The lesson is that Arsenal can never have too many midfielders. For the last few years, Arsene Wenger has faced accusations that he has been obsessed with collecting central midfield players—now we understand why. All of a sudden, the area of the squad in which Arsenal appeared to have the most depth has become a crisis position.
It started with Santi Cazorla’s achilles injury—or perhaps it started before even that, when Wenger elected to loan Jack Wilshere to Bournemouth. Then followed Mohamed Elneny’s departure to the AFCON tournament in Gabon, before Granit Xhaka picked up a four-match ban for his second red card of the season. Things went from really bad to even worse against Watford, when Aaron Ramsey limped out of action with a calf problem.
In truth, Ramsey’s partnership with Francis Coquelin wasn’t working anyway. The two have been used in tandem several times, never with any great success. The Frenchman is at his best alongside a patient distributor—his partnership with Cazorla was perfectly balanced, and he and Xhaka seemed to be developing a similarly effective understanding before the Swiss international was banned. Ramsey’s all-action style does not dovetail well with Coquelin’s pressing game, leaving Arsenal’s back four exposed.
Whichever pair of players are picked in central midfield for Arsenal face a difficult job. The team is built around Mesut Ozil operating in the No. 10 role, and he is not required to drop in and support the midfield. Arsenal’s deep-lying pair often find themselves outnumbered by opposition who line up with three central midfielders. Cazorla’s extraordinary combination of attributes acted as an equaliser, but without him Arsenal struggle.
Heading into the Chelsea game, Coquelin and Ozil have to be considered certain starters. The question is, who will Wenger bring in to supplement them and complete the midfield three?
A left-field choice would be Ainsley Matiland-Niles. If Wenger wants to use someone who can help safeguard the Arsenal defence, the former Ipswich loanee could be an option. Although much of his football to date has been played on the flank, he is steadily evolving into an effective holding midfield player.
Former Gunner Nigel Winterburn was impressed with Maitland-Niles’ contribution to the FA Cup win over Southampton, saying:
“He was very accomplished on the ball. The thing I liked most, though, was his defending in wide areas around the edge of the box. He saw players were out of position and then he was willing to cover those areas, didn’t dive in, and got the vital blocks and challenges in. He will be very happy with his performance and he’ll certainly be giving Arsène Wenger a little nudge in the future for regular first-team football.”
However, it is probably too soon to throw him into a game of this magnitude. Instead, Wenger is likely to turn to another player who shone against the Saints: Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain.
Like Maitland-Niles, Oxlade-Chamberlain’s reputation is primarily as a wide player. Nevertheless, against Southampton we saw further evidence of why Wenger believes his future will eventually be in the centre.
Oxlade-Chamberlain has always had the skill and power to burst away from his markers. At St. Mary’s, what was particularly eye-catching was the range of passing he displayed. He created Danny Welbeck’s second goal with a stunning ball over the top, and later surpassed even that with an outside-of-the-foot flick towards Lucas Perez.
He is still just 23, and Wenger seems to believe the time is right for him to move to the middle:
“When you’re young and come into the team, sometimes they push you wide to see what’s going on. After, you come back into the middle but it’s a good learning curve to go out on to the flanks because you are pushed against the line. After, when you move centrally, that helps you to be more efficient.”
Wenger is hyping Oxlade-Chamberlain’s potential in the centre, but the reality is he has little choice when it comes to naming his central midfield this weekend. Going up against N’Golo Kante and company is a huge test for The Ox—if he comes through it, then the debate over his best position will surely be settled, and Arsenal might have found themselves a solution to their ongoing midfield problem.