Arsenal FC: Time for the North-London club to address their main issues
Deadline Day, January 2018
Arsenal was surprisingly active in the mid-season transfer window. The departure of Alexis Sanchez meant that Arsene Wenger had to fill a huge void in the team.
The Gunners welcomed Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang to the squad. Accordingly, Arsene Wenger boosted the plethora of attacking talents at his disposal.
The Emirates now boasts of hosting some of the finest forwards in European football. Arsenal are a treat to watch when they play in full form. The matches against Crystal Palace and Everton in the last few weeks have proved that their attacking players could make up for a goal-fest.
The well-oiled forwards play an attacking brand of football with such fluidity that mesmerizes the fans. Though Alexandre Lacazette has struggled with his form and fitness in the past few months, Wenger has a better alternative that is Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang in the squad already.
The Gabon international was bought for a club-record transfer fee in the last few days of the January transfer window.
With his pace, interlinking, finesse and finishing abilities, Aubameyang is one of the best strikers in Europe currently. Surely, it is a great time to watch Arsenal’s forwards tear down other team’s backlines for fun. However, that is not the case completely.
Fragility deep down the pitch
Francis Coquelin left Arsenal to join Valencia last month. It does not seem like long ago when the French international was an integral member of the midfield with Santi Cazorla. The fans and the manager alike appreciated his sheer passion and determination on the pitch.
Despite the flashes of brilliance, the general consensus was that Coquelin lacked the technical ability to excel as a midfield enforcer. Soon, he was out of the first-team and made some sporadic appearances before moving to the La Liga last month.
Granit Xhaka was signed for a massive fee of £35 million but the Swiss international has been somewhat of a disappointment for the Gunners.
Initially, Xhaka was expected to play in a box-to-box role for Arsenal with more offensive duties. That has not been the scenario so far though.
His skills on the ball are appreciative for a deep-lying midfielder. However, Wenger expects something that is just not possible from the player’s perspective and skill-set. Regularly, Xhaka is forced to play deep in the field and break attacks.
Here is where the premier problem lies. It is quite apparent that the Swiss international's sense of positioning is very weak to term him as a proper defensive midfielder. Sitting in front of the defence, Xhaka often fails to read opposition's attacks properly.
Actually, his best performances have come when Xhaka has been accompanied by Mohammed Elneny in the midfield. This way, the former Borussia Monchengladbach player has someone to share the defensive duties and hence he makes his forward forays too.
While there is nothing wrong with central midfielders requiring the help of another midfielder to play freely, Xhaka’s drawbacks are too visible at times. For example, Paul Pogba looks the most formidable when he plays in a two-man midfield base.
Moreover, the arrival of Nemanja Matic was to ensure that Pogba gets to play along with a defensive midfielder. In this way, the Frenchman has the assurance of having the back of an excellent holding, deep-lying midfielder.
However, that is because Pogba is a constant threatening figure around the opposition’s penalty box. Undoubtedly, the former Juventus player is one of the best central midfielders in Europe.
The same cannot be said about Xhaka though.
Comparatively, Xhaka is fragile, weak in possession in cramped spaces and hence looks lost most of the times. The problem lies with the clarity of his position. Currently, he lacks the tactical discipline to play as a deep-lying midfielder. Xhaka seems to fade out of matches at crucial junctures owing to his poor concentration.
Many times, he allows the forwards to get past him and fails to track back the runners down the pitch.His poor control in defensive situations, coupled with his malice challenges at times have let the team down.
There is a major doubt over his best position in the team. However, whatever might be the case, the holding midfielder's spot is definitely not the suitable slot for him.
The issue with most of the Arsenal midfielders is the fact that they are irresistible in the attack. However, put a bit of tactical burden on them and they crumble like some non-league players. It is the case with Aaron Ramsey and Mohammed Elneny too, especially the Egyptian who is a good passer of the ball and can build the play from the back.
However, both of them are certainly defensively unaware and irresolute which do not make them a safe bet for the deep positions. Also, Ramsey is an attacking player from Arsenal's perspective and hence hardly puts in a shift.
Matic, Fernandinho, N’Golo Kante, and Idrissa Gueye are the best examples of players who shield and protect their team’s defence. The aforementioned four players hardly wander ahead and possess the intelligence and discipline to minimize their mistakes around the penalty box.
Overall, it is apparent that neither Elneny nor Xhaka could be expected to constantly play and excel as Arsenal's holding midfielders. In the recent transfer windows, Chelsea and Manchester United strengthened their midfield by adding quality defensive midfielders in Kante and Matic respectively.
Fernandinho has been a loyal and efficient player for Manchester City since long. Mauricio Pochettino has groomed the likes of Harry Winks and Mousa Dembele to guard the defence for the Spurs. Liverpool will have the services of Naby Keita from next season onwards.
Even the Reds have been regularly hit by the lack of a proper defensive midfielder since Jordon Henderson's good form has deserted him. Quite often, Klopp has played Emre Can, who is essentially a box-to-box player as the holding player in front of the defence. However, the arrival of Keita will most probably solve that issue for a significant period of time now.
A look at the top-six teams clearly indicates that only Arsenal have shied away from signing quality defensive midfielders. Wenger has always considered cheaper options for this particular position but that needs to stop soon. Otherwise, despite having all the flair and creativity up front, Arsenal will continue to fail miserably at the back.