A functional midfield partnership is one where both parties use their strengths to mask the other’s shortcomings.
In the best midfield partnerships, both parties do this, but also combine to create a unit far greater than the sum of its component parts.
Some have argued that Arsenal’s mainstay midfield partnership of the past 18 months of Coquelin – Cazorla was perfectly functional and Arsenal were fine persisting with it for another full season.
However, what if you want something more than ‘functional’?
What if you question whether it was actually ‘fine’ in the first place, as despite lauded displays against City, United and Bayern, losses to Spurs, Monaco, Chelsea, Bayern, Barcelona, and pedestrian performances against ‘lesser’ premier league sides make you aspire for a different way of doing things?
Why settle for something good when you can make something better?
While Coquelin and Cazorla dovetailed well at times, the two deep midfield roles were imbalanced and Arsenal’s build-up play suffered. They were two bodies doing the work of one modern ball-playing holding midfielder. This deprived Arsenal of another receiving option, leaving their build-up play increasingly predictable and tepid, making it easier for opponents to set-up against the likely recipients of the pass from midfield.
Even if a pass was completed to Bellerin, Monreal, or to Özil or one of the wide players, it was relatively easy to read, and although opponents would not cut out that initial pass itself, they could see it coming and in turn block the most dangerous subsequent passing lanes that the recipient would in turn look to ahead of time.
This meant Coquelin and Cazorla padded their own stats, but without actually making as many passes of purpose which progressed Arsenal’s build-up or asserted greater control over the game as their passing percentages or touch numbers would suggest they did.
This summer, Arsene Wenger paid a premium for Granit Xhaka.
He was ready for change, for evolution. In the 24-year-old Swiss dynamo, Arsenal have a player whose skillset encompasses some of the best bits of what both Coquelin and Cazorla offer, and so much more.
On Tuesday night against FC Basel, Arsenal fans got a glimpse of what the not-too-distant future holds. Xhaka was imperious as Arsenal’s deepest midfielder, exerting control over the match, dictating Arsenal’s play, and injecting an impetus, fluidity, and purpose into Arsenal’s ball circulation and build-up that fans had not seen for some time.
He was ably supported by his teammates, none less so than Santi Cazorla, playing a slightly more advanced role than in his two previous outings. Arsenal’s football in the first half was breathtaking, delightful, and glorious, as The Gunners moved the ball with consummate ease, with short, sharp, purposeful passes around the opposition’s three-man midfield, maintaining full control after taking an early lead and always looking most likely to score the next goal.
Players received the ball and were able to quickly manoeuvre it to a teammate and progress play, and memories of some of the laboured displays of the past 18 months paled. In addition to this, there was also more of a direct, vertical threat, with Xhaka showing a willingness to attempt to pick a pass to teammates between Basel’s lines when the opportunity presented itself.
Arsenal’s superior ball circulation and build-up in midfield also enabled Mesut Özil to play higher up, where he can make decisive contributions in more dangerous areas. Recently, the German has been dropping deeper than he’d ideally like to to help build play. Having Xhaka as the heartbeat of the team behind him will also bring the best out of the mercurial playmaker. Controlling a team’s tempo isn’t just about injecting impetus into the build-up when required.
Xhaka also showed maturity in the other aspect of tempo setting when he was instrumental in deliberately slowing down Arsenal’s play and sapping Basel’s building momentum from them in Arsenal’s only shaky five-minute spell of the second half shortly before Wenger’s substitutions. Now compare and contrast last night with Arsenal’s fractured display against Liverpool.
But if Xhaka is that good at all these things and makes Arsenal this much better to watch, why has it taken Wenger so long to integrate him into Arsenal’s starting XI?
Well, all partnerships take time to gel and for the other units within the team to familiarise themselves with them.
Arsenal’s midfield is currently surrounded by two such units in the midst of change, in the Mustafi – Koscielny axis and the Walcott – Alexis – Iwobi triumvirate.
In the context of these shifting landscapes, Wenger elected to temporarily keep relative stability in his functional midfield pairing, albeit in a slightly different guise, allowing the other partnerships to gel before implementing the big change he has envisioned at the base of midfield since he spent £35m on one of the game’s best young ball-playing holding midfielders.
Wenger’s recent deployment of a Cazorla – Coquelin midfield pair, distinctly different to the Coquelin – Cazorla partnership of the past 18 months, was a harbinger of change to come in Arsenal’s midfield for the rest of the season and beyond.
This configuration of the pairing used against Hull and Chelsea utilised the Spaniard’s technical ability ahead of the back four, and the Frenchman’s energy in advanced areas to force opposition errors higher up the pitch.
This shift into trying to win the ball back higher up the pitch has been facilitated by a changing of the guard at CB. Mustafi’s combination of aggression and athleticism alongside Koscielny enables Arsenal to defend higher up the pitch, squeezing the amount of space in which the opposition can operate, but with greater chance of successfully retreating should the midfield fail to win the ball back and the defence be breached. An example of this is Bellerin’s brilliant recovering tackle against Pedro in the second half against Chelsea.
However, there are still some kinks to iron out, as demonstrated by the defence being bisected by one direct ball presenting an opening for Cavani in the second half in Paris and the passage of play leading to Hull’s penalty, hence Wenger’s reticence in pulling the trigger on the midfield change straight away.
An injury to Coquelin has expedited this transition, springing Wenger into action a couple of weeks ahead of when he’d carefully planned to act. While it was Cazorla selected to play alongside Xhaka vs Basel, this is perhaps because the Champions League is a different beast to the Premier League.
Perhaps Wenger believes the Spaniard’s technical prowess was better suited to a competition more predicated on smart decisions, ball retention, and efficiency, whereas a more energetic, but no less astute, player such as Mohamed Elneny would be more suitable for spells of pressing and winning the ball back higher up the pitch in the hustle and bustle of the premier league away at Burnley on Sunday, a tactic Arsenal used noticeably less last night than in the first half vs Chelsea.
Following the International break, Ramsey and Coquelin will come back into contention, barring any injury setbacks.
Arsenal are blessed with a number of central midfielders, with differing skillsets, who can combine to form very different partnerships, each of which could be potent against certain opponents.
The question then becomes which one does Wenger opt for as his mainstay?
What will be Arsenal’s next great midfield partnership?