Although much attention at this time of year goes to player acquisitions and departures, the plans for existing players are just as interesting. In particular, how can Wenger and his staff get the most from Mesut Özil, Aaron Ramsey, and Alexis Sanchez?
The complications of success
The three were the standout performers on the international stage this summer. Alexis earned the player of the tournament honor for Copa America champions Chile; Ramsey took Wales to the Euro semifinals and himself onto the all-tournament team; Özil pulled the strings for the German Euro semifinalists yet inexplicably missed out on the accolades.
They all excelled in free roles in their teams’ attacks, moving into and out of dangerous positions behind the lead strike force. They can’t do the same for Arsenal. There’s just not enough room, time on the ball, or exemption from defending. (See Tim Stillman’s recent column, “Arsène’s Agenda,” for a look at the Özil-Ramsey relationship.)
A further challenge is that none of them will be ready to start the season on August 14. Each will be taking a break before returning to Arsenal, with the second league match—against champions Leicester City—looking like their earliest reasonable action.
As a result, pre-season and early match dynamics may not reflect Wenger’s intentions for his three best attacking players. Ultimately, here are some ways the manager might shift the personnel or system to maximize their contributions.
Playing in the band
It’s of course difficult to separate individuals from the structure that guides their actions. As an exercise in analysis, I'd identify three main developments in the team that will influence the impact of Özil, Ramsey, and Alexis.
First, the arrival of Granit Xhaka has the potential to reorient Arsenal’s approach. His distinctive mix of skills and aggression can enhance partnerships in the midfield and change the flow of the attack. (See my article “Which Midfield Mix Will Work for Arsenal.”)
One particular beneficiary of Xhaka’s arrival should be Ramsey. His new Swiss teammate has the ability both to patrol the base of midfield and to keep the ball circulating. This means that Ramsey could take a freer role than he could with, say, Francis Coquelin; he could concern himself less with initiating the transition and protecting the defense.
That is, if Ramsey takes up a midfield position beside Xhaka.
The second important development in the playing contingent, the return of Santi Cazorla, will influence Ramsey’s role. Cazorla can serve as another transition instigator and has allowed Özil to thrive in the past. The German’s outstanding start to the 2015-16 season, when he set a record-setting assist pace, was possible because Cazorla orchestrated the play from deeper and gave defenders another playmaker to worry about.
But instructing Cazorla to take up this role again would probably displace Ramsey from a position in the center, where he excelled for Wales. A knotty problem.
The third personnel-related factor affecting the star trio’s contribution is the center forward’s style. Olivier Giroud is a particular kind of center forward; he’s an effective target man, deft passer, and clever operator near goal. These qualities have made him a great foil for Ramsey, who attacks with vigor from midfield: Watch Ramsey’s epic FA Cup winner from 2014 for an example.
What Giroud isn’t is a speedy killer, the type of mobile, clinical striker that Alexis might thrive with. Although analyses suggesting that Alexis and Giroud can’t jibe are poorly founded, we have often seen Alexis at his best playing with quick center forwards like Theo Walcott and Danny Welbeck.
Welbeck offers a flexibility that would serve Alexis, Özil, and Ramsey all well. He darts into channels and opens space that all three can exploit and is an indefatigable defensive presence who helps recover the ball in dangerous areas. Stylistically, Welbeck is an excellent fit; he’s just out for a long period with injury and historically not the most clinical finisher.
Given the players at Wenger’s disposal right now, which formation makes Arsenal most effective? Offensively at least, the setup would emphasize the attacking talents of Alexis, Özil, and Ramsey. The three options examined below might accomplish that objective. Others, such as the 4-4-2 or 3-5-2, don’t seem to appeal to the manager.
The fallback structure in recent seasons has been the 4-2-3-1. Although it balances midfield presence, playmaking, and defensive cover, that setup may not bring about the maximum offensive production from the three.
It certainly works to Özil’s strengths because it gives the playmaker the most license. And there’s a case for an attacking midfield of Alexis-Özil-Ramsey, which played a large part in Arsenal’s top performances of 2015.
If the attacking midfield becomes even more fluid, the 4-2-3-1 could still serve Arsenal well. The speed of movement and thought among the three confuses defenders and creates openings. The catch is that turnovers leave Arsenal’s fullbacks exposed because their forward support has moved away from their flanks.
The second option is a 4-3-3. In this, one can see Xhaka with Ramsey and Cazorla in a midfield three. Ramsey could thrive with such skilled and clever midfield partners, using their varied transition play to get himself quickly into dangerous forward positions.
The 4-3-3 has promise for Özil as well. It allows him to drift into promising spaces, where he can play a killer pass, which has been his general operating mode for Germany. Whether this arrangement works for Özil in Premier League play, given the defensive implications, is a question.
The fundamental problem with such a formation, though, has to do with the strengths of Arsenal’s available center forward options. Giroud would not be as effective if he had to make quick moves into the gaps between opposition defenders or if he had to lead the Arsenal press. These seem like core striker responsibilities in a 4-3-3, more aligned with Welbeck’s strengths.
Third, we might see a resurrection of the 4-1-4-1. It’s a slight variation on the 4-2-3-1 that Wenger tried early in the 2014-15 season.
This formation seemed to suit Alexis because his energy and quickness allowed him to cover offensive and defensive space on the flank of the advanced midfield four. He could also get forward quickly and support the center forward.
Xhaka’s arrival makes this setup workable. He could hold the base of the midfield and distribute long passes to the wings or shorter ones to Ramsey and Özil in two attacking midfield roles.
The gap in the 4-1-4-1, given Arsenal’s current roster, is the other wide attacking midfield position. At the moment, the candidates would be Theo Walcott, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Alex Iwobi, and Joel Campbell. Does any of those players have the combination of skills to elevate the team’s play consistently?
More experienced and insightful figures than myself or other bloggers will be assessing this question and others as the season approaches. Perhaps Wenger and his staff will reveal some of what they think about the intriguing possibilities when pre-season friendlies start at the end of next week.