Arsene Wenger is yet to find a functioning midfield without Santi Cazorla, but he’s yet to give a start to perhaps the most obvious one.
For Arsenal there was a sense of groundhog day in their sluggish and toothless display at home to PSG on Wednesday. For the second season in a row, injury to Santi Cazorla has created something of a midfield crisis for the Gunners, and a sharp drop in performance has predictably followed.
What makes it particularly frustrating for fans, is the fact that Arsenal’s issues without Cazorla last season were widely recognised, and must’ve played at least some part in the £35m summer acquisition of Granit Xhaka. Xhaka doesn’t have the nimble footwork of Cazorla, but he can at least replicate, and potentially even surpass, the Spaniard’s wide passing range and ability to receive the ball, that Arsenal miss so badly when he’s not fit.
Arsene Wenger has tried a number of different midfield combinations in Cazorla’s absence. Coquelin and Xhaka have so far seemed a solid pairing who are reasonably well suited to each other. Coquelin provides the athleticism and drive with the ball while Xhaka brings the cultured passing and calmness in possession. Both are also physical presences, which seemed to help them in the North London Derby draw, though it’s a partnership somewhat lacking in attacking flair. Coquelin and Elneny seems to be what Wenger considers the most defensively sound partnership he has available to him, as he used it in the opening match against Liverpool and at Old Trafford. Evidence from those two matches would suggest his theory is misguided, however, as both Liverpool and United seemed to play through the Arsenal midfield with alarming ease. Their effect going forward, meanwhile, has been almost non-existent. Coquelin and Ramsey seems a naturally uncomplimentary pairing and performances would suggest it doesn’t work. Both have great athleticism and although their qualities with the ball are different, neither have the technical consistency or passing quality from the base that Cazorla or Xhaka do.
One of the few remaining central midfield pairings that hasn’t been tried is perhaps the most obvious one, however. When Granit Xhaka was signed this summer, many saw it as a signing orientated around making Aaron Ramsey a key figure in central midfield again. Ramsey, whose best form came next to Mikel Arteta – a cerebral passer and dominate figure in possession – struggled last season next to both Flamini and Coquelin. The chemistry with Arteta was clear, the Spaniard did the lion’s share of the possession work and sat deep, while Ramsey pressed in midfield – producing similar tackling stats to Coquelin incidentally – and roamed in possession, sometimes dropping deep to help build play, other times bombing forward to join the attack.
In theory, Xhaka and Ramsey could share a similar partnership. Xhaka is more aggressive than Arteta was, both in defence and in his choice of passing, but similarly is a deep lying player who naturally dominates the ball. Last season the only players in Europe’s top five leagues to play more passes than Xhaka’s ridiculous 88 per 90 were at the traditional powerhouse clubs (Barcelona, Bayern, PSG etc) who dominated their leagues to an extreme extent. His midfield partner last season, Dahoud, is a technically gifted player, but he averaged 30 passes per 90 less, and played much further up the pitch, looking to combine with the attackers, and occasionally score himself, a role not too dissimilar to how one imagines Ramsey excelling.
Ramsey had arguably his strongest game since returning from injury on Wednesday, incidentally in his first CM start. He got stuck into tackles, was secure with his passing and offered some drive on the ball. His passing wasn’t particularly progressive, however, and this was exasperated next to Coquelin who struggles even more so in this regard. Coquelin has been a constant in the failed midfields Wenger has tried so far without Cazorla, which is strange, since the Spaniard seems to be the only player Coquelin has established a partnership with. As Coquelin is neither a possession player, or strong going forward, Cazorla has to take responsibility in both those aspects, and it’s a testament to his quality that he’s been able to do it. No one else in the squad seems to be capable. The midfield on Wednesday seemed to cry out for Xhaka’s progressive passing; alas Ramsey and Coquelin provided another addition to their portfolio of poor performances, as Arsenal struggled to really get into the game for long periods.
AFC weren’t great v Spurs with Coquelin-Xhaka. Xhaka dropped. Awful v MUFC with Coq-Elneny. Elneny dropped. Woeful v PSG with Coq-Ramsey…
— Lewis (@LGAmbrose) November 23, 2016
Wenger’s reluctance to use Xhaka so far has been puzzling. Ramsey and Coquelin together saw Arsenal’s results drop off last season as the title was ultimately lost to Leicester, and a £35m midfielder was subsequently bought, only for Ramsey and Coquelin to be partnering each other again in the biggest match of the Champions League group stage. In theory the pair could’ve helped Arsenal press, but the team only pressed in sporadic bursts and favoured sitting off for the majority of the match. From the outside, it would be silly to speculate on potential internal reasons for his lack of faith in the Swiss, and there are at least suggestions Wenger sees Xhaka and Ramsey as a long term option in the central midfield.
Although the Cazorla and Coquelin partnership of 2015 returned in September this year, the dynamic of it changed quite a lot. Whereas before, Coquelin had predominantly sat deep both in and out of possession, breaking up play as a defensive shield and playing simple passes, this season he’s played more of a box-to-box role, attempting to win the ball high up the pitch and making runs forward and even into the box. On the other hand Cazorla would, despite receiving from deep positions initially, look to get forward and create through his dribbling and creative passes. This season he has tended to sit deeper and has been less ambitious on the ball and with his passing. The fact his successful dribbles have gone down from 2.6 per 90 last season to 1.2 this term illustrates his evolution to a more pure deep lying player.
The result is that both Cazorla and Coquelin have been playing roles more akin to what one would imagine Xhaka and Ramsey playing. This could be because Wenger had been planning for Xhaka and Ramsey before Ramsey’s injury against Liverpool. It could be that he wanted Cazorla and Coquelin’s profiles to change to ones more easily repeated by other members of the squad, something that wasn’t the case last season, to the team’s detriment. Or it could just be that he felt that it was an evolution that would get even more out of the Cazorla-Coquelin axis.
Either way, it’s interesting that when chasing goals in the last three matches, Xhaka and Ramsey have finished the game next to each other, suggesting, at the very least, Wenger likes it as an attacking system. With Premier League games against Bournemouth, West Ham and Stoke on the horizon, surely now it is time to introduce a midfield pairing with a strong attacking upside. Go for it, Arsene. Be brave.
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