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How can Arsenal reshape their midfield in Granit Xhaka’s absence?

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With the Swiss banned for 4 games, Arsenal will need a tactical rethink ahead of crucial games.

Arsenal v Crystal Palace - Premier League Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

Arsenal are again down to two midfielders. With Granit Xhaka set to miss the next four games following his red card, including the crucial trip to Chelsea, Arsene Wenger has only Aaron Ramsey and Francis Coquelin as senior options. Wenger named Ainsley Maitland-Niles, Jeff Reine-Adelaide and Alex Iwobi as midfield options, but aside from injury, they will likely not play central midfield.

Iwobi, of course, made his breakthrough as a central midfielder, but his defensive work is not at the level required to be in a double pivot, and it is notable that he made his breakthrough in a midfield three. Moving to a 433 or 4141 could make sense for certain games, such as the upcoming game against Chelsea, where it could give Arsenal more presence in midfield. It would also cover mask Coquelin’s weakness, contributing to the build up. There is, however, one big issue: Mesut Özil. Since Özil returned to the side following injury after the World Cup, he has played as a #10. Indeed, the freedom that he is given at the position is crucial for him, and likely a crucial factor for keeping him. Furthermore, with Özil at #10 and Alexis at centre forward, Arsenal have a strong threat on the counter—provided, of course, that they get the ball.

Without Xhaka as the deeper midfielder, that becomes Arsenal’s biggest issue, and will require the biggest tweak, especially as the Swiss was growing in understanding of his role. In his last 5 full games, Xhaka has played 77 passes against Swansea, 112 passes against Preston, 71 against Bournemouth, 111 against Palace and 141 against WBA. Coquelin, to say the least, will not play that volume of passes, which is important for a possession team like Arsenal, not least to mention Xhaka’s ability to spread play, and his long-range accuracy. Aaron Ramsey, who has been the second top passer over the past few weeks, will have to curb his attacking runs, and contribute more to the building of play, enabling Mesut Özil and Alexis to get the ball, and while Francis Coquelin should be the deeper player to allow Ramsey to push forward when necessary, one would expect to see Aaron Ramsey less in the opposition penalty box.

One advantage that Arsenal do have this season as opposed to last season when they missed their top passer is the ball-playing of the centre back pairing. Indeed, it is one of the factors that has allowed Özil to look to stretch play and be more in the final third, rather than dictating play, and the return of Shkodran Mustafi to Arsenal’s lineup should help. What will also help is Alexis from a central position. From his false 9 role, Alexis often drops into the midfield to create, and thus, Arsenal’s attack will be less isolated than it could be with Olivier Giroud (presuming, of course, that Alexis returns to a central role with Xhaka out). Giroud still has a vital role to play, but with one less creative and passing player in the side, it is harder to justify him starting from a tactical point of view.

Furthermore, Alex Iwobi is now a first choice player, whereas last season, Arsenal had Theo Walcott from the left, from where he is awful, and Joel Campbell, who is not very good. Campbell averaged 27.3 passes per 90 minutes last season, whereas Iwobi averages nearly twice the amount, completing 50 passes per 90. Iwobi, being a creative player who can fill in at #10, is also more creative player, creating nearly a chance more per 90 minutes. With Iwobi drifting from the flank, this will give Arsenal the chance to play between the lines with Ramsey and Iwobi, allowing Coquelin to be a decoy. For all this to work, though, Arsenal will still have to have a threat behind, especially if Alexis drops deep. If Theo Walcott, only just returning to full fitness, cannot start, then the role should go to Lucas Perez: he has the predatory instincts to go along with excellent movement that can take advantage of the space that Alexis provides by dropping deep or playing more to the left.

While losing Granit Xhaka is not ideal, a midfield duo of Aaron Ramsey and Francis Coquelin should be more able to cover for his absence than they were last season. Indeed, one of Ramsey’s better games in 2016 was in November, against PSG, when he played alongside Francis Coquelin, so there’s evidence that the changes to Arsenal’s starting XI over the last 12 months, as well as tweaks in their tactics, could enable the pairing to work well enough, at least until Mohamed Elneny returns from the African Cup of Nations to provide a more natural complementary player, or until Xhaka serves his suspension.

Or Arsenal could just play Ainsley Maitland-Niles.