Arsenal Vs Swansea: Dissecting the midfield mess

LONDON, ENGLAND - JANUARY 24: Jack Wilshere of Arsenal reacts during the Carabao Cup Semi-Final Second Leg at Emirates Stadium on January 24, 2018 in London, England. (Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images)
LONDON, ENGLAND - JANUARY 24: Jack Wilshere of Arsenal reacts during the Carabao Cup Semi-Final Second Leg at Emirates Stadium on January 24, 2018 in London, England. (Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images) /

Arsenal travel to Swansea City on Tuesday night with a mess of midfield options to decipher. Here, I try to work through what Arsene Wenger could and should do.

Arsene Wenger has always built his teams around the central midfield position. Because of his desire to control games through extended periods of possession, an increasing pattern as his tenure has progressed, he requires several players who are extremely comfortable in possession in the midfield areas, especially at the heart of the Arsenal team.

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In more recent years, that has seen a switch to a lone-striker system, meaning that he can play with a third central midfielder to further enforce his side’s control of the match. However, because of his obsession with possession, there have been times where the Gunners’ midfield has become unbalanced, tilted with too many ball-playing players and not countered with more abrasive, physical, ball-winning players.

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Finding that balance is what is crucial to assembling a well-rounded and effective team. Football is about both scoring and stopping goals. It is vital to have players that can do both, and that goes for the whole starting XI as well as individual aspects of the team, like the central midfield areas. So, as Arsenal prepare to travel to Swansea City on Tuesday night, it is the midfield selection that I will be paying the most attention to — How will Wenger manage the many and varied options that he has to utilise in a way that is balanced and constructive?

There are four players who are all pushing for a starting role: Jack Wilshere, Granit Xhaka, Mohamed Elneny and Aaron Ramsey. The spanner in the works is actually the most senior of these individuals, Ramsey. The Welshman, who started the season in flourishing form, hinting that he might recover his 2013/14 level, suffered a hamstring injury and has been unavailable for selection for over two months. In that time, Wilshere, Xhaka and Elneny have formed a complementary triumvirate that supports the Arsenal midfield nicely. The problem, then, is how Ramsey fits back into a team that he undoubtedly deserves to be playing in.

The obvious answer seems to be the dropping of Elneny. Of the four, he is the most limited talent, and with Xhaka having the ability to slip into a deeper, anchoring role, his influence on the team is not all that unique and irreplaceable. That leaves Wilshere and Ramsey to flank a sitting Xhaka. Certainly, a neat trio.

But there is a limitation, and it rests purely on one individual: Xhaka. The £35 million signing has repeatedly shown that he does not possess the necessary mobility and range to play the lone holding role sufficiently. He may have improved his tackling, he may offer a greater physical presence thanks to his stature, and he may bring an element of the deep pass that others in the team cannot, but his lack of natural athleticism, especially in comparison to Elneny, who certainly boasts both the game-understanding and speed to compensate where Xhaka cannot, undermines everything.

Perhaps with Wilshere and Ramsey protecting his either side, such vulnerabilities that have been exposed throughout his 18 months at the club would be covered somewhat. But it is a risk and an accommodation that does not need to be made with Elneny present. The Egyptian may not be the flashy name; he may not be a particularly exciting or even talented player. But his dependability elevates his influence far and above what Xhaka, with his current shortcomings, can provide.

Next: Arsenal Vs Swansea City: Predicted starting XI

That is the three that I would like to see Wenger play on Tuesday night against Swansea. It is not what I expect. Wenger has shown great loyalty to Xhaka and I do not expect it to suddenly end now. But there are a variety of options to decipher, and it will be acutely interesting to see how Wenger juggles his many avenues.