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Arsenal's midfield "problem"

How Arsenal's midfield lined up against Coventry, and what it could mean for the future

Clive Mason

Arsenal have a problem. Three of their most promising youngsters, Aaron Ramsey, Jack Wilshere, and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, have all been earmarked for a deeper central midfield role. With Mesut Özil at #10 for the foreseeable future, three has to go into one midfield position, or potentially, two. Further complicating matters is that Arsene Wenger has commented that Serge Gnabry could end up in the middle, though higher up the pitch. For the time being, though, Arsenal will be more concerned with how to fit their three young midfielders together. The common thought is that they will be able to play with each other, and Ramsey and Wilshere have started as the midfield pairing five times this season. On Friday, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Jack Wilshere started as the midfield pairing for the first time, to mixed results.

Offensively, there's a lot of potential: Oxlade-Chamberlain is quick, powerful and passes well from deep, as well as possessing a powerful shot. Wilshere, of course, is intricate and dynamic, and Arsene Wenger was pleased with the potential shown by the two, saying that it could be a partnership for England. There were, however, some defensive issues, though they didn't become apparent until the second half. And, there was promise, even with some of the defensive failings: Oxlade-Chamberlain and Wilshere showed a good understanding of when to sit back and when to attack, and generally ensured that between the two of them, one held and one attacked. On a couple of occasions, both were involved in attacking moves, and then, Mesut Özil took it upon himself to drop back and cover the space behind. Oxlade-Chamberlain was also happier to play deeper, and play longer passes, whereas Wilshere would distribute from deep and then burst forward

When Arsenal were without the ball, Wilshere and Oxlade-Chamberlain generally played in a line, but played rather high up, close to Özil. When Arsenal were on the front foot, this was fine, and even contributed the first goal, with Mertesacker winning the ball high up the pitch, and Oxlade-Chamberlain and Wilshere passing quickly to Özil, who assisted Podolski. By playing higher up the pitch, though, space was left behind unless Mertesacker and Koscielny pushed forward. When Coventry broke, this was dangerous: Joe Baker's run came after beating Oxlade-Chamberlain, with Wilshere far behind. Baker was then allowed to take on the back four. In the second half, when Coventry pressed, this happened more often, with Coventry's midfielders allowed to run off the back of the Arsenal pair, and against a better side, Arsenal might have been punished.

And this is where the problem lies: an obvious midfield pairing isn't yet apparent. Whatever the permutations, Aaron Ramsey will surely be in them, as he's developed into one of the best midfielders in the Premier League. Jack Wilshere is also going to get games, be it in a wider role in the short term, or in central midfield in the long-term. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain will also regularly be on the teamsheet, though he seems the odd man out of the midfield. There is a qualifier, though, with that being that Oxlade-Chamberlain was very good alongside Ramsey in the final match of last season. Yet Oxlade-Chamberlain's skillset--pace, dribbling, penchant for a through ball and good passing range--also seems suited to a wider position, and he's played his best football for Arsenal on the left hand side. That wouldn't restrict him from the middle: Santi Cazorla nominally plays wide, after all, and he spends most of his time in the middle.

That is perhaps the most realistic lineup that features the trio. These things can change, though, and Wilshere starting in the midfield will also depend on an improvement of his defensive game. He can tackle well when facing an opponent, but at times is gone past too easily. With a holder behind, this could alleviate some of those issues, and it should be noted that Wilshere is gone by easily when he tries closing opponents down. When he marks space, as he did in the first 40 minutes of the North London Derby, and in the two matches against Fenerbahce, he's a far better defensive player. The same can be said of Oxlade-Chamberlain, and if there's one thing we've learned from the Coventry match, it's that those two still show the impulsivity of youth.