With Granit Xhaka and Aaron Ramsey, Arsenal have a midfield partnership that can finally boss the game around.
Recruiting a top midfielder is easier said than done without an obvious hole, and Xhaka and Ramsey will be if they can stay healthy and not suspended.
Ramsey has always been one of the most talented midfielders in Arsenal’s arsenal. However, this is not without frustrations. He has looked better for Wales than he has recently for the Gunners. He provided one goal and four assists for Wales en route to their semifinal appearance at Euro 2016.
The other major frustration is his inability to reproduce his form of the 2013-2014 season, which saw him contribute 16 goals, many of them spectacular, in all competitions. And every time he finds his stride, an injury usually comes along.
Despite these frustrations, at the end of last season, he formed a partnership that might just bring Arsenal the long awaited Premier League crown.
After Arsene Wenger switched to the 3-4-2-1 formation, Aaron Ramsey and Granit Xhaka were fantastic in midfield. The new system was perfect for the Welshman. He excelled in the more box-to-box role required of him. The game that most exemplifies this was the FA Cup final.
No fan will ever forget his trophy-winning header, but his game was more than just one clutch moment. He also provided a 93% pass accuracy, three shots and three tackles – far and away the Man of the Match.
Having a midfielder contribute so well on both ends of the pitch is part of what made this team excel down the stretch, and will be a big part of any success the Gunners have this season, provided he stays healthy.
Ramsey’s partner has been equally impressive in the center of the park. If Ramsey is the lightning, Granit Xhaka is the thunder. For years, Arsenal fans and pundits have been begging for an Arsenal midfielder with a bit of steel to him. Xhaka certainly provides this, even if it means a red card every now and again.
He two-foot tackled his brother at the Euros, for goodness’ sake. But Xhaka is not purely a defensive midfielder; his passing range is incredible. His diagonal balls are a thing of beauty. In the Community Shield, he provided the wonderful free kick assist to Kolasinac’s equalizing header. In the FA Cup final, where the two of them out-dueled Kante and Matic, he turned in 88% accuracy, 3 tackles, and two shots.
Not to mention, he shows up with a long-range screamer every now and then. With two players contributing on both ends of the pitch, Arsenal have had a hugely successful midfield with the results to prove it.
A huge part of Xhaka is something that does not show up on the stat sheet: his leadership and energy. He has already been named captain of the Switzerland national team. His exemplifying moment of leadership and energy was at the halftime whistle of the FA Cup semi-final.
Manchester City had Arsenal on their heels, and the energy from the Arsenal half of the stadium was very nervy. Still being at 0-0 and very much in the game, Xhaka immediately turned to his fans and pumped them up. Arsenal rode that wave of excitement and belief to winning the semifinal and eventually the Cup.
That self-belief he showed was huge for the team. A strong personality at the center of the team is something Arsenal badly needed. With Xhaka and Ramsey, Arsenal have a midfield partnership that can boss the game around.
Wanting what you don’t have
Arsenal fans, myself included, always think the grass is greener on the other side. The principle case of this is Olivier Giroud. The starting forward for France, Giroud simply cannot stop scoring when he has the triple F crest on his chest. If Arsenal fans saw a player doing that, would they not harass Arsene Wenger for missing out on a top French player?
I think the same is happening with the Xhaka-Ramsey partnership. If they were not already in North London, fans would clamor certainly for Ramsey, and probably Xhaka as well. The midfielder that led Wales of all teams to the European Championships semi-final, and the captain of the Swiss national team who isn’t afraid to throw in a hard tackle and a master of the diagonal ball would be on the top of fans’ wish lists.
But because they are already in red and last season did not go as planned, they must not be good enough. The midfield at Arsenal is good enough; they just need to stay healthy and have a manager use them properly. The problem has not been the talent, but Wenger’s tactics.
At the beginning of last season, Wenger could not seem to figure out how to use Xhaka. He said publicly that Xhaka was a defensive midfielder, not a box-to-box, but also said he was a box-to-box, not a defensive midfielder. It was not clear that Wenger knew what he had on his hands in Granit Xhaka.
Ramsey was also injured to start the season and only fully regained his strength for the run-in. Now that they are both healthy and in a system that suits them, the results have been fantastic and should continue that way for the 2017-2018 season.
Recruiting for a backup role
Xhaka and Ramsey appear entrenched in the midfield partnership until it falls apart or one gets suspended or injured. Now, both of these are likely, but it is difficult to recruit a top player for the price Arsenal are liokely to want to pay.
With Europa League games this year, the midfield does need to be a little bit deeper behind the strong first-choice partnership. The 3-4-2-1 formation requires more box-to-box players. Arsenal’s options are currently set up with the 4-2-3-1 in mind; players who specialise either in defence (Mohamed Elneny, Francis Coquelin) or attack (Jack Wilshere, Mesut Özil, Alex Iwobi), but not both.
So Arsenal need a great midfielder to ride the bench; not an easy task without the guarantee of major silverware. This has probably been the snag on potential deals this summer.
I wrote earlier this year about potential replacements for Santi Cazorla. Among them was Jean Seri. He has been linked heavily with Arsenal this summer.
Seri is an emerging top talent, with an upper-mid-level French club. He is a key piece for Nice and likely only wants a move in which he will play regularly. The midfielder is already starting for a team in the Champions League, so why would he come ride the bench for a team in the Europa League?
Arsenal would have to fork over a truckload of cash, the same truckload that is supposedly being sent to Alexis Sanchez’s house to get him to sign a new deal. Recruiting a top midfielder is easier said than done without an obvious hole, and Xhaka and Ramsey will be excellent anyway if they can stay healthy and not suspended.
All statistics courtesy of WhoScored.com