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2016/17 Arsenal Preview: Central Midfielders

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Previewing Aaron Ramsey and Arsenal’s other central midfielders

Arsenal v Manchester City: Pre-Season Friendly Photo by Nils Petter Nilsson/Ombrello/Getty Images

Earlier this week, we previewed Arsenal’s defensive midfielders, so now we’ll go ahead and talk about their possible midfield partner.

This is a conversation that begins with Aaron Ramsey, Arsenal’s new #8, who should play in the #8 role whenever possible. While there has been debate about where Ramsey’s best position is, Arsène Wenger again clarified that it is in central midfield, and while the Welshman can do a job out wide, the fact that he has had to says less about him and more about Wenger’s inability to balance the side in recent seasons. Indeed, the last time Arsenal had a functioning unit that actually spent a significant time in first place featured Ramsey in central midfield, alongside a holding midfielder who was able to control play. Arsenal again have that type of midfielder in Granit Xhaka, and a midfield combination of Xhaka and Ramsey offers a nice balance balance: one left-footed player, one right-footed player, someone to hold and someone to prob forward, and both are physically strong—in fact, it might be Arsenal’s most physical midfield since 2004, as well as offering a significant goal threat.

If Ramsey is unable to play, or is required to cover Mesut Özil, as he will this coming Sunday, another alternative is Mohamed Elneny. Elneny offers less of a goal-scoring threat than Ramsey, but he is an energetic, competent midfield player, who can provide aspects of the second-function attacking play that Ramsey does, while also offering a defensive security, able to hold or play a box to box role.

Last year, Santi Cazorla played central midfield alongside Coquelin, effectively playing two roles—the more attacking of the central midfield players, while also the passing midfielder. But what Cazorla lacked was the physicality, in two areas: defensively, but also in supporting the attack, where he was also limited by a poor goal-scoring record (it’s been 21 months since Cazorla has scored from open play). Ultimately, the midfield wasn’t working even before Cazorla limped off against Norwich City, with Arsenal offering few convincing performances. While Cazorla’s dribbling is effective in getting away from opponents, he, like the rest of the side, struggled against teams that pressed, with David Alaba’s goal for Bayern Munich highlighting Cazorla’s weaknesses in the position: subject to the same problems against pressing opponents, and being easily shrugged off the ball. If Elneny and Ramsey are unable to play, then Cazorla becomes an option, but at this stage, he should be backup for Mesut Özil or a wide playmaker.

Finally, there’s Jack Wilshere. Whether Wilshere should play or not is almost a moot argument; it’s whether Wilshere can physically play. Injured again, the Englishman has played effectively 11 and a half league matches for Arsenal in the past two seasons, out of 76, or 15% of available minutes. It’s an abysmal record, and one that has made it impossible for Wilshere to be a reliable option, and that’s before you consider his unsuitability to a box to box role—his defensive indiscipline, poor decision making off the ball and his poor scoring and assist record, and the fact that playing two left-footers in the central of the park lacks balance. If Wilshere is to play, it makes far more sense for him to play in a wide playmaking position, but again, that is a big if.