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Further changes needed to Arsenal’s central midfield

Coquelin

Arsenal’s best central midfield combination is an intriguing issue.

10 years on Arsenal still have not grasp the fact that they need their deep lying central midfielders to perform three core functions: a regista, a holding defensive role and a goal scoring box to box role. They are roles that Vieira and Gilberto performed so effectively in the early 2000s. Whilst everyone focuses on Vieira’s physical presence and think Arsenal simply need a big body in the centre of midfield to compete, they seem to fail to recognise that Vieira was a rare complete central midfielder who could play make from deep, tackle and intercept effectively and charge up the field to offer a goal scoring threat. To compliment Vieira, Gilberto (and Petit prior to him) offered an additional defensive screen in central midfield.

Whilst Coquelin has been is very effective at fulfilling the holding defensive midfield role Gilberto used to perform, none of Arsenal’s existing central midfield options possess all three or even two of the skill sets which Vieira possessed:

– Cazorla (regista)
– Wilshere (regista)
– Xhaka (holding defensive midfielder)
– Ramsey (box to box)
– Elneny (doesn’t really fall into any category)
– Ox (largely untested in central midfield).

Looking at the aforementioned players’ relevant statistics and observed performances in season 2016/17 demonstrates their strengths and limitations:

Cazorla

Cazorla
– 1.9 tackles per game
– 1.8 interceptions per game
– 89.8% passing accuracy
– 2.2 key passes per game
– 2.6 dribbles per game
– 0 goals but 4 assists in 19 central midfield starts

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Wilshere
Only made 1 starting and 2 substitute appearances this season so analysis of his statistics lacks validity.

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Xhaka
– 2.4 tackles per game
– 2.5 interceptions per game
– 82.5% passing accuracy
– 0.8 key passes per game
– 1.1 dribbles per game
– 3 goals and 2 assists in 33 central midfield starts

Coquelin
– 2.9 tackles per game
– 2.8 interceptions per game
– 88.4% passing accuracy
– 0.2 key passes per game
– 1.1 dribbles per game
– 0 goals and assists in 25 central midfield starts

Elneny
– 0.9 tackles per game
– 1.5 interceptions per game
– 92.7% passing accuracy
– 0.6 key passes per game
– 0.4 dribbles per game
– 0 goals and 1 assist in 9 central midfield starts

Ramsey
– 2.4 tackles per game
– 1.6 interceptions per game
– 86.1% passing accuracy
– 1.1 key passes per game
– 1.2 dribbles per game
– 3 goals and 5 assist in 21 central midfield starts

Ox
– 1.1 tackles per game
– 0.6 interceptions per game
– 82.9% passing accuracy
– 0.8 key passes per game
– 1.7 dribbles per game
– Didn’t start a match in the centre of midfield

In contrast this is how the top regista, holding defensive midfielder and goal scoring box to box midfielder in Europe’s top 5 leagues rated:

Regista (determined by considering the per game passing accuracy, key passes and assist statistics of those players in the Serie A, Premier League, La Liga, Bundesliga and Ligue 1 who have started in a deep central midfield role on more than 10 occasions this season)

Cazorla
Age: 31
Current club: Arsenal
2015/16 stats:
– 89.8% passing accuracy
– 2.2 key passes per game
– 4 assists in 19 starts

Holding defensive midfielder (determined by considering the per game tackling, intercepting and minimal dribbling statistics of those players in the Serie A, Premier League, La Liga, Bundesliga and Ligue 1 who have started in a deep central midfield role on more than 10 occasions this season)

Cabaye
Age: 30
Current club: Crystal Palace
2015/16 stats:
– 3.2 tackles per game
– 3.6 interceptions per game
– 0.3 dribbles per game

Goal scoring box to box midfielder (determined by considering the per game passing accuracy, dribbling, tackling, intercepting, assist and goal scoring statistics of those players in the Serie A, Premier League, La Liga, Bundesliga and Ligue 1 who have started in a central midfield role on more than 10 occasions this season)

