With Aaron Ramsey’s injury keeping him out of the festive fixtures, Arsenal fans have been given the chance to see Granit Xhaka operate with Jack Wilshere in the midfield. The early signs are promising.
The Granit-Xhaka–Aaron-Ramsey midfield tandem, in the still relatively new 3-4-3 formation, was always going to be a topic of discussion among fans. Arsenal like to dominate the center of the pitch, so their midfielders always have significant roles to play, both offensively and defensively.
Xhaka and Ramsey are both quality players. Despite all the criticism, Xhaka is undoubtedly a talented footballer. He can spray long and short passes across the field masterfully and has an underrated left peg that I would like to see him use more often.
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Ramsey has also always been a powerful presence in the midfield. Injuries have robbed him of regular playing time, but his marauding runs, stamina, work-rate and finishing skills are invaluable to the current set-up.
However, the two, as a sole midfield partnership, have led to defensive deficiencies. Much of the criticism for Xhaka has been because of poor protection of the defence. But with Ramsey often one of the furthest men forward, Xhaka is tasked with protecting the defence alone, which even for the most mobile of midfielders would be a struggle, nevermind a lumbering Xhaka.
Yet, Ramsey’s injury opened my eyes even further to the midfield conundrum. While losing Ramsey in such a rich vein of form was certainly a blow, it has opened the door to combine Jack Wilshere and Xhaka as the two deep midfielders.
Wilshere’s mobility can help cover slightly for Xhaka, and he gives the centre-backs a greater certainty in front of them. Ozil’s deeper role, when playing with a back-four, has also played a role in greater control in the midfield recently. The three midfielders are starting to build good on-field relations, which is extremely important for the possession-centric style that Arsene Wenger employs.
This observation does not mean I don’t think Wenger should strengthen the centre of the pitch with a defensive midfielder in the next few windows. I think a midfield presence such as Steven Nzonzi or William Carvalho would take the shackles off Xhaka and enable him to focus solely on the ‘Xabi Alonso quarterback role’ that his skillset best suits, rather than the defensive responsibilities that seem to tie him in knots.
Nevertheless, the Gunners must work with the current set of players in their top-four push, figuring out how best to utilize them. Moaning for new signings doesn’t help anybody (no matter how warranted these moans are).
It will be interesting to see how Wenger will draft Ramsey into the current set-up when he returns from injury. He is unlikely to usurp Wilshere given the form he is in, and a Ramsey-Wilshere partnership would be far too defensively unstable. As for now, I believe that Wenger should keep rolling with Wilshere and Xhaka. Thus far, it hasn’t looked too shabby. So why change it?