There were two main takeaways for Arsenal to mull upon after a comfortable 4-0 win at hapless Swansea last weekend.
We found out that Alexis really doesn’t like it when he has to come in for dinner instead of play football on the road with his mates, and that Granit Xhaka and Aaron Ramsey might have just figured out how to play as a partnership in midfield.
The first one should have come as no surprise. Anecdotes about Alexis ignoring advice suggesting that he should take it easy and being found exercising at an insane pace are commonplace now. (Honestly, if you heard that Alexis was told to take a week off to recuperate, only to be seen in Florida wrestling giant alligators for sport, would you be surprised? I wouldn’t.) All he cares about is playing football, and if he’s annoyed that he only gets to play 75 minutes when he’s fit to play 90, then how can that be a bad thing? Imagine how easy it must be for Arsene Wenger to preach about work ethic to youngsters at the club when all he has to do it point at his star attacker every day and say ‘If he can do it, why can’t you?’.
The second one, though? This one is a lot more complicated, as it has less to do with the players themselves and more to do with how Wenger wants his midfield to operate when Arsenal have the ball. There are three ways in which a midfield is set up in modern football today:
- Barcelona play three midfielders, one in front of the back line and two in the centre of the field. The deepest midfielder does nothing to aid attacks, whilst the two more advanced midfielders do their best to get the ball up to the attacking third as quickly as possible.
- Real Madrid play two midfielders, both of whom are required to be able to dictate the tempo of the game with the ball, whilst also provide defensive cover for the back line. Often, one would drop slightly deeper whilst the other pushed further forward to help out with the attack.
- Juventus, and now Chelsea, play two defensive midfielders in front of the back line, and one midfielder very high up the pitch. The two DMs shield the back line, leaving the attacking midfielder with total freedom to focus on getting into good spaces for which to attack from.
Arsenal, ever since Arsene Wenger arrived at the club, have set up their midfield in the second of these three options. Just like Luka Modric and Toni Kroos control games through the middle in Madrid, Arsenal very often did the same thing with the likes of an attacking minded player like Patrick Vieira and Cesc Fabregas who was more than able to hold their own defensively, pairing up with a more defensive minded player like Emmanuel Petit or Gilberto Silva who could also make crucial passes to keep attacks moving through the defensive lines ahead of them.
Over the last few years though, Arsenal haven’t had the players necessary to implement such a strategy. The closest they came to something that worked in this manner was Mikel Arteta and Aaron Ramsey in 2013-14, when Ramsey was the outstanding player in the team all year. But even that was ultimately flawed, due unfortunately to Arteta’s decreasing ability to keep up his share of the defensive workload. It was only five months later that a desperate recall of Francis Coquelin from a loan spell gave Arsenal any defensive cover in midfield.
Coquelin would himself form a workable partnership with Santi Cazorla, but the Frenchman’s chronic deficiencies on the attacking side of the game too often hamper Arsenal’s play. Cazorla has been excellent as the more attacking minded player in midfield, but can’t be paired with either Ramsey or someone like Jack Wilshere due to the lack of defensive cover he provides. It is a very fine balancing act that has to be performed by those playing in midfield for such a system to work.
That was why there was so much excitement over the arrival of Granit Xhaka at the club. Here, in essence, was a 6’1 version of Santi Cazorla, someone who wasn’t afraid to stick his foot in, but who also could start attacks from deep and keep the tempo high when Arsenal had the ball. But he has had his fair share of teething problems since the start of the season, most notably with which role he was asked to play in midfield. When he plays with Coquelin, he has to push further up the field to bridge the gap between the attackers and Coquelin. As he’s not the spritest of chaps, it doesn’t seem to suit his game.
But he wasn’t brought in to be the more attacking minded midfielder, he was supposed to be our version of Xabi Alonso, a hard-nosed midfielder with a magic wand for a left-foot. What he needed was someone to do his running, whilst also makes runs to help the attack. Even if fit, Cazorla isn’t that guy. Aaron Ramsey definitely is that guy. For two years he’s been waiting to play in midfield beside someone who can pass him the ball, and finally he has someone who can, whilst also not need to carried defensively.
This was the most encouraging thing about the Swansea game, because for half an hour, the pair of them were struggling to work out when one of them should push forward and the other would sit. But towards the end of the first half, a pattern started to emerge; Xhaka was the one who was sitting deep, and Ramsey was the one running ahead.
The knock-on effect from such consistent movement was immediate; with Ramsey bombing forward, Giroud could do what he does best, which is collect the ball 2o yards out from goal and bounce the ball out to an overlapping runner. Alexis, even whilst on the left, could now drop deeper to collect the ball whenever he wanted because Ramsey was acting as an extra attacker. Mesut Özil, with no need to sit 30 yards out from goal, is now playing as a Bergkamp-esque centre-forward and getting into the box with far more regularity. All Alex Iwobi had to do is look around him, find where the defence isn’t looking and run into that space so that he’s a passing option when Alexis and Özil are covered, which he did brilliantly.
What Xhaka and Ramsey need now, more than anything, is time. With Cazorla’s future at the club acting like his Achilles, i.e hanging by a thread, then Arsenal need to give this burgeoning partnership as many opportunities as possible to work out the kinks and get used to each others’ movements and habits. There will undoubtedly be hiccups along the way, and no midfield is ever perfect. But Arsenal’s best chance of winning this year will come with Xhaka and Ramsey at the heart of it.