Is it time to stop seeing Alex as a wide boy?
It’s that time of year again. The pressure’s on, the fixtures all have meaning and Arsenal have been hit by an availability crisis in a particular area of the pitch.
Having started the season with so many central midfielders that we were comfortable sending Jack on loan, injuries, suspensions and Egypt’s AFCON run came at together to leave us with one half-fit recognised central midfielder when away at the league leaders, directly after a shock home defeat.
And we all know how that turned out.
As Granit Xhaka’s penalty box blunders and ongoing love affair with Jon Moss have significantly added to the impact of Santi Cazorla’s Achilles problems, Arsene has been struggling to find a functional midfield balance.
With absentees forcing Coquelin back from injury a little early and keeping him in the team despite not being fully up to speed, a lot of pressure was put on our enigmatic Welsh Jesus. Sadly both Ramsey’s confidence and form proved as fragile as his hamstrings currently are, leading to wildly variable performance levels.
Rambo’s misfortune has provided Oxlade-Chamberlain’s opportunity, and the Englishman seems determined to grasp the opportunity to make an impression.
Although the manager and most Gooners have primarily viewed The Ox as a wide player (logical given his pace, dribbling and crossing ability), the player has always wanted to play centrally, something noted and encouraged recently by Gareth Southgate.
Some memorable displays in his early Arsenal career pointed in this direction, notably against this week’s opponents, Bayern, but there have always been concerns about his discipline positionally and in terms of ball retention, which have certainly plagued his time on the flanks. A microcosm was that substitute appearance against Monaco, where having grabbed a brilliant goal to bring us back into the match, he promptly gave away possession with his team exposed, leading to try goal that decided the tie.
Since then, he has been banished from central areas due to a combination of fitness issues, performances of others and a lack of the manager’s trust.
Since a return to the role, facilitated by multiple absences, he has shown the full range of his abilities in a way we haven’t seen for a while. While getting his toes wet against an understrength Southampton in the cup probably helped, the dominance he showed as part of our double-barrelled triple-threat (with Maitland Niles and Reine-Adelaide) was highly impressive. He was clearly the man of the match despite a double for Welbeck and a hat-trick for Theo.
Subsequently, he was one of our better players in defeat at Stamford Bridge despite being totally undermined by the tactical shortcomings of the team set-up, and against Hull he was impressive again.
Although his range of passing and new found positional discipline are very pleasant surprises, it is perhaps the qualities that have always been evident that present the greatest intrigue when considering a longer term future in a central role.
For all the passing between the lines of Cazorla and Xhaka, the energy and aggression of Coquelin, the limitless stamina of Elneny or the imagination and goal threat of Ramsey, not one offers the raw gifts of Oxlade-Chamberlain.
None can carry the ball with the same confidence apart from Wilshere, and Jack lacks the pace of his compatriot over both short bursts and distances. Lack of footspeed in central areas at the club has long been a bug-bear of mine, particularly in recent years.
When playing a 4-2-3-1 with attacking full-backs you need legs in central areas. Partly because of the obvious need to recover defensively when our possession game breaks down, but also to give us more bodies from deeper when attacking on the counter.
So often we find either our centre-backs isolated in defensive situations, or our front three or four isolated in attack. Having some pace and power centrally would help both these areas significantly. Indeed, bar the outright technical superiority of Barcelona and Madrid, very few teams win major trophies without at least central player able to cover ground quickly. Whether Vidal, Kante, Pogba, Dembele or the occasionally motivated Yaya, athleticism combined with some dribbling ability is increasingly a requisite for a top level central midfielder.
From an Arsenal perspective it is also about balance. Coquelin and Cazorla as a partnership works when it does because you have the technical brilliance of the Spaniard and the Frenchman’s bite and short distance acceleration. All our other partnerships to date lack either pace, creativity or defensive responsibility.
If The Ox can learn the latter, as he has shown signs of over recent weeks, then he suddenly becomes a very exciting proposition, particularly alongside Xhaka.
Allied to this, is his shooting ability, particularly from distance. While sometimes frustratingly wasteful, when confident, he can strike the ball as well as anyone else at the club and already has some great goals on his Arsenal CV.
He has also shown himself to be a more consistent goal threat this season, despite limited playing time.
Ultimately, it will be discipline and decision making in and out of possession that define his future, both positionally and longer term at the club as a whole, as Per Mertesacker pointed out in the match day programme.
“He has got a lot of qualities and he’s shown that in the last few games, from the Southampton match on really.
“He can provide special moments in the game, so what’s important for him is to combine that with playing the simple pass and keeping possession.
“He has the ability to be quick in transition and has the speed and guile to make him somebody opponents don’t want to play against.
“In central midfield, decision-making is key – there’s no room for error. You have to be efficient – and that’s exactly what he’s done in our last few games. He definitely has the ability.”
As usual, the BFG is spot on in his analysis, and let’s hope Alex is heeding his advice on the training ground. His work eithic and dedication has never really been questioned, so if he can make the necessary mental adjustments in his approach and, crucially, stay fit, he has a massive opportunity for both club and country.
Particularly if he can keep doing things like this: