Tuesday, December 6, 2016

FC Basel 1, Arsenal 4: Three Things We Learned

Lucas Perez’s hat trick decided Arsenal’s 4-1 win over FC Basel in the Champions League and, in an unlikely outcome, clinched the top spot in Group A for the Gunners.

Unlikely because Paris Saint-Germain, heavy favorites at home, could only draw with Ludogorets Razgrad. As a result, Arsenal’s won the group for the first time in five years.

The Gunners blitzed Basel at the beginning of each half and warded off most of the hosts’ pressure to secure the victory.

Here are three things we learned from the match.

Arsène Wenger still goes for it

The talk leading up to the encounter focused on whether the Arsenal manager should and would give his important players a rest. After all, PSG was almost certain to secure the group’s top seed at home, and the Gunners face a challenging Premier League calendar.

If you needed reminding of Wenger’s unpredictability and his respect for the Champions League, his team selection should give you all you require. Yes, he made six changes from the lineup that dispatched West Ham on Saturday; those six, though, did not include Mesut Özil and Alexis Sanchez. Arsenal’s two stars played long enough to secure the result, then left for substitutes.

Elsewhere, the manager picked an aggressive starting XI, fielding Aaron Ramsey in midfield beside Granit Xhaka and Lucas with Alex Iwobi, Özil, and Alexis farther forward. The priority was clearly on the attack, a focus that proved smart as Arsenal’s speed on the break overwhelmed Basel.

This risk-taking did mean that, early 2-0 lead in hand, this was not the team to lock it down. But the group, particularly central defenders Laurent Koscielny and Rob Holding, did enough to keep Basel from getting too close.

Lucas Perez gets to the right place at the right time

The two goals Lucas scored in early the first half displayed his opportunistic streak. He recognized the threat that left back Kieran Gibbs was posing on Basel’s right, and he got himself into can’t-miss positions in front of goal.

For his first, Lucas sneaked in as Alexis released Gibbs to the byline with a delicate chip in the eighth minute. Gibbs drew the Basel keeper Tomas Vaclik’s attention then slotted the pass to Lucas. The Spaniard waited a split-second, Alexis style, for the last Basel defender to commit, then eased the ball into the net.

Eight minutes later, Lucas scored a poacher’s goal, jumping on the rebound of Gibbs’s stinging shot to sweep home.

He had more work to do to finish off the second Arsenal hat-trick in as many matches. Again, Gibbs was instrumental. His intervention and strong pass upfield was deadened by Alexis into Lucas’s path. Lucas swung his weaker right foot, didn’t make clean contact, but had the angle perfect to beat Vaclik.

That’s five goals in just nine Arsenal appearances for the late summer arrival from Deportivo La Coruna. An excellent return.

Gibbs and Iwobi jelled well

Arsenal enjoyed a smooth combination on its left. Unlike in the last match against PSG, Gibbs and Iwobi synchronized their movements and reached dangerous positions.

Gibbs played much of the match practically as a winger, getting forward at every opportunity. Of his 62 completed passes, Gibbs directed the plurality (26) forward and connected on 13 of 14 passes in the final third. (Statistics from FourFourTwo StatsZone)

Gibbs could influence the match in this fashion because Iwobi frequently moved in from the flank to overload the midfield. Running from that central position onto Özil’s cutback, Iwobi scored Arsenal’s fourth goal of the night.

Meanwhile, Basel couldn’t exploit the resulting gaps on Arsenal’s left. Center forward Marc Janko wasn’t mobile enough to run into that channel, and right back Michael Lang, though 15 of 15 on passes in the attacking third, could not produce the decisive quality.

Extra time

Until the point in the 78th minute when Rob Holding surrendered possession, leading to Basel’s goal, his partnership with Laurent Koscielny at the heart of Arsenal’s defense performed impeccably.

Koscielny succeeded on seven of seven attempted clearances, while Holding was five for five. Koscielny also made a game-high four interceptions, while Holding completed 93 percent of his passes. All added up to solid contributions from a novel partnership.

A brief word about Granit Xhaka, too, upon his return to his original club: The Swiss international pushed Arsenal forward from midfield, completing 41 of his game-high 104 passes forward. He was also alert defensively, intercepting four Basel passes, making 14 ball recoveries, and succeeding on three of five attempted tackles. No player was more effective on those measures.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Match Preview, Arsenal v Southampton: Changes Coming

We can expect another change in complexion for Arsenal's EFL Cup quarterfinal match with Southampton on Wednesday.

Manager Arsène Wenger made seven alterations to his starting lineup between last Wednesday’s Champions League draw with Paris-Saint Germain and Sunday’s 3-1 league win over Bournemouth. The only holdovers were central defenders Laurent Koscielny and Shkodran Mustafi, playmaker Mesut Özil, and center forward Alexis Sanchez.

Selecting that quartet for two high-profile matches shows its importance to the current Arsenal team. In all likelihood, Koscielny, Mustafi, Özil, and Alexis will get a deserved rest against Southampton. They will have few opportunities for days off before the return fixture against Bournemouth on January 2.

In their places, Wenger will send out young players and squad stalwarts—Rob Holding and Gabriel in the center of defense, for example, and Alex Iwobi in the attacking midfield.

The center forward choice will be an interesting one. Recent league supersub Olivier Giroud would get the nod up front, but he tweaked his groin on Sunday and may need more time to recover. Lucas Perez will be in the squad after a month-injury absence; he might not be ready to start, though.

The other options would be Theo Walcott, replaced by Giroud after 75 minutes on Sunday, Iwobi as part of a fluid front four, or debutante Stephy Mavididi. None ideal. As a result, Wenger may have to fend off arguments from the indefatigable and insistent Alexis for another run-out.

We’ll also see Kieran Gibbs return to left back and Francis Coquelin to the center of midfield. Other candidates for starting roles include Ainsley Maitland-Niles, Jeff Reine-Adelaide, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, and Chris Willock.

All have earned playing time in Arsenal’s two wins in this competition. They’ll be backed by goalkeeper Emi Martinez.

This group will face its stiffest test in this competition so far. Not only are Southampton the first top-flight side to play Arsenal in this year’s cup, the Saints have posed serious challenges to the Gunners of late. Arsenal’s 2-1, stoppage-time, league win in September was just their second in seven outings against Southampton. That included a 2-1 loss in this competition two years ago.

Like Wenger, Southampton manager Claude Puel should adjust his starting XI from the one that defeated Everton 1-0 at the weekend. The Saints’ schedule is just as busy as the Gunners’, with a return to London against Crystal Palace and a crunch Europa League matchup with Hapoel Be’er Sheva in the next eight days.

There’s also precedent for Puel to rotate for this competition. He switched nine starters between Southampton’s league draw at Manchester City and the 1-0 home win over Sunderland in the last round.

Key Matchup

Alex Iwobi against Harrison Reed and Jordy Clasie. If Özil does get the break as anticipated, much of Arsenal’s creative burden will fall to Iwobi. He has not made much of an impact recently—as is normal for players who burst into the first team. Southampton are a difficult team to unlock, largely because their deep midfielders and defenders work so well together. Iwobi will need to find his daring and execution to create chances for his teammates.

Where to Worry

Shane Long annoys Arsenal every time he faces them. The Irish striker is tireless both in his running and in his niggly fouling. He’ll try to get under Gabriel’s skin and hope for a mistake from the relatively inexperienced defensive partnership of Arsenal.

Match Verdict

This one has the makings of a cagey and uneven affair. Because both teams will have relatively new makeups, synching the attacks might prove difficult. The heightened, if only mildly, pressure of a quarterfinal with Wembley on the distant horizon might also have a psychological effect on the players.

Players to Watch

Arsenal. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. His double propelled Arsenal to a 2-0 win over Reading in the last round. The incentive of facing his former club, plus his improved performances aside from his North London Derby cameo, could push him to make a telling impact here.

Southampton. Stuart Taylor. The ex-Arsenal man, now 36, may get his Southampton debut in goal in the absence of Alex McCarthy. He’ll need all that experience and good relationships with his back four to keep Arsenal’s youthful attack from bamboozling him.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Mesut Özil and Arsenal's Midfield Misadventure

When Arsenal's offense hums, playmaker Mesut Özil orchestrates it. But neither he nor the team got into a rhythm in Saturday’s 1-1 draw with Manchester United. The Gunners’ inability to register a shot on target until Olivier Giroud’s equalizer in the 89th minute seems like clear proof of the team’s ineffectiveness on the day.

