Selection Dilemma: What’s Arsenal’s best lineup with Alexis & Elneny?
With the impending return of Alexis Sanchez and signing Mohamed Elneny, Arsene Wenger has a selection dilemma on his hands. Alexis will of course go straight back into the side in his role on the left, which leaves the Theo Walcott, Joel Campbell, and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain for the wide right spot. Francis Coquelin is reportedly already back in light training but still around three weeks to a month out from a return to action. Mathieu Flamini has done an admirable job deputizing in his absence, as has Calum Chambers in the chances he’s been given. However, with the addition of Elneny, who should be picked to partner with Aaron Ramsey until Le Coq returns?
A few months ago, it would have seemed surreal or in fact almost incomprehensible to be having a serious discussion over whether it should be Walcott, Ox, or Campbell. Almost every Arsenal fan would have said it’s obviously Walcott and it isn’t close. There are still fans what will advocate for Theo, mostly because he has the ability, when he is on, to be one of the most dangerous players in the league. The goal he scored against Manchester City was sublime and his pace is a worry for any defence. Unfortunately for Walcott, when you play out of the wing there is a significant defensive job to do, one that he often appears not to have the appetite for. Furthermore, when Theo has been at his best earlier in the campaign it was as a center forward rather than a wide player. The consummate game I look to for the best of Walcott’s abilities is the 3-0 thrashing of Manchester United, a game he didn’t even score a goal in. His ability as a center forward to link up with Alexis and Mesut Özil, to give the United back four fits and open up space for others (which is extremely evident on the Özil goal), was world class that day. His best position is up top, but with the form of Oliver Giroud it simply isn’t available right now on a consistent basis.
Almost no one is advocating for Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. The Ox has hit a tough patch. Injuries have done him no favors in the past but currently he’s struggling for form and confidence. Too often he operates with his head down, running into cul-de-sacs, failing to pick out on open teammate with the right pass. Although many want to write him off completely and say he’ll never make it at Arsenal, I still have faith he will come good in the end, but right now there isn’t much of a case for him to start above Walcott or Campbell. For me, Joel Campbell has to get the first chance to start wide right when Alexis returns. Campbell has been the surprise of the season, perhaps this years version of Coquelin. The Costa Rican, unlike Theo, is as hard working as they come, never neglecting his defensive duties. Going forward, he has formed a nice partnership on the right with Hector Bellerin, creating threatening overlapping runs. With an extended run in the side, his technical ability has also come to the forefront. The assist for Ramsey’s goal against Liverpool particualry was Özil like, he was immense in Arsenal’s ‘back from the dead’ performance away at Olympiacos, and in general his nifty footwork, pace, and mind for the game make him a complete threat. Some may contend that this view of Campbell over Walcott is short sighted but we’re in a title race and Campbell is the man in form. We need not only a threatening player on the right but one who always does a job for the team. Campbell is that player right now.
The midfield issue over who partners with Ramsey until Coquelin returns is a bit more straightforward than the issue on the right wing. Elneny seems to have been purchased with two specific ideas in mind. First and foremost, with Coquelin and Cazorla both out with long term injuries, not to mention Mikel Arteta’s near chronic calf issues, Arsenal are extremely short on players in central midfield. Ramsey has started in the box to box role in virtually every game since Cazorla went down, which means it’s either Mathieu Flamini or Calum Chambers to play in the DM role since Arteta has been injured. Flamini has done a nice job considering his age and decreasing ability, he has held the fort well. Calum Chambers may well have a future at DM and has done reasonably well in the chances he’s been given at DM, however I do not think Wenger is ready to turn over the position to him full time at his age, in the middle of a title fight. Wenger said he liked Elneny because he had the ability to play both defensive and central midfield, so he could presumably get time at both spots in the future, and that’s the second reason he was purchased. Arteta, Flamini, and Tomas Rosicky are all out of a contract in the summer and none of the three seem likely to get offered a new deal. Elneny is an early replacement for one of those three. While I, like many, have seen very little of Elneny in action (mostly Youtube videos), it seems he was purchased with a heavy emphasis on his strong statistics. He ranks as a top passer in the Europa League and appears strong in the challenge. One of his noted characteristics appears to be winning a duel, turning forward, and playing a ball to spring an attack. As was painfully evident in this past Liverpool fixture, Aaron Ramsey is capable of games where he neglects his defensive duties. With Flamini at DM, he doesn’t exactly have the legs or ability to compensate without assistance from his partnering midfielder. A partnership of Elneny would not only be beneficial going forward, as the Egyptian is clearly a more prodigious and inventive passer than Flamini, but his greater physical and athletic ability indicates he’d cope better when Ramsey leaves him isolated. Away at Stoke might be a bit too soon for Elneny and maybe it’s best to keep him away from a “trail by fire” situation, especially with how quick Arsenal fans can be to rush to judgment, but a central midfield of Ramsey-Elneny is Arsenal’s best pairing until Coquelin returns.