Pogba
Age: 23
Current club: Juventus
2015/16 stats:
– 80.5% passing accuracy
– 2.9 dribbles per game
– 2.1 tackles per game
– 1.4 interceptions per game
– 10 goals
– 14 assists

Analysing the comparative performance of Arsenal’s existing central midfield options demonstrates that:

– Cazorla is Arsenal’s and indeed Europe’s best regista options.
– Xhaka offers Arsenal another holding defensive midfield option, though his defensive contribution is inferior to Coquelin. His creative influence whilst greater than Coquelin is substantially less than Cazorla, discounting him, on face value, as a credible regista.
– Coquelin whilst impressive defensively needs to further improve his defensive contribution if he wants to be one of the best holding defensive midfielders in England and Europe.
– Elneny, whilst boasting impressive pass accuracy statistics, does not offer a goal scoring threat or contribute sufficiently in a creative or defensive sense to operate as an alternate goal scoring box to box, regista or holding defensive midfielder.
– Ramsey, whilst impressive defensively and in his passing accuracy in contrast to the likes of Pogba, needs to improve his goal scoring and assist output as well as forward dribbles from deep.
– Ox and Wilshere are difficult to critique due to a lack of game time in central midfielder, in the Ox’s case, and a lack of game time period in Wilshere’s case.
– Arsenal’s central midfield lacks goals when Ramsey is not positioned there, lacks defensive security when Coquelin is not positioned there and lacks creativity when Cazorla is not positioned there.

Personally I think Arsenal’s squad is better suited to playing three deeplying central midfielders comprised of Xhaka or Coquelin (holding tackling midfielder), one of Cazorla or Wilshere (regista) and Ramsey (goal scoring box to box) behind a Ozil (a floating central attacking midfielder). But with Arsenal’s current 4231 formation only allowing for two deeplying central midfielders behind Ozil, a change in formation unlikely to occur and Wenger notorious for his tactical inflexibility, there appears to be a need for Arsenal to look replacing some of their existing central midfield options with players who individually possesses the skill set to perform at least two of those three required functions.

In this regard there there a number of potential combinations:

1. A goal scoring box to box midfielder (Ramsey) and a central midfielder capable of dually performing both the regista and holding tackling midfielder roles.

2. A dedicated holding defensive midfielder (Coquelin or Xhaka) and a central midfielder capable of dually performing both the regista and goal scoring box to box midfielder roles.

3. A regista (Cazorla or Wilshere) and a central midfielder capable of dually performing both the box to box midfielder and holding tackling midfielder roles.

Of those possible combinations, trying to accommodate a goal scoring box to box central midfielder with a fellow central midfielder capable of dually performing both the regista and holding tackling midfielder roles seems the most balanced combination, particularly given Arsenal’s attacking approach and limited goal scoring record in recent seasons. For the regista/holding defensive midfielder, their dual role has key commonalities in that both functions require the player to position themselves deep in the centre of midfield to instigate attacks and screen the defensive line. That in turn can free the box to box midfielder to make forward runs both off the ball and with it to offer Arsenal an additional goal scoring threat.

Attempting to accommodate a dedicated holding defensive midfielder (Coquelin or Xhaka) and a central midfielder capable of dually performing both the regista and goal scoring box to box midfielder roles also has merit both from a defensive and goal scoring perspective. That said this combination could present practical challenges as Arsenal’s capacity to transition from defence to attack maybe be impaired if the box to box midfielder pushes too high up the pitched and the holding defensive midfielder is limited in their creativity.

Alternatively trying to account for a dedicated regista (Cazorla or Wilshere) and a player with the combined skills to play as a holding defensive midfielder and goal scoring box to box midfielder is fraught with peril as that combinations would likely leave Arsenal’s regista and defence unnecessarily exposed if the holding defensive midfielder/goal scoring box to box midfielder charges up the field and the opposition counterattack.

