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Talking Tactics

Which Midfield Mix Will Work For Arsenal?

The acquisition of the Swiss international Granit Xhaka will change the mix in the Arsenal midfield. That’s an indisputable and welcome development.

It’s easy to see Xhaka as a Mikel Arteta 2.0, a cultured distributor of the ball, an adept transition figure between defense and attack. The new boy also carries physical aggressiveness, as his disciplinary record in the Bundesliga shows.

But the Xhaka effect will be decisive only in the relationships he develops with teammates. These aren’t necessarily duos; the 4-2-3-1 formation recently preferred by manager Arsène Wenger favors the two-player combination, but Xhaka’s abilities might just encourage Wenger to experiment with other setups.

This piece looks at some of the potential combinations and tactical structures involving Xhaka.

Granit Xhaka-Santi Cazorla

If the choice of midfielders to ground the 4-2-3-1 relied on demonstrated skill levels alone, the strongest case probably lies with Xhaka and Spaniard Santi Cazorla. This pair would offer several advantages, especially two effective styles of transition play, Xhaka’s long ball accuracy and Cazorla’s dribbling. Opponents would find it difficult to press this midfield because the close control and speed of ball movement would leave pressing midfielders chasing the play rather than influencing it.

The “Cazaka” combination would also be savvy and strong defensively. Although he arrived at Arsenal as a more forward-minded player, Cazorla has shown a knack for positioning himself to defend and for joining forces with teammates to limit opponents’ danger. His work with left back Nacho Monreal on Leicester City’s dynamic Riyad Mahrez in the 5-2 destruction of the eventual champions stood out in this respect.

Where this pairing might struggle is in offensive production. Yes, Cazorla was one of the team’s most prolific providers of key passes before his knee injury in early November 2015. So there’s little question the offense has flowed better with him than without.

The issue is actually putting the ball into the back of the net, a vital component of the game that Arsenal largely lacked in comparison with its competition last season. Cazorla scored no goals from 23 non-penalty shots in the 2015-16 Premier League, after having taken 87 shots to score one goal that wasn’t a penalty the season before. Xhaka’s goal output wasn’t much better: two goals from 32 shots, excluding one penalty, in the 2015-16 Bundesliga and two goals from 61 shots the season before. (Stats from

Granit Xhaka-Aaron Ramsey

Can Xhaka, in his similarities to Arteta, help Aaron Ramsey regain the form of his breakout year of 2013-14? That’s the compelling prospect many Arsenal supporters have been entertaining since the club secured Xhaka’s services. The theory is that Xhaka can serve as both anchor and distributor, allowing Ramsey to take a freer role, whether in a 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3 formation.

In a 4-2-3-1 with Arteta three seasons ago, the Welshman scored 10 league goals and provided eight assists. He also succeeded in 3.3 tackles per game of 5.0 attempted, both career league highs. Ramsey’s energetic defending has been on display at Euro 2016, where he and Xhaka were the top two players through four matches in regaining possession in the final third. On that evidence, the potential of a “Xhaksey” midfield combination looks enticing.

One wonders whether it could unlock deep-lying defenses in the way a grouping with Cazorla might, because the Spaniard’s creativity is impossible to duplicate and nearly impossible to repress for a full 90 minutes. Xhaka and Ramsey might also be less adept against a midfield press.

Those risks aren’t likely to prevent Wenger from experimenting with Xhaka and Ramsey together, possibly even with Cazorla (“Cazakasey”?) or Jack Wilshere (“Cazakashire”) as a midfield three. Either alignment would depend on the traits additional acquisitions bring to Arsenal’s forward line.

Granit Xhaka-Jack Wilshere

Wilshere could join with Xhaka in ways that neither Ramsey nor Cazorla could by themselves.

Like Ramsey, Wilshere can be a dynamic presence in midfield. He propels Arsenal forward by running at defenders and unsettling them. Wilshere also possesses vision, particularly in attack, and the ability to orchestrate intricate passing moves in the manner of Cazorla.

This partnership would be a particularly spiky one: Both Xhaka and Wilshere have displayed a tendency to mix it up with opponents and a willingness to voice displeasure with teammates. Their collaboration would definitely revise Arsenal’s “too nice” image.

Francis Coquelin-Granit Xhaka

In a similar way, aesthetic and interpersonal nicety would not characterize a pairing of Xhaka and Francis Coquelin. Together, they’d form a physical, combative midfield.

We know what we have with Coquelin—a player quick into the tackle, disciplined in his positioning, and underrated in his passing. His qualities have shone in away matches against top opposition, when Arsenal needed to absorb pressure and thwart creativity; his outstanding performance at Manchester City in January 2014 is a prime example.

Similar scenarios might call for his inclusion alongside Xhaka. In addition to their defensive tenacity, Coquelin and Xhaka can find target man Olivier Giroud with long passes to relieve the pressure. But they wouldn’t bring much attacking dynamism.

Granit Xhaka-Mohammed Elneny

Fluidity would be the watchword of Arsenal’s two newest (as of this writing) midfielders in a tandem. Both are clever in the use of space, frequently moving to provide a passing option to teammates.

Depending on the match or season scenario, playing with Xhaka might encourage Elneny to take a few more risks with his own passes. He seemed restrained after he joined Arsenal during the January transfer window, which is understandable for someone in a new league and a new team itself struggling for consistency. Perhaps the stability of Xhaka would make Elneny into a more dynamic passer; we already know he’s a dynamic runner without the ball.

Other possibilities

Midfield lineups featuring existing Arsenal players have varied styles and track records, and we’ll not delve into those here. The most successful was the duo of Coquelin and Cazorla, which established the platform for the Gunners’ strong 2015.

The intrigue now surrounds Xhaka. In particular, will he and any other arrivals enable a change in formation? On the surface, he seems the type of midfielder who doesn’t need a close partner, at least against some opponents. If that’s the case, we may well see a midfield three featuring him with two of Ramsey, Cazorla, and Wilshere or a 4-1-4-1 with different personnel.

These are all exciting prospects, even without the arrival of attacking talent, as Arsenal’s 2016-17 season approaches.

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