Arsenal’s square pegged midfield

Arsenal have massive problems in the middle of the park.

Even after beating Everton 5-2, the problems are clear to see for everyone – bar Arsene Wenger it seems. Our midfield is extremely unbalanced.

This season, a lot of goals have been due to errors in the middle of the park. Players either giving the ball away in dangerous situations, or not tracking their man. A lot of the blame can be put on Grant Xhaka. But the problem is deeper than one man, it is the fact we are playing midfielders in positions that are unnatural to them.

Grant Xhaka

When we signed Grant Xhaka, I was excited about the prospect of him joining the club.

A man who I had rated for some time, he was brilliant on the ball, but also had a bite in his challenge. He looked to be the ideal man to sit in front of the back 4.

At the time, we had a choice, Granit Xhaka or N’Golo Kante.

Kante was clearly stronger defensively, and the ability to cover more ground, whilst Xhaka was a better footballer, better with the ball at his feet.

Having chased Xabi Alonso a few years back, Wenger went for Xhaka, a man who could win the ball and start the attacks. But it is clear now that he is the wrong sort of player.

A few years after missing out on Alonso, we signed Mikel Arteta. Another deep lying midfielder known more for his ability on the ball, rather than his defensive strength.

We have lacked a midfielder who defends first since the first incarnation of Matheiu Flamini, and have not had someone who was World Class at that job since Gilberto Silva.

Whilst some point to Xabi Alonso as one that got away, for Liverpool he did not play as the out and out defensive midfielder – he had Javier Mascherano behind him. And at Real Madrid and Bayern Munich, he played for sides where his deep lying play making ability was more important than his ability to win the ball.

In Xhaka, we got perhaps the closest thing to Alonso in the modern game. It looked ideal, but is has turned out to be a disaster.

Granit Xhaka would be more comfortable further up the field, as the box to box midfielder playing between a defensive midfielder and Mesut Ozil. Where Aaron Ramsey plays.

At the time we signed Xhaka, I made a case that we could have accommodated Xhaka and Kante. We went for Xhaka, in hindsight we should have signed Kante.

For Switzerland, Xhaka is brilliant. For Monchengladbach, he made the Bundesliga team of the year. Both times he plays next to a more defensive player.

Granit Xhaka would be more comfortable further up the field, as the box to box midfielder playing between a defensive midfielder and Mesut Ozil. Where Aaron Ramsey plays.

Aaron Ramsey

Like Granit Xhaka, Aaron Ramsey plays better for his country than his club. And this is down to one reason. For Wales he plays in his favourite position.

Ramsey is brilliant when he plays in an advanced position, just behind a striker. He is like Frank Lampard. He has the ability to make late runs into the box, to score goals, to drift in unnoticed.

His best season to date for Arsenal was 2013/14, he scored 16 goals in 34 games. The majority of these games were playing behind Olivier Giroud. Picking up the loose ball and scoring goals. He had finally found his position.

But with Alexis Sanchez coming in, Ramsey soon found himself playing deeper once more, where he just does not have the positional discipline or passing ability to control games.

I look at the goals Frank Lampard scored. The goals Dele Alli is scoring for Spurs behind Harry Kane, and Aaron Ramsey can do this, he just needs to play further up the field.

If / when Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil leave Arsenal, playing Ramsey higher up the field is an option.

The closer to the opponents goal he is, the less of a liability he is (and more likely that he will score goals).

Jack Wilshere

In recent weeks, Jack Wilshere has been brilliant against lesser opposition. This has lead many people to state that he should be starting in the first XI instead of Granit Xhaka.

This is a case of the fans calling for a square peg in a round hole.

For the B team (is that what we are calling the Europa League / League Cup side?) Wilshire has been playing behind the striker, as the most advanced midfielder. He has basically been doing the Mesut Ozil job.

He has done well. Very well. But we still need to take things slowly with him.

Fans calling for him to replace Xhaka have failed to understand the role he is currently playing.

Now if they were demanding him to replace Ozil (or Sanchez) or maybe even Ramsey, I could understand.

But Wilshere has impressed with his creative displays, his work on the edge of the opponents box, not for his defensive work.

