By Matthew Wade
Arsenal’s midfield has an embarrassment of riches: does more mean merrier?
With Arsenal’s improving squad strength, other challenges arise – how does the manager give the players enough game time to keep them happy? And what is the best way to set the team up? Predictably for an Arsene Wenger squad, nowhere is this more pertinent a question than in central midfield.
With everyone fit (don’t laugh, it’s started to happen) the current options are certainly numerous:
Arteta, Cazorla, Coquelin, Flamini (at least for now), Ozil, Ramsey, Rosicky, Wilshere, and possibly even Oxlade-Chamberlain. Not to mention the push from below of Dan Crowley, Krystian Bielik and Gedeon Zelalem.
This is for three or occasionally four places. This squeeze for game time is likely to be more pronounced given Arsene’s habitual reluctance to rotate his most defensive midfielder and his attacking playmaker.
It certainly looks like a case of too many MC’s, not enough mics (bastardising The Fugees)…
The first thing this snapshot tells us, is that you can pretty much ignore most of those stories on Newsnow (thanks Metro, The Mail and The Express etc) endlessly linking us to pretty much every creative midfielder on the planet. Unless they are top draw and going for a song, there is just no real point from an Arsenal perspective. Even in the defensive midfield role that remains a potential concern, the club are only going to buy in the event of a happy collision between quality and value.
Secondly, it gives us an illustration of the flexibility within the squad. Apart from the three more defensive options, all of our midfielders have shown the ability to contribute from the flanks. This not only gives the squad cover for injuries or loss of form, but also affords the manager numerous tactical options at any given time. And it is the exploitation of these options that will be vital to keeping the players involved and happy, building upon the positive atmosphere in the squad that Nacho Monreal told us about effusively at the kit launch.
On face value it appears as though there is no way so many players will each get adequate game time, even without other signings. This would give us another year of Tommy Rosicky’s end of season sad face, which is almost too much for many fans to bear. However, those concerned about the mental health of the Little Mozart can take heart.
With Arsenal now habitually participating in four competitions with a certain degree of earnest, the fixture list could potentially include over 60 games by the end of next May. While this is something of a best case scenario, it is where the club is currently aiming. Even if one is erring on the side of caution, the team should still find itself playing 50 fixtures, unless all three cup runs are disastrous. While this is no different to last year, there are certain circumstantial changes that when combined become significant.
In simple practical terms, the departures of Podolski, probably Campbell and, for what it’s worth, Diaby, free up a little game time out wide at least. This is accentuated by the enforced early season absence of Sanchez. The two combined afford those midfielders who can play wide an opportunity to hit the ground running and get into early season rhythm.
Sadly this won’t apply to our glum rocker Tomas, as he has some pre-season injury issues, but we have seen that both Ramsey and Wilshere can contribute from wide, in addition to Santi’s ambidextrous flexibility. This is particularly relevant due to the changes in the first team’s tactical set up over the last year, and the way that affects the utilisation of certain players.
The first thing to say is that a certain flexibility is afforded by Ozil’s ability and desire to float around the pitch and find space around the movements of his team-mates. He is the all purpose glue in this new Arsenal construct. While he is clearly absolute first choice in the number 10 role, he is astoundingly good at adapting his positioning and movement to the needs of his team-mates. This is evidenced by the difference in positions that he took up depending on whether The Ox, Welbeck or Ramsey was playing on the right of midfield.
The end of season injury influenced experiment of playing Ramsey as a floating right of centre attacking midfielder was fairly effective, even if it did restrict the team’s width. Most of us hope that Oxlade-Chamberlain will graduate to first choice on the right of a more orthodox front three, although admittedly this is partially dependent on the deployment of Walcott. But neither Theo or The Ox have injury records that inspire total confidence, and both are vulnerable to losses of form and impact, which may open opportunities for others.
There is no doubt that Rambo’s future ultimately lies in his preferred central midfield berth, but the form of the Cazorla/Coquelin axis does mean that the welsh wonder may have to remain flexible. That said, he is still the obvious option if Santi can’t maintain the form and fitness he enjoyed in the second half of last season. Given his boundless energy and goal threat it’s pretty obvious that the manager will try to find a way to fit Ramsey into the team as much as possible. We saw against Everton in the Asia trophy that the manager may even be willing to deploy Ramsey and Cazorla as a pair against certain opposition, although this does leave me a little concerned defensively.
