“Arsenal are in deep crisis after a 3-1 loss at home on the opening day of the season. Injuries, red cards, lack of transfers and the once great Arsenal are left crumbing down as pressure mounts on the Gunners boss Arsene Wenger who faces his most difficult phase as an Arsenal manager. Arsenal are the crisis club.”
Crisis? What crisis? Just over a fortnight since the opening day debacle, and Ashburton Grove is absolutely buzzing. Who can blame the Emirates faithful after they witnessed one of the best transfer windows in the club’s recent history. Arsenal Football Club smashed their transfer record to bring in German international Mesut Ozil on deadline day and suddenly one of the most tedious transfer windows went on to become one of the most memorable ones. It was like a magic trick, like pulling a bunny out of the hat, catching everyone unaware. But if Ozil’s arrival made the summer a success for the Gunners, the fact that Arsenal did not lose any primary first team player and added a further 3 signings laid the platform for it. The talks of silverware may seem premature, but the capture of Ozil did mark Arsenal’s first step on the big stage of financial power play. Arsene Wenger now has a stronger squad in his hands this season as compared to last, despite the consensus that Arsenal might be a striker short, along with a general lack of squad depth. Lukas Podolski, Theo Walcott and Yaya Sanogo are all capable of filling in for Olivier Giroud, and the fact that Wenger pulled the plug on Nicklas Bendtner‘s move to Crystal Palace, indicates the gaffer has no inhibitions in playing the Dane either. However it is the Arsenal midfield that generates immense intrigue and divides opinions among fans. Right from the uber-talented prodigy Jack Wilshere, to the ever-improving Aaron Ramsey, to “the best CAM in the world” Ozil, the Gunners certainly have one of the most exciting midfields with a plethora of talent.
Wenger’s Double Pivot
In the last 4 seasons we have seen Arsene Wenger prefers to play a double-pivot system with 3 attackers behind the striker in a 4-2-3-1 formation. The 3 attackers have almost automatically picked themselves up this season with the exception of Lukas Podolski, and with him out injured now and Mesut Ozil joining the ranks, it will be hardly surprising to see Cazorla-Ozil-Walcott line up behind frontman Olivier Giroud. However it is the selection of his double-pivot that might be the biggest dilemma for Le Prof in the weeks to come. Mathieu Flamini was seen by many as a panic/desperation buy, but there is a good chance that the Frenchman could be a key piece to the jigsaw of Arsenal’s season ahead. Flamini, whose stock rose in the 2007-08 season, returns to the club after his 5 year stint with Milan. As a player, he has only improved despite getting limited playing time in Italy. The Arsenal midfield can be an interesting case study for those inclined towards the tactical side of the game. Looking at the contenders for the double pivot first: Mikel Arteta, Jack Wilshere, Aaron Ramsey, Abou Diaby, Mathieu Flamini, Alex Oxlade Chamberlain, Gedion Zelalem, Emmanuel Frimpong, Tomas Rosicky. That’s 9 players to choose from, for 2 places on the pitch. However we will ignore Abou Diaby for the time being cause of his chronic injury issues, Zelalem and Frimpong as well since they are hardly expected to feature regularly for the first team except a few cup matches here and there and will serve as squad players at best.
Mikel Arteta‘s injury just a week before the season started, combined with the setback for Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain against Villa, meant Wenger’s hand was forced. Ramsey-Wilshere started against Fenerbahce and Tottenham while the pairing of Ramsey-Rosicky was given a chance against Fulham. Away in Turkey as well as in the home leg against Fenerbahce, the Ramsey-Wilshere midfield looked compact and comfortable doing the job efficiently in screening the backline. However the lack of quality in the opposition meant they were hardly tested. Similarly against Fulham, where Rosicky-Ramsey started in the middle, despite being stretched for long periods in the game, the Gunners came out unscathed owing more to the opponents than themselves. Interestingly the only 2 teams with a proper midfield to have played Arsenal this season have been Aston Villa and Tottenham, and thus they provide a better and more vivid outlook.
