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Playing the Balancing Game with Arsenal’s Midfield – Will Wenger get it right?

Another day, another Arsenal transfer rumor. You know we’re at the heart of “silly season” when the narrative drastically changes daily in regards to potential incomings and outgoings.

A few days ago the speculation revolved around a Matic-for-Ox swap deal. Immediately many, myself included, rejected this as nonsense and pure clickbait. You rarely see deals like this get done and almost no credible sources have validated the story since. It did however get me thinking about the Arsenal midfield with a wider lens. I came to the conclusion that maybe a deal of this nature and for a player of that profile is not so crazy.

The focus of my midfield analysis has shifted. Instead of determining the ideal midfield partner for Granit Xhaka, I want to look at a way to create a sustainable, balanced midfield over the course of the season. This is where the majority of games are won or lost, and consistent stretches of good form can be established.

A sense of security has been lacking in midfield over the last 6+ years that has only been sporadically filled by partnerships revolving around Santi Cazorla and Mikel Arteta, both of who embraced the technical side of the game. Arteta had success with Ramsey whose game revolved around dynamic action. Cazorla’s most sustained stretches came with the physicality and ball winning of Coquelin.

Technical controllers in the midfield

 

I feel great midfielders can exert control over a game and dictate tempo in three ways: technically, physically, and dynamically.

Technical controllers often exhibit: close control, great first touch, ball retention, mental images, quick passing, press-breaking ability, game reading, finding withdrawn space.

Physical controllers often exhibit: strength, tackling, ball recoveries, endurance, positional awareness, aerial duels.

Dynamic controllers often exhibit: box to box endurance, late attacking runs, repeat sprints, incisive passing, finishing ability, finding advanced space.

While many players come to embody one of the above type of player profile, almost all will display abilities associated with other controller types. For example, Verratti at PSG and Iniesta in his prime at Barcelona embody technical control but also have dynamism. Pogba’s ceiling is so high because he can be proficient in all three areas if his game develops and acclimates to the Premier League. Furthermore, Vieira’s excellence in all three phrases made him such a prolific player.

Vieira’s unique skill set allowed him to control games in a variety of ways.

Xhaka is a technical controller with a sprinkle of dynamism due to his comprehensive passing ability. He is Arsenal’s structural heartbeat whenever he takes the pitch however we cannot count on him to play every game. Our midfield failed to function for extended periods over the last 2 years when Santi went down because secondary partnerships were not cultivated in his absence.

It’s time to change the narrative and establish midfield pairings that:

  1. Can be used for different game situations
  2. Blend players of different controlling abilities (technical, physical, dynamic)
  3. Complement our new back 3 system and especially the wingbacks that they link with
  4. Is not overly reliant upon one individual to thrive

Below is a diagram that I feel summarizes the current state of the Arsenal midfield by determining what type of control type is most closely linked to our current personnel. Players that overlap into other areas have attributes associated with other playing styles. Players grey in color are long shots to obtain a withdrawn midfield position and/or have had such limited game time there.

Conclusions:

  1. It’s no surprise but we have far too many midfielders whose games revolve around technicality. It’s time to blend our technical controllers with other skill-sets especially since our wingbacks now spend more time centrally.
  2. Granit Xhaka and Aaron Ramsey fit our new system due to their differing playing styles. It’s essential that we keep hold of Ox due to his ability to provide dynamism when Ramsey is unable to play due to form or injury.
  3. A physical element is lacking. Coquelin embodies many of those qualities but does so unorthodoxly. He has been effective in the past without the size/strength combination of a Wanyama, Pogba, or dare I say…Matic.

      4. The Ox, Iwobi, and Maitland-Niles were the three players that exhibited aspects of all three controller types but            each remains far from a finished product. Each player has yet to perform in those areas on a consistent basis.

 

Currently, we don’t have a quantity issue we have a quality issue in midfield. Xhaka and Santi are the exceptions as they have the ability to exist with many different partners. It’s time to balance our midfield with more physicality and dynamism and bit less technicality. Let’s hope Arsenal can strengthen and diversify in this area before the window closes.

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