Arsenal’s quality and depth in midfield is one thing the club can boast about, especially in the way it has existed in the Arsene Wenger era. There is a reason why every season the club gets hit by injuries and yet it manages to stay afloat in the top 4. The depth possessed by Arsenal has been overlooked many a times, and much too often, under-appreciated. However, when one comes to think of it, it is the depth of Arsenal’s midfield that has helped the club out managing pretty well during injuries.
The present midfield scenario is no less. Mesut Ozil, Granit Xhaka and Aaron Ramsey have put forward some stellar performances with their respective international teams in the recent Euro’s. So much that one tends to forget that the club still has Jack Wilshere, Santi Cazorla, Mohamed Elneny and Francis Coquelin in stock.
With so much quality in midfield, and with so many names who can all have justifiable claims of having their name in the starting 11, Wenger is bound to have a headache in picking his best team if all are fit. Over the years, it has been a certainty that at least one midfielder would be injured and hence Wenger didn’t face the problem of disappointing one player by choosing another.
But consider a case in which if all are fit. In such a situation, which would be the best midfield combination and how could Wenger possibly satisfy all his midfielders? For that, let us first have a look at what each player has to offer.
Mesut Ozil: A creative powerhouse, our attack could potentially look toothless without the constant threat that this man has to offer. There is a reason why it is possible for an opponent team to shut Arsenal down, if they could shut Mesut Ozil down. In such cases, Arsenal need another creative outlet. He is a no-brainer in the starting 11, especially after his sensational 2015-16, in which he racked up 19 assists and numerous chances created.
Santi Cazorla: When he joined the club, he was a player who could operate anywhere in midfield, including the flanks. At 31, not the same could be expected of him yet he is still capable of operating anywhere in central midfield. He is an able back-up for Ozil, and also could be an additional creative outlet with his quick feet and brilliant vision when played alongside the German stalwart. His absence, along with that of Francis Coquelin, is dubbed to be one of the primary factors that cost Arsenal the title last season. He could either be used to pull the strings in midfield behind Ozil, or as a back-up attacking midfielder.
Granit Xhaka: Arsenal’s recent acquisition had a fantastic Euro 2016, winning 3 MOTM out of the 4 games played. He is strong, a brilliant reader of the game and has the ability to retain possession even when subjected to pressure. His pin-point long balls have provided the teams he has played for, a plan B to split open defences. In many a way, his style of play is similar to Sergio Busquets. He is everywhere in midfield, and is useful when Arsenal intend to play both counter-attacking football or possession-based football.
Jack Wilshere: When fit, he is the midfield drive. He links up defence and attack and changes the momentum of the game. His best position is yet to be known, though. On an international level he has fared well as a deep-lying playmaker, and a deep-lying playmaker usually fares well when played alongside an outright defensive midfielder. In that case, if Jack Wilshere plays at central midfield then he needs to be accompanied by either Xhaka or Coquelin. Wenger has also deployed him as a right midfielder and a no.10.
Aaron Ramsey: He is the traditional box-to-box midfielder. When given a free role, he is everywhere and gets himself involved in attacks and helps out in defence. In such cases he needs a defensive midfielder like Coquelin or probably Xhaka to cover his back. He is probably the most versatile midfielder available. In defensive systems he can operate alongside Coquelin or Xhaka, in systems that aims on possession based football he can operate with Xhaka or Elneny, or in highly attacking systems he can operate alongside Cazorla or Wilshere. In addition to these, he has also been successfully operated as a right winger so as to provide defensive cover for Bellerin’s enterprising runs.
Mohamed Elneny: Another box-to-box midfielder, Elneny excels at retaining possession and being the bridge between defence and attack. He was largely deployed alongside Ramsey in the previous season, for the reason that he gave Ramsey the license to roam around on the pitch with him doing the job of collecting the ball from center backs and supplying it to Ozil or the wingers. He was helped out defensively by Ramsey, and when Ramsey ventured into attack he maintained his position to stop any possible counters. Neither does he boast really good defensive skills like interceptions, tackling or blocking, nor does he have the creative flair. He is just someone who would complement players with either or both of the aforementioned sets of skills.
Francis Coquelin: The only hard-tackling and outright defensive midfielder we have got. With 3.1 tackles won, 4.1 interceptions and 0.38 blocks per 90 minutes in 15-16, he is defensively one of the best midfielders in the league. His presence can give the license for any midfielder who plays alongside him to venture into attacks. Be it Cazorla, Xhaka, Wilshere, Ramsey or Elneny. In matches against big teams, he should be a certain starter with Xhaka, Cazorla or Ramsey playing next to him.
Having depth is one thing, but having depth with so much of quality is a completely different thing. Even though Rosicky, Arteta and Flamini were offloaded Arsenal still comprise of so many world class midfielders that Wenger is going to have a tough time figuring out the best combination.
Xhaka is the leader in midfield, who is tall, strong and makes those interceptions. And if Wenger has spent a huge amount of money on him, he is bound to start and has every reason to start in my opinion. For chance creation and those key passes, Ozil is a must in the starting 11 because he is capable of pulling off passes that can completely change matches. Now, the question is as to who should be the third midfielder.
It’s a tough choice to make from the remaining 5 players. Xhaka needs a partner who can help him out defensively by making well-timed tackles, and Ozil needs a partner who can combine with him, Giroud and the wingers, and also be the extra man in the box when circumstances demand. Ideally, a player who can satisfy all these needs with sufficient skill is Ramsey.
My choice for the most stable, balanced and ideal midfield trio is Xhaka, Ramsey and Ozil in a 4-2-3-1. Playing Ramsey at right side of central midfield shall also enable him to provide defensive cover for Bellerin, and get support the winger himself. Cazorla and Wilshere can only resort as back-ups for Ozil and Ramsey, because both can occupy both the positions, whereas Elneny and Coquelin are back-ups for Xhaka.
Wenger has to show some extensive rotation policy if he has to satisfy all the players and have as less injuries as possible. But if Arsenal’s history with injuries repeats for yet another season, he may not have to worry about satisfying players after all. Nevertheless, what is the best for Arsenal, the best he knows.