Thursday, December 7, 2023

The changing profile of the Arsenal midfield

Morning everyone. It’s that time of year now where you just don’t know what’s going to be going on. During the season there’s just been a match, or there’s going to be a match soon enough, and all the various bits and pieces that surround the actual game of football are the fuel for the blog.

Now, it’s lucky dip. Whatever rumours and Arsenal related frippery is out there is fair game. Some of it not necessarily ripe for the picking, but we’re very much in beggars/choosers territory. Still, with the Euros coming up, and a need for the club to be relatively busy in the transfer market, we should have a reasonable amount to be going on with.

I did enjoy this Tweet from Arsenal yesterday, as they announce the new kit will be ‘revealed’ today:

The character limitations of Twitter meant they couldn’t post:

Arsenal kit launch 2016-17

It may not be exactly how they planned it, but perhaps launching the kit with hi-res snaps, rather than grainy front camera shots, of a new £25m signing might be a good thing. Ultimately people are more interested in who is going to be inside the shirt than the actual shirt itself.

The word is that Granit Xhaka’s signing is done and dusted, now we just have to reveal him to the world as an Arsenal player. As I touched on briefly over the weekend, midfield is clearly an area that the manager has identified as somewhat dysfunctional. Or it might be fairer to say not as functional as he would like.

There was always going to be a need to do something when Mikel Arteta, Mathieu Flamini and Tomas Rosicky left. In terms of their overall contributions last season, only Flamini played a reasonable number of games, while injuries meant the other two spent more time on the sidelines than on the pitch.

The key, however, was identifying players who could not only take their places in the squad but who could have an impact on the team itself. There were so many games last season where we could have done with an Arteta type player, someone to add control and composure to the centre of the park, and the losses of Cazorla and Coquelin at the same time certainly had an impact.

The addition of Mohamed Elneny in January went some way towards that. I saw some criticism of him for playing it too safe, but it strikes me that’s exactly what he was instructed to do. We have plenty of players who can waste possession, what we needed was somebody who could help us keep it, and provide the midfield with something approaching a fulcrum. Someone who could do the simple task of collecting a pass, moving it on, and moving himself into a position where he was an option to get it back.

So often last season we were static, players stood with the ball looking for movement ahead of them and finding none. It meant we played riskier passes, lost the ball, and failed to control the games the way we would have wanted. Elneny started his first Premier League game at White Hart Lane on March 5th, and every game after that bar Norwich on the final day.

There was more to it than simply his presence, but he was part of a 10 game unbeaten run stretching from that 2-1 home defeat to Swansea to the last game of the season. I think there’s more to come from him as a player, but his ability to do the simple things effectively played a part. In almost every game he was up there as the player who made the most passes. Perhaps he was, at times, a little conservative, but that’s not always a bad thing.

Adding Xhaka to the mix is interesting. I know we can’t judge from YouTube alone, but he looks like a player whose range of passing will add something extra too. Remember those Mikel Arteta compilations where he’d spread the ball wide, stretching the pitch and allowing us to use the space? He looks like he has that ability, as well as being able to find the more adventurous passes from deep positions too.

So, when you look at the central midfield options: Elneny, Cazorla, Coquelin, Ramsey, Wilshere, and Xhaka (all going well), it’s going to be very interesting to see what kind of formation and system Arsene Wenger has in mind. Two deep lying players? A new Coqzorla combo involving Wilshere? The engine and forward thinking of Ramsey alongside one of the new boys?

Time will tell, obviously, but as much as we need to do something up front – and there’s no question that has to be the next priority – the fact that we’ll have shelled out something like £40m + add-ons on two central midfield players since January, shows that Wenger identified this area as one in need of an upgrade.

Ozil clearly creates plenty but it seems the manager wants more than one man in midfield who can pull some strings. Being able to control games better from the middle should mean we’re more effective offensively, and less porous defensively so it’s going to fun to watch and see what he has in mind for next season.

Finally, transfer rumour of the day sees us linked with Bayern Munich centre-half Medhi Benatia. He’s 29 and hasn’t exactly set the world on fire there, so I do wonder about this one. It wouldn’t surprise me if a centre-half was on the shopping list, but as other teams have shown even spending massive money on them doesn’t guarantee success. I’m not quite sure you can say there’s a dearth of central defensive talent right now, but it’s definitely not easy to find the really good ones.

James and I will have an Arsecast Extra for you this morning. As ever if you have any questions or topics for discussion, please send to @gunnerblog and @arseblog with the hashtag #arsecastextra. Podcast will be available for you mid-morning.

Until then.

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