From Granit Xhaka to Mohamed Elneny, Arsenal have great midfield depth – but how to use it?
It was a surprising revelation.
“I personally prefer him as a box-to-box player,” Arsene Wenger said of summer signing Granit Xhaka last week.
“He has the engine, he has the power, he has the long pass. He likes to come deep and distribute the game, but I think he has as well the engine to have an impact with his runs.”
Acquired for a reported fee of £35 million (Dh166.8m) in May, Xhaka was widely seen as a solution to Arsenal’s holding midfield problems, with the Switzerland international’s tenacity seemingly making him the perfect fit for the deepest role in the centre of the park.
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That was the position in which he was used most often at former club Borussia Monchengladbach.
Xhaka, 23, tended to sit in front of the German side’s two centre-backs, breaking up opposition moves and helping his team to build their own.
Only David Alaba, Arturo Vidal and Julian Weigl made more passes per 90 minutes in the Bundesliga last term, a statistic which shows how involved Xhaka was in recycling possession and setting the tempo, with his midfield partner Mahmoud Dahoud tasked with fulfilling box-to-box duties alongside him.
While long-range goals against Hull City and Nottingham Forest in the past few days show that completely placing the shackles on Xhaka would be a waste, it would still be wise for Wenger to change his mind and field the ex-Basel man in the role he is most accustomed to going forward.
The Frenchman certainly has plenty of options in that area of the pitch. Francis Coquelin and Santi Cazorla have been his favoured pair in recent encounters, while Mohamed Elneny has been quietly impressive since joining in January and Aaron Ramsey is nearing a return to full fitness.
Arsenal’s depth is perhaps best encapsulated by the fact that Jack Wilshere, previously rated as one of the most promising players in European football, has been sent on a season-long loan to Bournemouth.
The Coquelin-Cazorla combination was generally successful in the second half of 2014/15 and the early part of last term, but Arsenal have at times been overrun when fielding the duo alongside one another so far this year.
With Cazorla positioned the deeper of the two, Coquelin has been forced to get up and down the pitch instead of protecting the back four, and his performances have dipped as a result.
Elneny and Ramsey would seem far better suited to a box-to-box role. Both have the mobility to join up with the attack before tracking back to help out defensively, while their ability to combine with the likes of Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez in the final third is also superior.
Coquelin, though, is certainly useful as a more defence-minded choice: Only 10 Premier League midfielders made more interceptions than the uncapped Frenchman in 2015/16, and most of those were not playing for teams who dominate the ball to the same extent as Arsenal.
It will be interesting to see whether Wenger ultimately settles on a preferred pair or rotates depending on the opposition in front of him.
In the bigger games, such as against Chelsea on Saturday, Arsenal may opt for the security that a Coquelin-Xhaka partnership would bring, while Cazorla is more likely to be involved in the matches against teams who sit deep and cede possession.
Ramsey could be the most important of the quintet once he returns to action, but Elneny has not yet let Wenger down in his eight months at the Emirates and could usurp his more celebrated teammates.
Whichever way Wenger decides to go, it is significant that he now has such a variety of options at his disposal.
The next step is ensuring he uses them correctly.
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Published: September 21, 2016 04:00 AM