The enduring memory of Tuesday night’s triumphant trip to Basel will be the scintillatingly slick move for Lucas Perez’s second goal.
There were a staggering 33 passes in the build-up, a 2016/17 Champions League record, and every single one of them meant something.
Wengerball in its purest form.
While Perez and Kieran Gibbs picked up the goal and assist stats, Iwobi, Alexis, Özil, Koscielny, Rob Holding and Ospina all played a part in the move. However, at the very heart of it were Aaron Ramsey and Granit Xhaka, without whom none of it would have been possible.
Arsenal’s most exciting but least explored central midfield partnership were given the opportunity to start together in central midfield. They were at the heart of the move for Perez’s second goal and also central to almost all of the good things Arsene Wenger’s men did on the way to roaring into a 4-goal lead in the first 53 minutes.
Basel were never able to truly settle into the game. This owed a lot to Xhaka and Ramsey moving the ball quickly and precisely, preventing the hosts from forming their lines or establishing a co-ordinated press. Arsenal’s midfield duo were ably assisted by the fluid movement of Özil, Perez, and Alexis ahead of them, Iwobi offering a shorter option, and supporting runs from the fullbacks.
One criticism levelled at past Arsenal sides is ‘passing for the sake of passing’ but this was categorically not the case in the first 53 minutes on Tuesday night. Arsenal’s purposeful passing manipulated Basel, tilting them off balance, creating openings to play telling passes. Arsenal’s ball circulation was the most fluent it’s been all season and their controlled possession play produced clear cut chances.
After getting over the shell-shock of finding themselves 0-2 down in 16 minutes, Basel attempted to gather themselves and establish a pressing game to disrupt Arsenal. Iwobi took stock of the situation and tucked in, offering a third body in central midfield. He positioned his body to receive the ball and then quickly move it on again himself. This additional option helped Arsenal swiftly alleviate the wave of pressure.
In addition to calling on Iwobi to tuck in and help out when required, Arsenal’s midfield duo reciprocated when the opportunity presented itself. Ramsey was measured and considered with his forward movements and supporting runs. He observed Wenger’s tactical instructions and the requirements of the system, playing largely as he did alongside Mikel Arteta at the back end of 2012/13, staying fairly close to Xhaka.
Xhaka continues to impress following his integration at the base of Arsenal’s midfield, showing the doubters why Wenger parted with £35m to acquire his services. Previous performances may have better highlighted one of his passing or defensive output on any one day, but Tuesday night was his most complete performances. This owes a lot to him being paired with Ramsey.
Partnerships like Arteta – Ramsey, and Mertesacker – Koscielny, owed a lot to both partners bringing something to the table that helped form a unit greater than the sum of its parts and act as a platform for the rest of the team to build from. These partnerships were crucial in Arsenal’s performances in the back end of 2012/13 and the first half of 2013/14. Tuesday night’s performance in Basel suggests that Xhaka – Ramsey has the potential to be as good and as important to this current Arsenal team in their quest for silverware.
Xhaka’s range of passing and Ramsey’s intelligent movement and reading of the game also unlock additional possibilities for the players stationed ahead of them. As the partnership develops, it will present opportunities to make Arsenal’s already improving passing game even more expansive and potent. As well as thriving in itself, the success of this partnership enables every other member of Arsenal’s passing game to become the best versions of themselves that they can be.
A Xhaka – Ramsey pairing can thrive behind the blossoming partnership of the interchanging Özil – Alexis ahead of them, as was seen in the build-up to Perez’s first goal. However the true beauty of it is that it could work equally well in a system featuring Giroud as a traditional centre forward ahead of Özil in a more orthodox number 10 role, as a throwback to the triangle of the first half of 2013/14. This gives Arsenal tactical flexibility and a range of options to deploy according to form, fitness, and opposition playing style.
Crucial to all this, however, is Xhaka.
He has already become the fulcrum of this Arsenal side and has accepted the mantle as the long-awaited heir to the 2014 version of Arteta without ceremony. Against Basel, everything went through him.
He looked both comfortable and assertive in completing 104/111 passes, while also recovering 14 loose balls. The way he positioned himself to receive the ball from teammates enabled Arsenal to quickly go from alleviating pressure to building their own attacks.
While Xhaka’s integration may have taken time, given the context of bedding in new partnerships in both defence and attack, he has now become an indispensable cog at the base of midfield, through both his own stellar performances and an Achilles injury that will likely keep Santi Cazorla out until Spring.
Wenger now has the option to pair Xhaka with Ramsey to have some fun and re-establish Wengerball, or be more conservative with one of Elneny or Coquelin alongside the Swiss dynamo. However, the latter option would require more efficiency in front of goal from the front 3, as it would not present the same quantity, or quality, of chances.