Opportunities in football are rare. The injury of Matthieu Debuchy several years ago prompted Arsene Wenger to field the young, inexperienced Hector Bellerin. A downturn of form and injuries to Danny Welbeck and Alex Oxlade Chamberlain persuaded the Arsenal manager to put his faith in the raw but ludicrously talented Iwobi against the might of Barcelona last season. Two years ago, Wenger welcomed Francis Coquelin back from the Charlton wilderness – a player who looked thoroughly lost in his lower league escapades and yet excelled when given the charge of protecting the Arsenal backline.
On Tuesday night, away to Bournemouth, Coquelin was removed from the action with an injury. To proliferate the problem, no sooner was Coquelin clutching his hamstring in the South-East of England, than Mo Elneny was transversely across the globe grabbing his suitcase from the Libreville International baggage carousel. With Elneny competing with one of the Africa Cup of Nations tournament favourites and Coquelin estimated to be out for 4 weeks – Wenger is left with only two recognised midfielders: Granit Xhaka and Aaron Ramsey.
When Xhaka arrived at the club, many hypothesized he was brought in to complement the box to box qualities of Ramsey, similar to the Welshman’s 2013-14 partnership with Arteta. However, with Wenger having to bed in Mustafi and alter his forward play by putting the unorthodox Sanchez in a central role, it seems that Wenger opted for a safety first approach. Yet, with Wenger reverting to the tried and tested Giroud focal point and Mustafi (Bournemouth performance aside) looking secure, it seems that the opportunity to test the theoretical RamaXhaka axis is here. It should be noted that it is less an opportunity and more an ultimatum with little other viable option open to the Arsenal manager – unless he decides to test his own Oxlade Chamberlain central midfielder hypothesis but I feel this is neither the time nor the place.
The partnership seems like a straightforward one: Xhaka sits deep and dictates play and Ramsey bombs forward at opportune moments to link with Giroud and push beyond the lines of attack. Yet against Bournemouth, Ramsey was the player who opted to come deep to gather possession and Xhaka pushed higher up the pitch; this may have been a quick-fix as Arsenal were pushing for an equaliser but it still begs the question as to why Wenger would start Ramsey in the number 10 role and then when forced into a midfield two, that Xhaka would then begin operating closer to goal. With well over a week to Arsenal’s next Premier League fixture, Wenger will be fine tuning the partnership – coaxing the intricacies of each other’s individual’s qualities into a comparative sum.
Both players look suited to each other, Ramsey loves to play short passes, provide layoffs and counter attack at speed; Xhaka prefers to play longer passes, often shoots from distance and isn’t afraid to commit fouls (even in his own penalty box). Yet it is not the style of play that will worry Wenger, it is both player’s temperament and their individual form. Ramsey can often be found wandering and Xhaka has the penchant for daftness, to put it politely. Additionally, whilst Xhaka has for the most part done well in recent weeks, Ramsey has struggled to regain any semblance of form.
This is not the ideal time to lose two midfielders, yet in Aaron Ramsey, Wenger has a player who has the ability to turn a game on its head – for better or for worse. Similarly, he has a player who, if he can control his impulses, could prove to be the perfect foil to Ramsey. Things may go terribly over the next few weeks: points dropped, further injuries to one or both our remaining midfielders and hostility re-emerging after what had seemed a promising start to the season. Yet Arsenal have a chance to realign their style of play, not least against two of the worst teams in the league: Swansea and Watford, and the relative ineffectual traveling Burnley. It may have taken an injury crisis but this is an opportunity for Wenger to release one of his most dangerous players from his shackles – only time will tell whether Wenger was right to shackle him in the first place.
Til next time,