Arsenal and midfield stability are enduring a turbulent time in their relationship. Gone are the days of butterflies filling your stomach with Gilberto Silva and Patrick Vieira dominating the central areas. There definitely wasn’t any fighting when Cesc Fabregas and Mathieu Flamini used to roam around together. The security you felt with Mikel Arteta sitting just in front of the back four? Non-existent. You try and spice things up again with a pivot of Francis Coquelin and Santi Cazorla, but even though it fixes things for a little while you know it won’t last. Something needed to change.
In Arsene Wenger’s case, that something, was spending £35million on Granit Xhaka. Having initially required some time to settle, the Swiss international has now established himself as first pick in midfield, leaving his team-mates to battle for the single spot beside him. But with injury and AFCON absences forcing his hand, Wenger had to address the Aaron Ramsey shaped elephant in the room. Despite playing his best football for Arsenal in a deeper role, the manager has preferred to use the Welshman’s more natural attacking instincts either behind the striker or out wide in recent times.
However, with no alternative, doubts over Ramsey’s game have been put to one side in hope of him rediscovering his Midas touch, alongside a more metronomic presence that saw him find it originally.
At his best when used as a deep lying playmaker, it wouldn’t be inaccurate to suggest that Xhaka is currently the club’s best passer. When given time to turn, his wand of a left foot can spray diagonal passes to advancing full backs or wingers with laser like precision. But what makes him such a mainstay in the side at present is his ability to find players through the lines. When Arteta lost his battle with fitness, the Gunners lacked a midfielder capable of breaking deep defensive blocks which stalled their progression massively. But Xhaka has already shown a willingness to fizz balls into final third, which offers Arsenal both a smoother offensive transition and more variety in their play.
In contrast, Ramsey thrives when given license to contribute at both ends of the pitch. His incredible engine was evident in the victory over Swansea after covering eight miles during 90 minutes - the furthest distance covered in a Premier League match by any Arsenal player all season. Often criticised for his lack of positional discipline, Ramsey is also timing his forays forward to greater effect, allowing the Gunners to overload the opposition inside their own half instead of bursting towards the box at every opportunity. He also provides something that no other midfielder at the club can on a consistent basis - goals.
Looking at the numbers from the Liberty Stadium, Mesut Ozil could be another reason to stick with this new central midfield set up. Having completed 180 passes between them against Swansea, it’s clear that Xhaka, Ramsey and Ozil enjoyed a balanced share of midfield duties. Not only that, but some of the game’s most frequent passing combinations involved all three players. Ozil to Ramsey (14 times), Ramsey to Ozil (11 times) and Xhaka to Ramsey (10 times). This shows that despite not having played together a great deal, they can play on a similar wavelength with the German just floating around and linking it all together.
Despite the potential for this partnership to grow, some concerns still lie over both players. Earlier I drew reference to Xhaka’s wand of a left foot without mentioning his total lack of a right one. He seems so reluctant to use his weaker side at times that, unless he is in an optimal passing position, the ball will only go backwards. When you combine this with his occasional habit of dallying, teams (Manchester City, PSG and Bournemouth to name a few) have found it easy to press the former Gladbach man and subsequently cut off Arsenal’s passing supply at the source. Going to ground too easily and giving away unnecessary penalties and free kicks is another bad habit he’ll have to curb.
Ramsey’s willingness to make things happen and improvise in the final third make him a great entertainer, but he can frustrate just as easily. The 26-year-old is often guilty of overplaying, perhaps trying an elaborate piece of skill when an easier option is available. He has also developed a strange ability to misplace or over hit simple passes considerably under little pressure, despite his 90% pass completion rate in the Premier League. Another issue that lies with the club as much as it does Ramsey are his hamstrings.
When fit, it’s clear that the manager will try and fit the Welshman into his teams whenever possible, but it’s difficult to find form when you are fit for three weeks and then out for the following four. Any injury free run would be more beneficial to him than any improvement he can make to his game.
Without pulling up any trees, the Xhaka-Ramsey test has been a fairly successful one. With the team guilty of starting slowly against Preston and Swansea, the pair were much more comfortable after the break in both games and displayed a tactical understanding of how they should work together. It’s likely they will get another chance to prove themselves against Burnley on Sunday, but with the tried and tested Coquelin fit again after his injury, there is no room for error.
In an ideal world this is probably Wenger’s preferred midfield, and while it should be used when Arsenal need to break down smaller sides, better teams could exploit gaps on the counter attack. But with both players offering a well-rounded set of attributes and displaying an eagerness to take on responsibility, it’s down to them to convince the manager that they can perform at a high level consistently.