by Jacob Ambrose Willson @JacobAW_1994
Santi Cazorla has not featured for Arsenal since he limped off in the 57th minute of the 6-0 win over Ludogorets in the Champions league on October 19th. At the time, the injury seemed to be only minor, but now over a month later, both manager and player have admitted they do not know when a return is due, with the tiny Spaniard currently receiving treatment on his troublesome Achilles from a specialist in Barcelona.
During his absence, Cazorla’s importance to this Arsenal side has been underlined, as the midfield balance has been disrupted, which has affected the team’s attacking rhythm in particular. Prior to the 31-year old’s injury, the gunners had recorded 6 straight premier league victories, including a beautifully architected 3-0 deconstruction of Chelsea, with Cazorla partnering his old ally Francis Coquelin, and new boy Granit Xhaka in equal measure, and with similar success.
But since that home Champions League tie against Ludogorets, Arsenal have struggled to replicate the form they produced with Cazorla in the side, and although they have kept their unbeaten record since the opening day intact, Arsene Wenger is yet to find the correct balance in his central midfield pairing, despite having a number of options.
In the 4 premier league matches since October 19th, Arsenal have recorded 1 victory, away at Sunderland, and 3 draws against Middlesbrough, Tottenham and most recently escaping from Old Trafford with a precious point on Saturday. In these games, Wenger has gone with a midfield pairing of Coquelin and Mohammed Elneny on 3 occasions, only using his £35 million man Granit Xhaka once from the start, in the North London Derby. In this time, Aaron Ramsey has also returned from injury and is another option to consider in midfield.
The Coquelin-Elneny axis has been criticised by fans for being too conservative, as both players are solid from a defensive perspective, but not very adventurous going forward. Whilst providing midfield security on paper, this duo has seemingly had a disruptive impact on Arsenal’s attacking play.
With Coquelin and Elneny in midfield Arsenal’s build up play through the middle becomes slow, predictable, and sometimes sideways, which has led to some disappointing recent performances, particularly against Boro and Man United. Clearly, Arsenal miss Cazorla’s ingenious ability to bring the ball forward and pass through the lines, which adds another string to the Gunners’ attacking bow.
Now, on the back of Arsenal’s lifeless offensive performance at Old Trafford, Wenger must be considering the option of bringing in Granit Xhaka to the base of the midfield on a more regular basis. The Swiss international’s outstanding attribute is his fabulous range of passing, with the ability to break through the lines with accurate passes from deep.
Xhaka has surprisingly been used sparingly thus far by Wenger, albeit he was robbed of the midfielder’s services for 3 matches as he served a suspension for a red card picked up in the
Premier League clash against Swansea. However, now the former Borussia Monchengladbach player could be the cure to Arsenal’s midfield ills in Cazorla’s absence.
Like the Spaniard, when in possession Xhaka’s first thought is always forward, and he has even chipped in with 3 goals across all 3 competitions. His incisive and accurate long passes can help Arsenal spread the play into wide areas, and can unlock defences with players such as Theo Walcott, Alexis Sanchez and now even Mesut Ozil often looking to run in behind.
Perhaps one of the reasons why Wenger hasn’t used Xhaka more often is down to defensive and disciplinary concerns surrounding the Swiss star. Off the ball he is clumsy and concedes too many fouls, which accounts for his poor disciplinary record. Therefore, if Xhaka is to get the nod in midfield, he must try and improve this aspect of his game, and be paired with Francis Coquelin.
If the French enforcer can effectively cover the defensive lapses of Xhaka, than the two could thrive together, as the latter can undoubtedly return the favour by taking on full responsibility for distributing the ball from Arsenal’s midfield.
However, the two didn’t exactly flourish when paired together in the recent draw with Spurs at the Emirates, but do seem to offer the best current solution to Arsenal’s midfield conundrum. The best partnerships work by reducing each player’s individual weakness, therefore Coquelin and Xhaka have the potential to cover for each other’s deficiencies.
The fact is that Arsenal have won just 1 Premier League game from 6 without Cazorla, and with the Spaniard set to be out for at least the foreseeable future, Arsenal must solve their midfield puzzle sooner, rather than simply waiting for Cazorla’s return.
Now, it is down to Arsene Wenger to drop the conservative approach in midfield, and take a risk in bringing in the disciplinary time bomb Granit Xhaka, in order to jump start Arsenal’s attacking play from deep.