It feels counterintuitive to write this after a game when he completed 102 out of 104 passes, but Arsène Wenger substituted the wrong player yesterday against Burnley. Needing some energy and pace injected into a side struggling for fluency and creativity, Wenger replaced Granit Xhaka with Mohamed Elneny. Elneny added some urgency to Arsenal’s play, both in the way he anticipated Burnley’s counter attacks through his positioning on transitions, but also in the verticality of his passing. He offered a clear difference to his midfield partner, Santi Cazorla, and thus there is an argument that Elneny should’ve started, and indeed, should’ve seen more game time this season.
As the graphic above shows, Xhaka and Cazorla essentially operated in the same area when in possession. And with Wenger naming essentially same side for the third time in eight days, Arsenal lacked spark, in the quickness of movement and passing, and also lacked dynamism in midfield, all of which contributed to Arsenal struggling to unlock a well-disciplined Burnley defence.
And part of that is also because of the Granit Xhaka-Santi Cazorla axis. While both have many positive aspects to their game, energy and dynamism is not part of their midfield pairing, which is why Cazorla’s been partnered with Francis Coquelin and why we expect Xhaka to be partnered with Aaron Ramsey. With both unavailable, though, Arsenal don’t have that type of midfielder—except, they do, in Mohamed Elneny.
Arsenal also missed Olivier Giroud on Sunday, which was evident by the amount of times Arsenal worked the ball into good wide positions, and were unable to cross due to a lack of height and presence in the box. Aaron Ramsey would’ve helped in this scenario, but so too would’ve Elneny. He’s shown a penchant for making good supporting runs into the penalty box, and it is notable that since Cazorla last scored from open play for Arsenal, in December 2014, every Arsenal outfield player from yesterday aside from Shkodran Mustafi has done so. In a game where the creativity is lacking and the main goal-scorers are slightly off, that statistic becomes more worrisome.
Aside from that, though, is the verticality of Arsenal’s play. That is one thing that Granit Xhaka has added to Arsenal’s game, and the speed with which he plays vertical passes between the lines has been important over the past 3 games. It is also how Arsenal can bypass midfield pressure, and as the game wore on, Laurent Koscielny increasingly stepped up into midfield. Arsenal have needed Koscielny’s verticality before, generally last season when Arsenal’s midfield was extremely functional. Arsenal’s midfield is becoming more functional, but it can at times still lack parts of a midfield partnership that would be ideal, such as verticality, dynamism and goal-scoring runs.
To return to the opening paragraph, this is why Wenger made the wrong substitution. Both Xhaka and Elneny move the ball quickly and vertically, and Cazorla was not. At that stage, it would’ve been more prudent for Elneny to have replaced Cazorla, not Xhaka, with the substitution meaning Arsenal continued to have problems moving the ball between the lines, playing too many square passes in the final third, rather than finding players in pockets of space.
Part of Arsenal’s struggles were due to tiredness, as well, and Wenger could’ve rotated more during the week, which would’ve given Mohamed Elneny more game time. At any course, Elneny deserves more game time, not just out of rotation, but because of what he offers: the ability to be the more defensive minded player, but also able to be a box to box player, able to do what Arsenal want from the box to box role far better than anyone on the team not named Aaron Ramsey. If the composition of the midfield is to have a deeper passer and an energetic, pressing and counter-pressing midfielder, then Elneny should be playing more. Whether he does will say a lot as to whether Arsène Wenger has a game plan set in stone for this season, or whether he’s running into solutions on a game by game basis.