So much of football is about trying to get the right balance in a team. Finding a range of players who offer different attributes to help combine to make a team without sufficient weaknesses. For Arsenal this season that issue has predominantly been in midfield, an area where they are generally considered strong, but have usually had at least one issue throughout the season.
In the first half of the season, for the most part, the lack of a true ball winner was seen as the major issue. With Mikel Arteta ageing and suffering regular injuries, Aaron Ramsey having a poor run of form and injuries, and Mathieu Flamini seemingly getting worse by the minute, the defensive core of Arsenal’s midfield from the previous two seasons was failing them. Such worries have been emphatically squashed by Francis Coquelin, who has more than excelled in that regard since his reintroduction to the side late last year. However, this has in part created new problems. Coquelin is a sufficiently poorer passer, and is less intelligent in possession than Flamini and particularly Arteta. As a result, Arsenal’s control of games in possession has suffered, and their build up play has changed, so far not in a good way.
As Arsenal’s deepest midfielder, Arteta used to be the man who would control the tempo of possession, and act as the first line of build up play in the midfield. However, as Coquelin is not as strong on the ball, his interpretation of the role is different, and he plays less of a role in controlling the game and building play. This puts added onus on his partner in the 4-2-3-1 in build up. This would not be a major issue, if not for the fact that Arsenal don’t really have an option at central midfield who excels at it.
Santi Cazorla has been the man performing the role recently, often coming deep and beginning attacks. But for all his fantastic footballing quality, it’s not a role that particularly suits him. Cazorla has been at his best this season acting as a number 10 or 4-3-3 interior; using his fantastic close control in tight spaces and link up play to help Arsenal retain possession in the final third and create chances. While theoretically having a very cultured and technically proficient player such as him deep in midfield would work wonders, in reality he’s struggled to really build with passing and has instead relied on dribbles to get beyond the first line of opposition defence.
Aaron Ramsey has been the most regular partner for Arteta in the last couple of years. Their partnership worked well, Ramsey as an assistant in build up play and added legs and energy. But in the current side those are the qualities of Coquelin and Wenger is seemingly untrusting of Ramsey to be the dominated builder, instead playing him on the right in recent weeks.
As a result, Mesut Özil is often having to drop a lot deeper to collect the ball, and almost become the instigator himself from the midfield. One of Özil’s best assets is his positioning and receiving of the ball in advanced positions. As such, having him coming deeper to collect and build means Arsenal are devoid of that quality in the final third.
This has combined to mean that Arsenal have often been frustratingly sterile in possession in front of a low block. Sunday against Chelsea is the most obvious example, where they often had to look to the flanks and crosses as a means of trying to break through, but it was also true against Monaco and at times Reading and Burnley. In a similar vein, Arsenal have also sometimes been unable to regain control of a game and slow things down when finding their backs against the wall, such as at Newcastle last month.
This is not a personal crusade against Coquelin. He’s performed his duties brilliantly and given Arsenal an extra dimension without the ball. He’s not the biggest, sharing a similar height and weight to Hector Bellerin, but his defensive reading of the game is brilliant and he has a burst of pace and energy, all of which have helped him become the most proficient ball intercepter in the country this season. But we have to accept his limitations, and this means either partnering him with a different player, one who counteracts his weaknesses, or replacing him with someone more well rounded; specifically which could depend on the type of game.
With Arteta ageing and Wenger seemingly losing trust in Ramsey and Wilshere to perform the role, it has therefore become a must for Arsenal to bring in a deep lying playmaker in the summer. This would preferably be a player who is comfortable both as the deepest midfielder and slightly ahead of Coquelin in a central midfield role. Someone who is capable of controlling the tempo of the game, and building play well, but also competent defensively in positioning and ball winning.
It was widely reported on Friday that Manchester United had landed Ilkay Gündoğan and that he would sign a contract this weekend just gone. Those reports turned out somewhat premature, but it still looks like Gündoğan is United bound, even if it’s not a done deal yet. Arsenal should act fast to make sure the deal doesn’t come through, because Gündoğan would be the perfect man for the job at Arsenal.
He’s technically superb. He can control a midfield with his passing and has the dribbling ability in tight spaces that many deep midfielders lack. He’s not huge, but he’s taller than both Coquelin and Arteta and is a stocky build. He’s a good ball winner too, having played in Jürgen Klopp’s intense pressing game, and won six tackles in the biggest match of his career, the Champions League final in May 2013. There’s concern over the back injury that saw him miss 15 months of football, and he hasn’t quite reached his 2011-2013 level this season, but he’s shown great glimpses and has had good games, perhaps most notably at the Emirates in November.
There are other options of course. Grant Xhaka has arguably been Borrusia Mönchengladbach’s best player this season, as they have strolled to 3rd in the Bundesliga and confirmed Champions League football for next season. Nicknamed the “Young Einstein” by teammates, he also fits the bill perfectly as a controller and destroyer. He will unfortunately be very tough to sign though, having signed a new contract till 2019 in February and with the club coming back into the Champions League as they lose Christoph Kramer to Bayer Leverkusen, they’ll do everything in their power to keep him.
Matías Kranevitter is another name which has been circulating on social media. Dubbed as the natural heir to Javier Mascherano. But he’s very unproven and it would be a risk to bring him in straight from South America. Asier Illarramendi is another option, having found game time tough at Real Madrid a couple of years after a big money move. But both Athletic Club and Real Sociedad have showed signs of wanting him, and with the former only using Basque players, they’d be prepared to pay over the odds for one of the most high calibre players from the region.
Finding the right man for the right price will be difficult, but there’s someone out there, and it’s crucial the club do all they can to bring them in. Not everyone will be a fan of such attempted business, feeling that Arsenal instead need to bring in more physicality or at least play Coquelin every game. However, one only has to scan across the elite sides in Europe today to see that physicality, while important, is not an essential trait. Luke Modric and Toni Kroos aren’t huge ball winners. Neither are Phillip Lahm and Thiago Alcantara. What they are is very intelligent, great technicians, who can control a game. No side is dominating Europe without someone like that.
18 year old Londoner and Arsenal fan of over 10 years, who, has been obsessing over Arsenal and European football for the last two years after a brief lull in interest. Fluctuating between Arsene Wenger being the ideal man for Arsenal and thinking the FA Cup victory was the perfect time to call it a day. Prone to periods of severe pessimism but generally optimistic about AFC's future.
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