I’m intrigued. I’m intrigued to know what Wenger is going to do in the middle of our midfield for Bayern away this week. The reason I am intrigued is because I think he has what he perceives as a ‘safe’ option which will deliver what he knows, or the ‘gamble’ option, which will be a first and could either look a little untried and untested or could be a new blueprint.
I talked yesterday about how limited Coquelin is, so I won’t bother digging him out any more, but to me that is Wenger’s ‘safe’ option. He knows what he’ll get with the Coq; energy, pressing and the occasional good tackle. Equally, when he tries any kind of long pass, it will most likely be sprayed out for a throw in. My idea of hell is seeing Coquelin and Ramsey in a midfield; more long balls not reaching an Arsenal shirt than you can shake a stick at.
If I was to place a bet I’d expect Arsène to go with Coquelin and one other in Munich.
But he doesn’t have to. He can try something new. And in doing so, he might just be able to unlock a new partnership that has been under our noses all season: Xhaka and the Ox.
I’ll admit to you, I personally wouldn’t have seen it coming, but the Ox’s recent central midfield performances have opened my eyes somewhat. On Saturday he was the best player on the pitch. He combined his ability to travel with the ball with some impressive long-range passing as well as some important closing down in defence. That, above all, I didn’t see coming because let’s face it he was hardly a defensive rock when he played on the wings. In fact, that part of his game was particularly frustrating when you’d see him switch off when the opposition had possession. So to see him sprinting back to cover Hector in the first half down by my corner at the Emirates was a welcome surprise.
But for all of his good play on Saturday, we still didn’t look right and it took me until midway through the first half to realise why we looked so disjointed: there was no ‘Arteta’ type for our defenders. When Arteta was at his peak at Arsenal, he was a perfect player for our defenders to distribute to. He was an all retention and pass completion master and so would drop deeper to receive 5/10/15 yard passes from Koscielny or Mertesacker, which would allow his other midfield partners and attackers to space themselves to receive the ball and start an attack.
The Ox doesn’t do that. He doesn’t drop deep to receive the balls from defenders. Not from the last couple of games that I saw. But neither does Coquelin. So on Saturday we had times where our defenders had no simple ball outlet and often went a little bit longer, which from my untrained eye made us lose possession more than a possession-based team like Arsenal would find acceptable.
That’s where Xhaka comes in though. When I have seen Xhaka on the field he likes to drop deeper to receive the ball from defenders. Perhaps it’s because of a confidence in his long-range passing ability that he does so, but when he’s on the pitch our back four almost always have a simple ball to play to build up an attack from the back. Now imagine combining that with the Ox and his passing range. Good, huh? We’d get two players with great vision, able to pick out our attacking players at will and also able to play out from the back. It’s certainly something I’d like to see, that’s for sure, although I’d admit that it would have some question marks.
For example, when we don’t have the ball, how good positionalky – from a defensive set up – are both Xhaka and the Ox? When we have a sustained period of pressure can they remain resolute enough. But not just that, can they iron out the brain farts, which let’s face it both players have been guilty of this season. You know what I mean; those moments where both players put us under pressure by their own simple mistakes, holding on to the ball, playing ansilly sideways pass when it isn’t on, that kind of stuff. That’s what would be the concern.
But I’d still like to see us take a gamble. I’d like to see it because what we’ve been trying in midfield to date hasn’t really properly worked for us, has it? I don’t think Ramsey works in our current team set up, I think Coquelin is limited and whilst I like Elneny, I feel like he’s a squad player who always gives you a little bit of everything, but never excels in a specific part of his game. The only central midfield pairing we haven’t seen is Xhaka and the Ox. Who knows, it could be the one that unlocks a blueprint for an Arsenal team to be built around.
But as I mentioned above, I doubt Wednesday’s game will be used as any kind of test bed environment for any new partnership to be formed. The game is probably too big in Arsène’s mind and as a result he’ll probably stick with the same two from the weekend. If he does, I just hope we aren’t embarrassed in the centre of the park from a Bayern team who have historically run rings around us.
Right, that’ll do from me today, so I’ll leave you to enjoy your Monday.