The football off-season is an inescapable time of supposition and rumour – nowhere is that demonstrated more acutely than at Arsenal. From the first to the last we are linked with new players and even when we do business early – as with Granit Xhaka – the speculation does not die down.
The dance of will he, won’t he is replaced with conjecture over who misses out and who plays. It is fair to assume Granit will start regularly for Arsenal given his large price tag and Arsenal’s swiftness in getting him off the market, so the question turns to who will partner him.
Considering Arsenal’s history with injuries it would be naïve, obtuse even, to believe Arsène Wenger has enough cover for two positions. However, he now boasts six fantastic players – seven if we count Flamini who is yet to be confirmed as leaving – for two positions. Which is quite a lot, especially when you see we have seven players for three positions across the front line with Welbeck injured, Campbell and Gnabry still quite verdant.
Arsenal most certainly are short on players for the final third so reinforcements will have to be made. Morata seems a prime target, with one or two more attacking/wide players. One such attacking player could be Tom Rogic, who impressed for the Socceroos against England. The Australian attacking midfielder currently plies his trade with Celtic and is rumoured to be a target for Arsenal this summer. He’s naturally gifted with both feet and can play in midfield or out wide which is a trait Wenger finds attractive.
The front three is an area where Arsenal could be caught short so why would we worry about midfield with six players for two positions? Well, Jack Wilshere has yet to prove he can last an entire season, even as a rotational option, and Santi Cazorla is 32-years-old and just returning from a long-term injury. Coquelin and Ramsey, who have both had injury issues, have proven they aren’t an effective partnership and the impressive Elneny will miss a couple of months when he plays in the African Cup of Nations in January. Egypt as tipped to go far in the tournament and he may need some rest once he returns.
This sounds pretty bleak and whilst it’s worse case scenario stuff, history should have taught Arsenal by now to always prepare for the worst. However, I believe Xhaka is that preparation.
Coquelin and Santi has been our best partnership by far in recent seasons; Elneny and Coquelin work well in games where we expect a midfield battle and Elneny and Ramsey have shown glimpses of Ramteta – the best midfield partnership we’ve had since Song and Cesc or possibly even Flamini and Cesc from 2008. Santi, I am sure, could also work well with Elneny.
Midfield combinations, or lack thereof, hurt us last season more than injuries. Xhaka is the answer because he could partner any of our other five midfielders and still be just as effective.
The Ramsey-Arteta pivot worked so well because it was balance incarnate. Ramsey’s engine allowed him to cover more of the pitch than anyone else, contributing offensively and defensively as we sprung between 4-2-3-1 and 4-1-4-1, linking defence and attack as an archetypal number 8 – a number he now possesses. Arteta’s anticipation of second balls and knock-downs in midfield kept him one step ahead of the opposition and he was a very underrated tackler and aerial challenger. The Ramsey-Xhaka, or Ramshaka, pivot would work in much the same way except Xhaka is more naturally defensively inclined than Mikel was and more physical too which would add some steel.
Jack and Granit – or Jackha – is an interesting proposition. Jack can pass or dribble through the opposition and could either sit deep with Granit, operate as a box-to-box or sit just behind the number 10 spot whilst Özil roams. It’s possible that he’ll take up one of the wide spots this season though and that leaves us with just the five in midfield.
The revelatory Elneny is the one I least worry about losing out. Like Xhaka, I believe he has the ability to play with any partner which is probably why Basel signed him to be Xhaka’s replacement when he went to Gladbach. Life’s little ironies. Mohammed Elneny has an engine to match Aaron’s, is defensively sound and incredibly hard-working. He doesn’t possess great technique or the vision of our more attacking midfielders like Santi, Aaron or Jack but is excellent on the ball and passes accurately so offers more to our play building than Coquelin so can take up an attacking handle when playing with Francis.
Santi Cazorla is the most difficult to predict. At his best he is a shoe-in to partner Granit with his incisive passing, vision, quick feet and ability to pass himself out of trouble. We missed his ingenuity more than anything else last season. I’m concerned about the rumours linking him with a return to Spain as I think he is invaluable to our title hopes.
If we are hoping to avoid burnout, breakdown and injury our best hope is to rotate regularly and Santi is our third most pliable midfielder after Xhaka and Elneny. He can play with 3 of the other 5 midfielders with minimal disruption to our play and he comes with the added bonus of being our secondary playmaker. Santi’s best role for us now is possibly from the bench or as respite for Özil. With Rosicky gone we need someone on the bench who can speed up play in the last 15-20 and Cazorla ticks all the boxes.
Our final candidate to partner Xhaka is Coquelin. Last season, when many were chagrined by Wenger not purchasing a replacement for Flamini I maintained that the best form of recruitment is buying better starters and turning your current starters into your back-up. A year later than we all would have liked, Coquelin is going to be the back-up to Xhaka. They most definitely could play together and Xhaka’s superior passing and vision would allow him to build from deep where Coquelin can’t.
I think we’ll start next season with the Ramshaka partnership and believe Granit and Aaron will surpass the Ramteta midfield. I’m incredibly excited about what that partnership could offer us and hope that we make full use of our squad to ensure they stay as fit as possible. However, if Jack has a great Euros and starts the season without issue then Ramsey could have a real fight on his hands.
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