The likelihood is that unless we have an injury crisis or a collapse of form, last year’s attempts by Arsene to shoehorn Ramsey and Wilshere into an imbalanced midfield pairing will be dispensed with as Plan A. Indeed, despite an impressive end of season return to the side, Jack is no longer the man in possession when it comes to a starting berth, and he will have to show his versatility this season. He needs game time more than most, and last April and May’s cameos have proven that he can contribute almost as much in a wider or more advanced role as he does in a deeper midfield position. And in all likelihood, it is as Sanchez’s understudy or subbing in for Ozil that look most likely as early season options to get him game time. This may be not be ideal for the player’s desires, but there are questions as to whether Hodgson’s decision to play Jack deeper is due to Wilshere’s strengths, or the weakness of the England manager’s other options.
However, the knowledge that Wilshire CAN play deeper makes him a genuine option in terms of rotating with both Cazorla and Le Coq, and one that I think the manager will consider as long as it isn’t to be paired with Ramsey, as both currently lack the discipline to effectively cover for each other. The incompatibility with Rambo is accentuated because of Jack’s game-breaking ability to run with the ball. While a massive strength, you don’t want your deepest man getting caught attempting to surge between the lines, particularly not when his partner wants to get into the box.
“What about the aforementioned Rosicky?” You may ask. Well despite being younger in ‘football years‘ as he claims, and still having most of his sharpness, the fact is that, at 34, he needs to be used relatively sparingly in order to maximise his impact. I don’t see him starting many games outside of the cup competitions barring a loss of form or injuries to multiple others, but I do think that he will rack up A LOT of appearances off the bench, and certainly will see more game time than last year, if he can stay fit.
The Czech is a high quality impact sub who can change the dynamic of a game quickly, and is still probably our best player at injecting pace into the pattern of play. His weakness, which limited his appearances last year, is that he doesn’t always take due care in possession, which is fine on its own, but in Alexis, Arsenal had someone with the same flaw operating at a higher level. And in the way the current Arsenal team plays, we can’t afford to have two midfielders conceding possession cheaply.
It is the same problem that can affect Oxlade-Chamberlain. This makes the timing of his injury all the more frustrating, as an absent Alexis would have increased his chances for game time as the team risk taker and pace injector. That said, the greater barrier to his selection last season was his propensity to pick up minor injuries just at the point when he probably would have got games. When he was fit and frustrated, the team was largely purring or at least transitioning to that post January form. And when the team was struggling for creativity, it tended to be when he was struggling for fitness.
The bottom line is, if Rosicky can keep in top physical condition, we will see more of him this year than last, although primarily as a game changer rather than a pattern setter.
In a different way, the same applies to Arteta. Having missed most of last year with a succession of calf injuries, the Spaniard’s chances of games look to be on the up with a return to fitness and Flamini’s apparent impending departure. No matter how much we might like him to, expecting the still relatively inexperienced Coquelin to be able to play at his best every week is a stretch. Arteta is the most likely man to fill in, despite the aforementioned tactical flexibility of Jack and Rambo, unless Le Boss has another transfer surprise smirk waiting to be whipped out. At the moment, the buzz is about the long pursued Sergi Samper, but even if that happens, he’d probably still be behind Arteta in the pecking order, giving the former Everton man’s experience and familiarity with the team.
There are concerns in this. Not only is it far from proven that Arteta can again be relied upon to stay fit, but it is apparent to all that his backtracking is often at the speed of one crossing a shallow river. The concerns with Coquelin are the opposite. Physically he seems at the peak of his powers, and he has an excellent injury record to date, but he’s only got half of a season at the real top level behind him, and there have to be concerns about whether he can maintain his form of the spring. Like the manager, I’m optimistic that he can, but I’m less of a gambler than Arsene, and want to see some more quality in that position brought in. Indeed, I did so even before it looked like the unfairly maligned but limited Flamster may be joining Podolski in Istanbul.
Aside from this seemingly perennial question mark over Arsenal’s depth in defensive midfield, the picture is healthier than it’s been in a long time. There is high quality cover in every position and the majority of the midfield can adapt to different positions or alter their role as a game progresses. As such, it is incredibly hard to be certain what the best midfield configuration is, and much will be determined by form, which can only be a good thing at the level Arsenal aspire to.
I’d be surprised if the team that started the opening league fixture would be massively different from what we saw at the end of last season, with the only real question marks being who will start up front, and whether it is Wilshere that takes the place of Alexis. But much like last season, I expect the ‘first-choice‘ 11 to be dependent on circumstance, and with the manager finally showing a degree of tactical flexibility this can only be a good thing. Our team is dependent on a midfield comprising intelligence, running power and flexibility, and all three are plentiful in supply, so competition for places can exist in real terms, instead of just theoretically as we saw for much of the last 5 or 6 years.
What would your preferred setup be?