, saying in August:
“He is a guy who plays naturally behind the ball, he is a bit similar to Petit in the way he plays football.
“He likes to sit, give good long balls and be available to the centre backs.
“I believe he has a good mixture of short and long balls. In midfield it is important for us to sometimes stretch the defenders.
“We have a game that is based on shorter passes than that of other teams so sometimes you have a player who can kick the longer ball. It gives us a chance to get some oxygen and some space.”
Wenger is old enough and wise enough not to make comparisons like that on a whim, and that praise only makes the current situation all the more confusing. It seems that his concerns with Xhaka are primarily defensive. When he started against Leicester and Spurs this season, Wenger paired him with Coquelin which put some legs and steel alongside Xhaka, who is more of static, positional player. Xhaka’s other starts came alongside Santi Cazorla, which placed the defensive emphasis on him. These starts however, came against Watford, Burnley and Swansea as well as Basel at home in the Champions League. Except for Spurs, Wenger has not started him against stronger opposition.
There have been signs that Xhaka is a little easy to dribble past, with Mo Barrow drawing the foul that got him a red card against Swansea. The Switzerland international also made a slip-up earlier in that game that led to Gylfi Sigurdsson goal. Xhaka has only won 41% of Premier League duels, with only 15 of 39 tackles successful. However, he put in an assured performance against Spurs; making four interceptions and winning 57% of his tackles. This display looked to be a turning point for him, but Wenger has started him on the bench against United and PSG.
Wenger said a few weeks ago that Arsenal play ‘risky’ football, and he seems attached to the insurance policy of Coquelin. His speed across the ground and powers of recovery are useful to Wenger because Arsenal do leave themselves a touch exposed in the middle of the pitch. Coquelin has been used in an aggressive, pressing role which demands he pushes high up the pitch. Xhaka couldn’t be dropped into this role on a like for like basis. He would need to sit deep, and allow his partner to push on.
Wenger has played most of his cards in recent weeks, but the one pairing he hasn’t tired is Xhaka-Ramsey. The Arsenal boss has always tried to fit as many progressive players into his team as possible, but seems uncharacteristically cautious at present. With games against Bournemouth, West Ham and Stoke to come, perhaps Wenger feels this run of fixtures is more conducive to bedding in a new midfield formula.
Featured image: All rights reserved by Emrah Partal