In a seemingly yearly occurrence, Arsenal have yet again been forced to explore different midfield options as a result of injuries to members of the squad. While Alexis Sanchez was out, it was almost a certainty that once he returned to match fitness then he would enter the first XI with ease — this was made even more sure given the decline in form of then-incumbent left-winger Theo Walcott. However, there are more complex and extensive ramifications when you consider the heart of the Arsenal midfield.
While Santi Cazorla’s injury lay-off means that Aaron Ramsey has been afforded the chance to play in his preferred central midfield role, it has once again required a restructuring of the midfield. This has been made even more difficult by the fact that Mathieu Flamini has had to act as his partner. As far as the Frenchman is concerned, he may give everything he physically has but it’s not good enough. He can’t and won’t remain in that role much longer now that Francis Coquelin is back in the reckoning. Indeed, the fit-again 24-year-old should aim to reacquaint himself once again with that holding midfield berth. But question marks will emerge once Cazorla is back in contention, and this is where a potential selection dilemma could occur.
Try as you might but you can make no bones about it: Coquelin has to start. There is nobody in the squad who can offer the same stability he does. For example, Mikel Arteta’s legs appear to be perennially on the brink of collapse, while Mohamed Elneny does not appear to be the type of player capable of just sitting in front of the back four and distributing with the same metronomic consistency of Coquelin — at least, not yet. Therefore, with one of the two deeper roles filled, his partner becomes the main talking point.
The first option is, of course, Santi Cazorla. Coquelin’s trusted partner for the majority of 2015 has the best ball retention ability in the entire squad and has thrived in the deeper role specifically alongside the Frenchman. On the whole, Arsenal have been able to keep possession better and of the club’s current midfield options, it is Cazorla’s distribution which remains unmatched. One deficiency in his game, however, is his lack of forward mobility — this often means that a midfield containing Cazorla can be rather passive and often lacks drive to the extent that Mesut Ozil is forced to drop deeper, drawing the German out of the final third where he operates best. In addition to this, the Spaniard’s goalscoring has dwindled into nothingness throughout the last 12 months — this, however, is where Ramsey holds all the cards.
The Welshman is the closest thing to the total central midfielder that Arsenal have at their disposal. Although by no means a specialist in tackling or even defending in general, he is more than capable of both — in addition to this, his exceptional mobility means he covers ground enough to warrant the oft-clichéd attribute of ‘box-to-box’. Despite providing more than ample defensive cover, his true strength lies in the offensive side to his game; his ability to get into goalscoring areas is a unique trait unmatched by any other candidate for the role and has proved crucial in the time when he’s been at the heart of the midfield. But again, despite providing an exceptional all-round game, Ramsey is not, strictly speaking, a flawless option – his commitment to the final third means he can often leave his partner isolated and exposed.
So, you might think that it’s a trade-off. Cazorla’s supreme ball retention and pinpoint distribution or Ramsey’s goalscoring potential. Realistically there is no right answer – they are both exceptional players. The main issue is that they both deserve to play in the team. And luckily, the Gunners have historically managed to skirt around the trade-off in intriguing fashion. Arsenal have found success in playing Ramsey on the right in order to accommodate Cazorla. Now, if Arsenal’s FA Cup hero were to play as a true right-sided midfielder, it may mean his runs from the heart of midfield are stifled and his goalscoring threat significantly reduced. However, while he is often listed in the pre-match formation as the right-winger, he has a tendency to drift inside and this is in no way a bad thing: due to Hector Bellerin’s propensity for bombing forward from right back, it means that width is not sacrificed. Given the fact that formations are more or less fluid in transition from defence to attack or vice versa, it means that while on the offensive the Gunners have Ramsey as an auxiliary central midfielder, while in defence he slots back onto the right in order to offer Bellerin protection.
And there you have it. With the array of abilities on show from both midfielders, it’s not unreasonable to think that Ramsey, too, would excel alongside Francis Coquelin. But by giving Cazorla the central midfield berth and having Ramsey masquerade as a right-sided midfielder, the Gunners are able to have their cake and eat it too. When the Spaniard returns to full match sharpness, expect him to return to the starting lineup. Luckily enough, it won’t be at the expense of the dynamic Welshman.