Combine that reality with the hosts’ crisper passing and effective defending, and you get a rather unpleasant display for Arsenal fans. A pleasing result, no doubt, but not with the aesthetic quality we would like to see.

Pause from the monocause

As ever in this era of reductive outrage, many observers laid the responsibility at the feet of either Özil or Aaron Ramsey. The attacking midfielders carried the creative potential in this particular starting XI; the other members of the front six tended to the direct (Alexis, Theo Walcott) or the risk managers (Francis Coquelin, Mohammed Elneny).

It’s true that neither Özil nor Ramsey created a chance for a teammate. Between them, they completed only one pass in the opposition penalty area. And neither took a shot.

So at one level you can see why Arsenal’s two talents took criticism for the pedestrian display overall.

But those complaints, true to our age, oversimplify complex developments.

Kelly Wood’s defense of Ramsey, “Aaron Ramsey! He is Great,” hammers the Ramsey critics effectively, so I won’t restate her points here. What I will do instead is try to understand the dynamics that brought on this performance, particularly from Özil.

So, what’s Özil’s scenario?

First, the statistics don’t reveal anything out of the ordinary. Özil completed 58 passes against Manchester United, just one fewer than his season average. His passing accuracy of 86 percent was only one percentage point lower than his norm so far this year.

The difference was where Özil did this work. Instead of combining with Alexis and Walcott on the edge or in Manchester United’s penalty area, the German playmaker operated much closer to midfield. The heat maps on whoscored.com show Özil frequenting the middle third. That was a change of his sphere of influence, given that he’s one of the Premier League’s most prolific final-third passers.

Not only did this shift of activity take Özil away from where he’s most dangerous, it jammed him into an area where others were operating. In particular, Alexis dropped deep from his center forward position to receive the ball—note the overlap with Özil on the heat map.

Rather than creating triangles to facilitate quick passing, the Gunners’ close proximity to each other in midfield allowed Manchester United’s midfielders to clog the spaces.

There was another team on the pitch

That was central to Jose Mourinho’s brutal design.

The Manchester United manager set out to deny Özil opportunities on the ball. The German genius often found himself surrounded by three opposition players—center backs Marcos Rojo and Phil Jones pushing up and midfielder Michael Carrick shielding passes into him. When he ventured to the left, right back Antonio Valencia and a central midfielder usually had him cornered.

Loosening these defensive shackles proved difficult. It required guile and skill from Özil's midfield teammates or a dangerous distraction elsewhere.

For all their positive qualities and contributions, Coquelin and Elneny could not provide the craft to free Özil. The central pair focused on breaking up the hosts’ attacks and making the simple pass out. These two responsibilities were difficult enough, what with the harassment they received from Ander Herrera.

To find the well-marshalled Özil, they needed more daring.

Creative responsibility wasn’t their brief, though, as manager Arsène Wenger admitted afterward. “I knew it would be a bit more of a physical battle, so I chose players who have experience and fight,” he told Arsenal.com.

Method to the midfield

There’s a logic to this approach. Many factors weighed against Arsenal in this match, even if this wasn’t the most fearsome Manchester United lineup of all time.

Early kickoff. Return from the international break. The Mourinho hoodoo. A 10-year league victory drought at Old Trafford. Injuries to dynamic players like Hector Bellerin and Santi Cazorla.

In that context, you can understand a more circumspect approach from Arsenal. Wenger was right that midfield robustness was important; it’s just that his charges didn’t cope superbly with the aggressiveness of Manchester United in that area of the pitch.

They handled it well enough to get a draw. If the players’ post-game comments are a true indication, they’ll be honest in their assessment of the performance and optimistic that better outings lie ahead.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Match Preview, Ludogorets v Arsenal: Not So Fast

Arsenal travel to Bulgaria to face Ludogorets Razgrad on Tuesday, with the opportunity of setting the pace in Champions League Group A.

The Gunners are level on points with Paris Saint-Germain and have a superior goal difference, so the target of winning the group is within reach with three matches to go.

The team shouldn’t grab for that objective prematurely, though. Any dip in performance or focus could be costly here.

Ludogorets posed dangers two weeks ago when they visited the Emirates. Yes, Arsenal ran out 6-0 winners, but there were moments in the first half when Arsenal goalkeeper David Ospina had to intervene and prevent the Bulgarian side from seizing the initiative.

Indeed, Ludogorets did not follow the pattern most visitors use in North London: Rather than defending deep, they opened the game and sought to capitalize on Arsenal’s aggressiveness. They were particularly adept in transition, moving quickly from the wings to playmaker Marcelinho.

This success should make Arsenal wary. All the more so because first choice right back Hector Bellerin did not make the trip to Sofia. In his place, we’ll see either Carl Jenkinson, with only one Arsenal start since May 2014, or regular center half Shkodran Mustafi.

The center of Arsenal’s midfield will also look different. Santi Cazorla remains injured, and Francis Coquelin may get a rest before Sunday’s North London Derby.

The challenge for manager Arsène Wenger is choosing among the qualities and strengths of four deserving central midfield choices. Granit Xhaka, out of action since his red card against Swansea, Coquelin, Mohammed Elneny, and Aaron Ramsey all have strong starting cases.

Our best guess is that Xhaka partners Elneny. It would be only the second start for the pair. Xhaka-neny’s previous performance came in Arsenal’s 4-0 EFL Cup win at Nottingham Forest, so in theory the two can combine effectively.

Whomever the manager picks, Arsenal’s midfielders need to attend to the home side’s threat. Ludogorets led PSG at home and drew with Basel in the Champions League. In domestic competition, they’ve scored 15 goals in their last four games, so they don’t lack firepower.

Where the hosts may struggle is in defense. Arsenal possess the speed of thought, movement, and passing to punish most teams. It’s unlikely that Ludogorets have the organization and defensive quality to keep the likes of Mesut Özil and Alexis Sanchez quiet.

Key Matchup

Arsenal’s fullbacks against Ludogorets’s wide attacking players. Ludogorets will look for opportunities to isolate Gibbs and Jenkinson/Mustafi. Wanderson, Misidjan, and Cafú all flashed threats in the first meeting. If Gibbs keeps up his fine form and his counterpart on the right holds firm, Arsenal can limit Ludogorets’s effectiveness going forward.

Where to Worry

Too many changes in Arsenal’s starting XI, some enforced by injury and others by choice, could create uncertainty the hosts could exploit. Of particular concern would be the defensive support Arsenal’s right back receives from the midfielder and wide attacker. Jenkinson or Mustafi will need help to slot in effectively.

Match Verdict

A wide-open affair. Ludogorets will likely maintain its European record of scoring in all its home matches, but Arsenal will field enough offensive talent to overcome the hosts.

Players to Watch

Arsenal. Alexis. Arsenal’s dynamo is humming at the moment. Two goals against Sunderland on Saturday punctuated his all-action performance. His is the kind of talent and energy that Ludogorets will struggle to contain.

Ludogorets. Marcelinho. The Brazilian pulled the strings for the Bulgarian side two weeks ago, completing 89 of 99 passes, both game highs. He also created three chances for teammates.

Friday, October 21, 2016

The Second Coming of Francis Coquelin

Francis Coquelin’s reappearance in Arsenal’s midfield in Wednesday’s 6-0 Champions League victory over Ludogorets may have signaled the start of a very long reign.

If not messianic – because the team did not need saving – Coquelin’s performance came close to perfection.

In his first start since injuring his knee against Chelsea on September 24, the Frenchman regained his high level in defensive interventions. He made 13 ball recoveries, intercepted seven opposition passes, and succeeded on eight of 11 tackles. All those were game highs, according to FourFourTwo Stats Zone.

The catalyst and distributor

We’ve come to expect such defensive influence from Coquelin since his near-miraculous emergence in January 2015. Perhaps more surprising was his passing acumen. Against Ludogorets, Coquelin led all Arsenal players with 51 completed passes, on 55 attempts. No Arsenal starter had better passing efficiency.

Coquelin always seemed to choose the correct option, even the not-so-obvious ones. Two passes in the second half stood out. He intervened brilliantly and returned Kieran Gibbs’ cleared cross to the left back, keeping alive the possession that led to Arsenal’s third goal. That’s at the 4:10 mark of this video.

The second (at 5:24) shows his vision and execution. Coquelin spots Mesut Özil open on the left and finds the German with a perfect cross-field pass.