The shape of the Arsenal midfield immediately after the substitution of Wilshere for Flamini gives an initial idea of how important Flamini could prove to be. Of all the midfielders in contention, Flamini possesses something none of them do: a presence. Flamini was famously called “The Corporal” by Arsene Wenger during his previous stint at the club and during the North London derby it was easy to see why. 3 tackles, 2 clearances, 1 interception and 1 blocked shot in just 48 minutes just underlines what Flamini brings to the table; this despite the fact that he was making his “debut”. So if Flamini is to play, who misses out? Does it makes sense to tinker a winning formation at all? If at all Flamini commands a place, what happens to Mikel Arteta once he is back? In short what is Arsenal’s starting midfield pairing once all the players are fit?
Options In The Center
Arsene Wenger has been very flexible with team formation this season, playing 3 in the middle, changing to a 4-4-2 or a 4-5-1 mid-game, trying Rosicky in deeper midfield, and even playing Gibbs and Monreal on the left flank. He has shown he isn’t rigid, and this gives hope for Flamini. In a double pivot with Ramsey-Wilshere, the defensive load needs to be shared by the 2 as they take turns to defend and need to rely on the other to track back once not in possession. Now the team has someone like Flamini, who can not only sit deep himself, but also allow the other central midfielders to express themselves more. Ramsey has been a revelation in the now so called “Arteta-role” and Jack has looked more at ease in the deeper role with each passing game. But both these players’ performances are much better when given a freedom to bomb forward; i.e. when they have a Flamini by their side, they can reach newer heights. Also not to mention the added security cover for the fullbacks when there are 3 central players with exceptional work rate, as shown below.
But if the trio of Flamini-Ramsey-Wilshere is to play together, doesn’t that sacrifice an attacker to make up for the solidity in the middle? Wilshere and Ramsey, however good with the ball at their feet, aren’t proper attacking midfielders and save their best for transition football. So what are the other options? Mikel Arteta for starters. The Spaniard has been a mainstay of the Arsenal lineup ever since his deadline day move from the blue half of Liverpool. The fact that he has curbed his attacking game to fit in the more defensive role means he could revel alongside Flamini, but that would mean dropping either the immensely talented Wilshere or the ever improving Ramsey, something that doesn’t seem fair on either. There also rises the opportunity to play Arteta-Flamini in a double pivot with neither Wilshere or Ramsey in the starting lineup. This could be used for away games in Europe and teams with better runners in midfield. It can be argued that Ramsey-Flamini would be a better option considering Arteta lacks the legs to keep running and Aaron has proved he is a workhorse of the highest order. Probably that is what Wenger will go with, looking at the back to back Man of the Match performances from the Welshman, and also the small matter of fact that dropping him at this juncture could be detrimental to his confidence. Where does that leave Jack Wilshere?
Not so long ago Wilshere seemed to be untouchable and almost booked a starting place for himself even when on the sidelines. If it comes down to Jack and Ramsey in selecting a double pivot partner for Flamini, the opinion might be extremely divided and there could be a targeted approach to home and away games. Wilshere is the more flair player of the two, and playing with Mathieu will provide the best possible platform for Jack to exhibit and play his natural game. Also the small fact that as an attacking threat Wilshere is better at contributing to the build up play makes him a more potent option. Ramsey’s all action nature makes him indisciplined at times and skews the shape. Rosicky and Chamberlain will also be in contention for the spots but it’s fair to assume that as long as Ramsey, Wilshere and Arteta are fit to start, most of their involvement will be in the attacking positions.
Funnily all this discussion however, is keeping in mind that Flamini starts. Ideally this may not always be the case except in games where Wenger foresees a tight affair. An away game at the Signal Iduna Park for instance might be one. Otherwise in home games or games against lesser midfields, there is a good chance that we will continue to see Ramsey-Wilshere at the heart of midfield, and with the 2 playing together more often, they might develop a good understanding of each other’s game. Flamini will continue to knock on the door, and that could act as a propellant for the two. Versatility wise nobody in the squad comes close and, like most people claimed when he was signed, Flamini is an upgrade on the on-loan Coquelin, a more experienced, refined and fiercer version of him. He might not be starting too many games, but he could be vital as the season grows on. His ferocity if and when combined with the calm of Arteta, or the relentlessness of Ramsey, or the aggression of Wilshere could only make Arsenal look more solid than they have in the past two seasons. Rest assured, Flamini will put in a performance whenever called upon. And that is precisely why he was signed.