The Christmas period is particularly special for Arsenal, for it was on the 1st December, 1886 that the club was formed as Dial Square, its first matched played on the 11th of the same month. On Christmas Day 130 years ago, Dial Square changed its name to Royal Arsenal.
For the current Arsenal, the build-up to Christmas was not very enjoyable. Two disappointing 2-1 defeats away to Everton and Manchester City saw them drop to fourth in the Premier League table, nine points behind leaders Chelsea and only one point ahead of local rivals Tottenham Hotspur.
The defensive errors in both matches were well-documented, but what was more of a cause for concern was that the midfield struggled to create quality chances and, particularly against Manchester City, was overrun on a number of occasions.
Solving the Arsenal midfield problem
As always happens after a few bad results, Arsène Wenger is under a lot pf pressure. He will be expected to make signings of some description in the January transfer window, the existence of which he has been highly critical in the past.
Fans and pundits are prone to demand all kinds of weird and wonderful signings, many of whom would not bring much benefit to the squad—Christopher Samba and Carlton Cole are Ghosts of Christmas Past which will haunt Wengersceptics for years to come—but signing another midfielder could make a huge difference to the second half of the season.
Arsenal have struggled to create chances since Santi Cazorla’s injury. This has been mainly due to the Spaniard’s short passing ability which helps to connect the team together, particularly when it comes to getting the ball to Mesut Özil. The German struggled in the games at Goodison Park and The Etihad, and this is partly due to the fact that he is at his best when the ball is coming to him regularly and not when he has to get it for himself. Without Cazorla, he has been at times isolated from play, which has been a disaster for the team as a whole because it is so reliant on him to create chances.
Arsenal’s other midfielders have not been able to fill in for Cazorla partly because his simple passing game is not suited to many of them. Mohamed Elneny is more of a worker, though he has on occasion formed an effective partnership with Francis Coquelin, whose game does not revolve around passing; Aaron Ramsey prefers to try more expansive passes and is more suited to a box-to-box role, though perhaps he could do with simplifying his passing at times; Granit Xhaka is an excellent passer, but he is best used playing longer balls from deep.
An extra midfielder, therefore, would make a huge difference. Even if a superstar is not available, someone who is able to string a large number of passes together and get the ball to Özil regularly would fit the bill. Cazorla’s replacement needn’t be one of the best midfielders in the world; the 32-year-old is hardly in that class himself. Rather, it must be a functional player.
Tabloid reports of Isco’s unrest at Real Madrid will have fans dreaming. He has mostly played in a more advanced role than Cazorla in his career, so whether he would play in the midfield pivot or higher up the pitch, at the expense of Alexs Iwobi and Oxlade-Chamberlain, would be a dilemma for Wenger. Regardless, the move seems unrealistic at this moment in time, so Arsenal should have other options in mind.
Leandro Paredes is another name who has been linked with a move to North London. The 22-year-old has had an excellent last 18 months and is competing admirably for a spot in the Roma starting XI alongside the likes of Kevin Strootman and Radja Nainggolan. Roma tend to play a 4-3-3, meaning that were he to sign he would likely have to adapt to the extra defensive responsibilities brought about by playing in a pivot, but his accurate passing and creative ability would make him an excellent addition to the squad.
Wenger will be reluctant to change formation because the current 4-2-3-1 system benefits Özil, who prefers to be played in the number 10 role. When he was used out wide in a 4-1-4-1 two seasons ago, he was not at his best. He had some success playing out on the right for Germany at the 2014 World Cup, however—particularly against Portugal—so it wouldn’t be impossible to create a midfield system using a 4-3-3 or 4-1-4-1 which suits him.
One of the better arguments for switching to a three in midfield is that, apart from Cazorla, none of the midfielders are at their best in a pivot. Ramsey and Coquelin do not work together; Elneny and Coquelin should only be used in less difficult games; any combination involving Xhaka is impractical because he should be sitting back and distributing from deep.
A change to a three would benefit Ramsey, who would be able to play the “number eight” role that suits him without being constrained by having to compliment a midfield partner. Playing in a 5-3-2 at Euro 2016 seemed to get the best out of him, as he was able to roam the pitch more whilst having more cover provided to him by the extra midfielder. Having said that, it’s up to him to improve his performances before the team can cater to his needs.
Either one of Xhaka and Coquelin could flourish at the base of a three. The Swiss international would be very comfortable sitting in front of the defence and distributing from deep, whilst the Frenchman could be used almost as a specialist tackler who offers relief to the defence by disrupting opposition attacks and allowing them to play a deeper line.
Playing Özil out wide could be seen as wasting him, but playing him on the right could make him all the more effective. The opposition defence would be forced either to move one of its centre-halves slightly to the left in order to mark him zonally, or to leave the left-back fully exposed, which would mean either more space for the team in the middle or more space for Özil out wide. It is worth remembering that one of the German’s favoured moves at his peak last season was to drift into the right-hand channel and to exploit the space there, as he did most memorably for Olivier Giroud’s goal at home to Everton.
The only trouble is that having a trio of midfielders none of whom are specialist passers would run the risk of augmenting the current creative problems. Without Cazorla, any combination of Ramsey, Elneny, Xhaka and Coquelin would be unbalanced in some capacity, with none of them completing a considerable number of passes per game. Certainly, another midfielder would need to be added to the equation—for example Paredes—for this system to work, but it has the potential to be a game-changer for the way the Gunners play offensively.
Planning for the future
Should Jack Wilshere return and stay fit, neither hypotheticals of which are certain, he would solve a lot of problems in either a 4-2-3-1 or a 4-3-3. At Bournemouth, he has flourished in a role higher up the pitch, suggesting that he is best used as a number 10, but in a 4-2-3-1 he could easily be used out wide or possibly even in a pivot.
The latter suggestion has yet to work in practice, but he would be an upgrade on Cazorla alongside Coquelin were he to improve his defensive positioning due to his ability to play lots of short, connecting passes combined with his eye for creating chances. Were he to play alongside Xhaka in a pivot which “sits” in position more and it work, Arsenal would be a much stronger unit in possession.
More promising than that, however, is what he would bring to a 4-3-3. He and Ramsey struggled in the past when they played as a two, but with someone behind them to take the defensive burden off their shoulders, they could create a perfect partnership going forward. Ramsey’s expansive style of passing, which can often lead to giving the ball away, would be complimented well by Wilshere’s ball retention and short passes; Ramsey’s high work-rate would allow Wilshere to concentrate on the attacking side of the game; both would be able to form their own individual partnerships with Özil.
Both like to stream forward when their team is in possession, so they would have to work on knowing when each other is going forward and position themselves accordingly. But the extra man behind them, be it Coquelin or Xhaka, would be able to mop up if they are too high up the pitch when the team loses the ball, provided that they aren’t out of position too often.
Arsenal will need to adjust their tactics to get the most out of their midfield, but Wenger has the players available to him to assemble a unit which is strong both in attack and defence; particularly should he sign an extra man. Cazorla is 32 and the team is too reliant upon him: it’s time to plan for life without his services.