The subject of Arsenal’s central midfield has generated a lot of discussion this season. It is unquestionably the area of the pitch where Arsene Wenger has the greatest amount of choice. The manager probably hasn’t found the ideal balance there yet; Xhaka and Elneny are both new players feeling their way into the squad and Arsene is still evaluating his options. All of Arsenal’s current options have interesting qualities, but they are all also flawed to varying degrees in different ways.
Central midfield relies on partnerships and good partnerships accentuate the strengths of each player, while also reducing individual weaknesses. in lieu of sticking with Coqzorla who- neatly- have played 38 Premier League games together, winning 85 points- you’ve the feeling that Arsene is trying to find another favourable blend. So what are the ingredients he is working with?
Strengths: Santi has gradually dropped deeper and deeper in this Arsenal team and even when Coquelin plays, Cazorla tends to play at the base of the midfield because of his peerless ability to distribute the ball accurately with short and long passes, with either foot. The diminutive Spaniard uses his dexterity to great effect, dribbling free from pressure against teams that look to press high up the pitch.
After a few years of shuffling around between the number 10 role, the number 8 position and a stint as a wide playmaker, deep lying playmaker seems to suit him best. He also speeds up Arsenal’s attack with his quick thinking- if he can play the pass without taking a touch, he will do so. He establishes a nice tempo to Arsenal’s build up play. Coqzorla has evolved as a partnership with the Frenchman looking to press high up the pitch and force turnovers and Santi pulling the strings from deep.
Weaknesses: Arsenal are beginning to favour a high pressing game themselves and Cazorla lacks the dynamism to take part in this, which is partially why he has moved back towards the base of the midfield. On the ball, he is the ideal distributor, but in defensive situations, he needs a better tackler beside him. This is another reason that the manager is so fond of the Coquelin and Cazorla axis, Coq has the energy and wherewithal to provide cover in the defensive phase.
Strengths: Xhaka is a fantastic line breaking passer. His circulation of the ball is positive and accurate. He provokes Arsenal’s build up play with searching, forward passes, which helps Arsenal to resist the soporific side to side passing that can sometimes infect their game. His range of passing is excellent, he constantly looks either for the mid-range pass to Alexis or Özil, or else he is equally capable of finding either Walcott or Alexis in behind defences.
Weaknesses: On the ball, Xhaka gives Arsenal poise and purpose, off the ball he is, to quote Heath Ledger’s Joker, an agent of chaos. He is dribbled around too easily and often tries to compensate with clumsy fouls. Arsene has twice described Xhaka as a “box to box” midfielder, despite the popular belief that he was purchased as a screening midfielder. This rather suggests that Arsene does not yet trust Granit’s wayward tackling or positional play closer to the Arsenal penalty area.
Strengths: In a technically well manned team, Coquelin brings bite and aggression. The Frenchman has been able to adapt his game and use his tenacity higher up the pitch to force turnovers. Whilst in charge of Borussia Dortmund, Jurgen Klopp memorably said, “the gegenpress is my most creative player.” In this sense, Coquelin has evolved into a valuable creative force for Arsenal, winning the ball high up the pitch to reignite attacks. He also has the discipline and energy to help cover less defensively adept teammates in the midfield.
Weaknesses: Whilst Coquelin is capable of winning the ball high up the pitch for Arsenal, he essentially becomes a spare part the instant they have possession again. Much like a bee that dies when it dispenses its sting, Coquelin can offer nothing further to the attack despite his high position. Whilst he has improved the accuracy of his passing, his movement of the ball is nowhere near as clever or incisive as Cazorla’s or Xhaka’s. Coquelin is the opposite of Xhaka, a great weapon off the ball, not so much on it.
Strengths: Raised in the stifling heat of Cairo, Elneny’s lungs appear to be forged from some kind of industrial strength leather. His stamina levels married with his technical security on the ball make him a good ally for Arsenal’s new found desire for selective pressing of opponents. He circulates the ball quickly and accurately and he has something of an ‘absorbent’ quality, his range of attributes mean that he can play as a number 4 or a number 8. Elneny could feasibly partner any of the club’s central midfielders.
Weaknesses: Risks falling into the ‘jack of all trades and master of none’ category. While he rarely wastes the ball, he is possibly too conservative. The Egyptian can keep a midfield ticking over, but does not stamp his personality onto a game as his competitors for a central berth can. You would be happy to hand him your house keys, but you would not back him to pick a lock or break a door down. He is pretty much the ideal squad player, which is great for Arsenal, but maybe less so for Elneny personally.
Strengths: Brings goal threat and energy to the midfield. If Arsenal persevere with Alexis operating as a sort of false 9, you feel that Ramsey could do a lot of damage to opposing defences by running beyond the Chilean into goalscoring positions. Ramsey might look at the function Coquelin is performing at the moment and think that his energy levels mean he could replicate it, whilst adding something more significant to the attack in the process. From the right wing last season, he was able to play as a third central midfielder and support forward simultaneously.
Weaknesses: The lingering feeling that he is yet to carve out his niche in Arsenal’s midfield. The Gunners have transformed their fortunes of late with a game based on swift combination play and that’s not really Ramsey’s forte. He tends to take lots of touches on the ball. Whilst many will point to his breakout season of 2013-14, Aaron really needs to reconnect with the more defensive attributes he displayed alongside Arteta at the end of the 2012-13 season. If he reapplies those off the ball basics, the attacking side he relishes so much will flower.
At the beginning of the season, Wenger remoulded Arsenal’s attack, moving Alexis into a centre forward role and entrusting Walcott to play on the right again. Injuries to Per Mertesacker and Gabriel also forced him to rebuild his defence with the introduction of Shkodran Mustafi alongside Koscielny. Now these areas are a little more settled, Wenger will look to address the final disc in the team’s spinal surgery. What he does with the Gunners’ central midfield remains the most fascinating conversation fodder of all.
Follow me on Twitter @Stillberto