Wilshere has never been a defensive player. Like Granit Xhaka, he can play deep but does not defend. Put him next to a Kante and he will excel. Play him instead of Kante and we will be exposed defensively – just like we are with Xhaka in the side.

When Wilshere does come in to the Premier League side, he should be doing so to replicate his B team performances. That means playing higher up the pitch.


Arsenal’s midfield has been a problem for many years. Whilst Granit Xhaka was a good player, he has turned out to be the wrong player and is clearly facing a crisis in confidence.

Moving forward in the short term, maybe it is time to return to Coquelin and play Xhaka close to him to start the attacks. Or as Wilshere regains fitness, allow him to go a little deeper, but not full-defensive.

At Manchester City, Fernandinho has given the side great balance this season. Putting in a defensive shift allowing the likes of Kevin de Bruyne and David Silva to drift around the pitch, find space, and start attacks.

Arsenal need to find their Fernandinho. But then we have needed one for over 10 years.

To be a competitive title chasing side, we need to play the right players in their best positions

Keenos

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9 thoughts on “Arsenal’s square pegged midfield

  1. Brian Douglas

    If Jack Wilshire’s fit and in form, you decide who plays with him,not where or if he plays.
    Xhaxa ugh, You think he’s ok with Switzerland, but International football is a joke! Who cares if he’s good against, Malta or San Marino? He’sslow, can’t tackle, cumbersome, gives away goals and penaties, a so called defensive midfielder who’s a liability to the defence.
    Play footballers in midfield, Wilshire, Ramsey, Ozil, Iwobi, Cazorla when fit. Back these up with young talent like Nelson and Willock. At the very least Arsenal will be fun again. Play the Arsenal way.

    Reply
    1. Brian Douglas

      I don’t either, play the footballers, let the opposition worry about us. Football is fun. In any case, as I pointed out, Xhaxi is a liability defensively and not up to it going forward.

      Reply
      1. keenosafc Post author

        Is that not part of Wenger’s issue? He does not care for the opposition and thinks as long as we play his way, we will win the game. Plenty of players have said he does not put in plans to stop the opponent. This is a clear problem

    2. keenosafc Post author

      I do not disagree with that. Wilshere starts in the middle of the 3 if fit and on form. Sadly that is not a guarantee and you can not build a midfield around him.

      With regards to the “play footballers in midfield” you then miss the balance. You need someone doing the dirty work. Look at Real Madrid when they lost Makelele…

      Reply
  2. gunnerforever

    This is the most sane piece of article I have read for a long time , the only player that is OK defensively we have is Coquelin , he can be partnered with Xhaka /Wilshere / Cazorla (when fit) . As for Aaron Ramsey , I think he has a unique ability of finding spaces from midfield but too often he is too selfish and picks the wrong pass or goes for goal himself , he needs to be reminded its about Arsenal first and not Aaron .
    For the defensive midfield options I think , if all goes wrong , we can experiment with monreal or koscielny when chambers will be back … Anyways , good to see that some people write sense on the internet still and actually watch football closely ..
    and being a long time fan of wenger , even I have started to feel wenger has lost his eyesight and cant see whats happening with the midfield ..

    Reply
  3. Dammy

    You fail to realise the real problem is Wenger who does not believe in the defensive midfielder (DM) role. To him, it is a waste of an attacking option. Xhaka cost more money than Kante cost Chelsea, but is on twice the wages. Wenger was shrewd as always. Back to Xhaka, he is not a DM. He lacks the pace to be a box to box CM as the phrase box to box means covering that distance quickly. He is a holding midfielder like Alonso, or the converted Arteta. The only recognised DM at the club is Coquelin, who loses his positional awareness when Cazorla is not next to him. The switch to the back 3 was a blessing for Xhaka as leaving him in front of a back four does expose him. He is excellent with the ball at his feet and his passing range, but requires time on the ball which he will not get in the EPL. Wilshere and Rambo are both box to box CMs who can play further up (#10). Wilshere is the more creative while Rambo is like you said like Lampard. Don’t expect Wenger to buy a DM soon. Expect all 3, including El Neny to play in both positions over the course of the season.
    D.

    Reply

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