In terms of possible transfer targets, the below options all appear to possess a good combination of strong tackling, interception and key passing skills in order to effectively fulfil a dual regista/holding tackling midfielder role:

Cabaye
Age: 30
Current club: Crystal Palace
2015/16 stats:
– 3.2 tackles per game
– 3.6 interceptions per game
– 0.3 dribbles per game
– 80.2% passing accuracy
– 1.5 key passes per game
– 1 assist in 30 central midfield starts

Viviani
Age: 24
Current club: Verona
2015/16 stats:
– 3 tackles per game
– 2.3 interceptions per game
– 0.5 dribbles per game
– 80.9% passing accuracy
– 2.3 key passes per game
– 5 assists in 17 central midfield starts

Biglia
Age: 30
Current club: Lazio
2015/16 stats:
– 3.1 tackles per game
– 2.5 interceptions per game
– 0.9 dribbles per game
– 88.1% passing accuracy
– 2.3 key passes per game
– 5 assists in 31 central midfield starts

Fernando
Age: 24
Current club: Sampdoria
2015/16 stats:
– 2.5 tackles per game
– 2.7 interceptions per game
– 0.6 dribbles per game
– 85.6% passing accuracy
– 1.7 key passes per game
– 2 assists in 34 central midfield starts

Conversely if Arsenal were to look to deploy a predominate holding defensive midfielder and a central midfielder capable of dually performing both the regista and goal scoring box to box midfielder roles, I think the below options have the passing, tackling and intercepting skills and goal scoring credentials to fulfil that dual role:

Mkhitaryan
Age: 27
Current club: Borussia Dortmund
2015/16 stats:
– 76.9% passing accuracy
– 2.6 key passes per game
– 2.3 dribbles per game
– 1.9 tackles per game
– 1.5 interceptions per game
– 3 goals and 5 assists in 10 central midfield starts

Pogba
Age: 23
Current club: Juventus
2015/16 stats:
– 80.5% passing accuracy
– 1.6 key passes per game
– 2.9 dribbles per game
– 2.1 tackles per game
– 1.4 interceptions per game
– 9 goals and 14 assists in 38 central midfield starts

Vazquez
Age: 27
Current club: Palermo
2015/16 stats:
– 77.2% passing accuracy
– 1.5 key passes per game
– 3.5 dribbles per game
– 2.3 tackles per game
– 0.7 interceptions per game
– 6 goals and 1 assist in 19 central midfield starts

Pjanic
Age: 27
Current club: Roma
2015/16 stats:
– 85% passing accuracy
– 2.4 key passes per game
– 0.7 dribbles per game
– 1.5 tackles per game
– 1.7 interceptions per game
– 12 goals and 13 assist in 37 central midfield starts

Based on the above comparison I think Arsenal can definitely upgrade their existing central midfield options with players who possess more multifaceted skill sets.

Unless Arsenal recruit a prolific and elite goal scorer to feed off Giroud and Ozil’s creativity and support Alexis, as the team’s primary goal scorer but on the opposite flank (e.g. Greizmann, Lacazette, etc.), one of Arsenal’s two central midfielder players needs to be a goal scoring box to box midfielder. Whilst Ramsey has in the past shown that he can operate in such a position and contribute in a goal scoring capacity, his goal scoring and assist output as well as forward dribbles from deep last season were underwhelming. That combined with a lack of alternate goal scoring box to box midfielders in Arsenal’s squad, means it’s a position Arsenal should be looking to recruit for. With Pogba realistically unattainable and Pjanic seemingly on his way to Juventis, I think Mkhitaryan or Vasquez represent excellent goal scoring box to box midfield options with the skill set to dually perform a regista role.

If Arsenal were to recruit and deploy a central midfielder, such as Mkhitaryan or Vasquez, who is capable of dually performing both the regista and goal scoring box to box midfielder roles, their fellow central midfielder would need to be a holding defensive midfielder. Whilst the addition of Xhaka provides Coquelin with internal competition and provides Arsenal with depth in a holding defensive midfield capacity, Cabaye, Biglia, Viviani and Fernando all represent more impressive alternatives and are also suitably skilled to effective perform a regista role.

All in all, the above highlights that Arsenal need to give consideration to making further changes in central midfield in order to improve the team’s attacking and defensive effectiveness in season 2016/2017.

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