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Who should start for Arsenal at left forward?

Let’s look at Arsenal’s options on the left wing.

Arsenal v Reading - EFL Cup Fourth Round Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images

After weeks of Arsenal’s front four looking untouchable, there’s now an open question of who should occupy the position beside Mesut Ozil, Theo Walcott, and Alexis Sanchez in attack. A couple of shaky results in the league, impressive performances from a challenger and the return of a star from injury have put the left wing berth for the Gunners firmly up for grabs. With that in mind, let’s take a look at the pros and cons of the options at that position and see if we can determine who the best fit is for that role.

Alex Iwobi

The incumbent in this role is under pressure after a couple of average performances against Swansea City and Middlesbrough. While it’s understandable why he has come into criticism after those two shaky results, it’s also slightly unfair, considering the key role he played in Arsenal’s blistering form before that.

His pros and cons are well known, as I laid out in my piece on his ascent to stardom. He’s got the intelligence, vision, and passing ability to play as an extra midfielder to break down a deep defense, and the pace and movement to act as a winger on the counterattack. However, he still struggles to get back and help defensively. This has been exploited in the two matches I mentioned, due to the presence of pacy, strong wingers such as Modou Barrow and Adama Traore. His other demerits are fitness - he doesn’t seem to be able to give 90 minutes at the top level regularly - and scoring, though he has shown flashes of promise in this area.

Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain

The Ox is in Year 3 of “This is His Year” and, optimistically, he’s actually coming through with some end product! Some might point out the quality of the competition against which he’s scored. I’d point out that he’s always gotten matches against that sort of opponent, and he has never performed as well as he has been this season.

His strengths are that he is a pacy, tricky winger that is capable of a moment of brilliance to score or create a chance for the team. When he’s hitting finishes like his first goal against Reading or skinning players and creating great chances on the counterattack like he did multiple times against Swansea City, you want to keep riding that high. Also, he’s significantly better defensively than Iwobi.

His downside is shaky decision-making and his tendency to put his head down, get to the byline, and sky a cross. Despite his desire to play central midfield, and being used there on occasion over the years, he does not act as another midfielder in attack, where Iwobi is more skilled at recycling possession, playing multiple quick passes with other attacking players, and probing until the opening arises.

Oxlade-Chamberlain is a much more blunt instrument. He doesn’t wait around looking for an opening, he tries to create one. Sometimes, it actually comes off! A lot of times, though, it does not. Even in his recent 2 goal performance in the EFL Cup, he showed a shocking lack of good decision-making that made his performance difficult to analyze.

Aaron Ramsey

Onto the least controversial figure in Arsenal’s ranks, Aaron Ramsey. Is he better as a center midfielder? Is he better as a wide forward? At which position does he help our team most? Who can really say? Because I have a fierce desire to be liked by everyone, maybe I should just skip this topic.

Unfortunately for my mentions, I shall press on. Here are my strongly held beliefs:

-Aaron is our third best non-defensive player.

-He is better when deployed centrally.

-Rhinos are being killed at an alarming rate worldwide and we must redouble our efforts to protect them.

Basically, I think Aaron Ramsey should play central midfield most of the time. On paper, a matured Ramsey paired with Granit Xhaka makes my mouth water. Those are thoughts for another post. Like it or not, Ramsey will see playing time on the wing this season.

He’s never started from the left wing, to my knowledge, so we basically have to take the pros and cons from his stints on the right wing and guess how those might translate on the left wing. His pros are clear. He acts as an extra midfielder from the wing position. He presses very well in the opposition half wherever he’s deployed. He tracks back well when the opponent is slowly building up play. He can shoot well, so in theory, cutting in from the left on his right boot might lead to an uptick in his scoring figures from the right side.

Unfortunately, he lacks pace, which hurts his ability to participate in our counterattacks and get back quickly to help defend the opposition’s. His runs from the wing have not had the same effect as his runs from central midfield. He isn’t much of a threat to dribble past anyone or to create space with dribbling skills. This could be a hindrance to his attempts to be an inverted winger cutting in and firing off shots as he doesn’t offer many other options to make the defender think when he’s off the ball.

Alexis Sanchez

He’s our center forward now. Until something changes where that is clearly not an effective strategy, he shouldn’t be mentioned in this conversation.

Mesut Özil

Honestly, on paper, Özil at LW probably gets the most out of the most number of our best players. It would allow for Özil, Ramsey, Santi Cazorla, Alexis, Theo Walcott, and Granit Xhaka on the pitch in areas where they have proven to be effective. However, this move is a non-starter. Mesut Özil is the best, most talented player on this team. He should be played where he is most effective. Love Aaron. Love Santi. If one of them is on the bench or playing somewhere they don’t prefer because Özil is playing where he wants to play and where his talent is maximized, I’m 100% fine with that.

So, who should start?

After working through all the above, I would still give the slight edge to Alex Iwobi, at least at this point. He gives us the best mixture of midfielder and forward in that role. His defensive issues are a matter of effort, which, hypothetically, is something that could be fixable enough for our purposes. His lack of stamina is less of an issue when we can bring on an Oxlade-Chamberlain in the 65th minute if we’re chasing a goal or Kieran Gibbs if we’re holding a lead. He’s such a special talent, I think he needs to remain an integral part of our team to continue his development.

Who will start depends on how the manager views the central midfield situation. Everyone has their pet theory on who the manager wants to play in central midfield with everyone healthy. Truth is, we won’t know that until mid-November, at the earliest, when Wenger will finally have all of the central midfielders at his disposal. If the manager wants to continue starting Coquelin in central midfield, Ramsey needs to start on the wing. Even though it’s not my preference, Ramsey needs to be on the pitch whenever he’s healthy (subject to rest and rotation, which I hope we give him this season).

At this point, Oxlade-Chamberlain should an impact substitute and rotation starter, not someone who is in the top XI. His performances this season have been heartening, but he needs to show more to displace Iwobi or Ramsey in the depth chart.

It will undoubtedly be an interesting position to keep an eye on as the season progresses, with the current three top options each providing very different strengths in that position. Here’s to hoping the manager finds the correct mixture in the squad to keep Arsenal in the title hunt.