Combine those two contributions, winning the ball and distributing it effectively, and you have the perfect midfielder for Arsenal’s current setup.

That’s not to detract from the quality and performances of Coquelin’s midfield teammates. On the contrary. I’d argue that the quintet of Coquelin, Santi Cazorla, Granit Xhaka, Mohamed Elneny, and Aaron Ramsey are, as a group, the best midfield in club football. No other team boasts a five-deep central midfield of that ability.

The contingent gives manager Arsène Wenger a range of options, as Tim Stillman explored in his Arseblog column this week.

What Coquelin provides is a foundation both solid and vibrant for Arsenal’s attacking talent to thrive. His instinct upon winning the ball appears to be to get it forward.

With equanimity: Despite completing the team’s most passes against Ludogorets, he didn’t figure in any of the team’s top five passing combinations. He found Özil eight times; Gibbs seven; Cazorla and Shkodran Mustafi five; Theo Walcott, Alexis Sanchez, Laurent Koscielny, Hector Bellerin, and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain four.

One of many cogs in the tactical wheel

Many of these interactions begin with Coquelin higher up the pitch than a typical holding midfielder would be. He’s serving as a midfield marauder, with Cazorla as a deep-lying playmaker behind him.

This is an interesting shift from Wenger because it makes the midfield more proactive and interchangeable, given the personnel. Ramsey, Elneny, and Xhaka can all perform the role of Coquelin, though, as Stillman observes, with slightly different styles.

Meanwhile, Elneny and Xhaka can slot in for Cazorla as the deep playmaker. Yes, the aesthetic would be subtly different, but none of those shifts would alter the overall approach the manager seems to be taking.

The direction is to press opponents early in matches. Alexis often initiates the pressure on the ball, with Özil and Walcott closing down the first passing options. That’s when Arsenal surrender possession in relatively open areas of their attacking half.

When transitions happen in a more crowded attacking setting, often it’s Coquelin who steps up, prevents the opposition from escaping, intercepts the pass, and quickly finds a teammate in a threatening position. Such a contribution led to a stinging shot from Theo Walcott on Wednesday evening.

Then, when the pressing has resulted in a lead for Arsenal, the team can solidify its defensive shape and try to hurt opponents on the counterattack. Coquelin is an ideal linchpin for this approach as well.

The bone of contention

Still, Coquelin, like every central midfielder since Patrick Vieira, provokes debate among Arsenal fans. When Wednesday’s team sheet came out, for example, Twitter erupted with consternation that Coquelin, and not Xhaka, got the starting nod.

Maybe this is because Coquelin did not carry a huge price tag. Perhaps he doesn’t exude the silky skill some expect of an Arsenal midfielder. Or folks have forgotten how he and Cazorla combined to such successful effect in 2015. Or they don’t like the apparent improvisation that created that partnership. Others might not recognize how much he’s improved from that excellent year, even.

What’s clear, though, is that Wenger holds none of these opinions. The manager is a first-hand witness to Coquelin’s abilities and attitude, both of which he deems important to this version of Arsenal.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Match Preview, Arsenal v Basel: Roll On

When Arsenal host FC Basel in the Champions League on Tuesday, the Gunners can establish a strong position in their Champions League group and continue their good form.

The Match Day One draw in Paris, on paper the most difficult of Arsenal’s group stage matches, gives the team a slight advantage in its qualifying campaign. Three home wins all but guarantee progress to the knockout phase.

A positive result would also extend the promising trend the Gunners have set since their opening-day league loss to Liverpool. They’re on a seven-match unbeaten run with a relatively attractive schedule until early November.

Basel will not be an easy target—the Swiss side has slain English giants in the past. They have also dominated the Swiss Super League, having won nine of nine matches while conceding just seven goals.

With respect, that competition will have not had the quality of Arsenal.

That’s the case even though we can expect manager Arsène Wenger to adjust his starting XI. Midfielder Francis Coquelin will miss out, having re-injured his right knee on Saturday. That means a start for Granit Xhaka against his former club.

Although Wenger did not rotate his side against Paris-Saint Germain, this looks like an opportunity to deploy some members of his strong squad. Based on their performances against Nottingham Forest in the League Cup, Kieran Gibbs, Mohamed Elneny, and Lucas Perez merit consideration.

Will Wenger go for this scale of change in a Champions League match? It would break from his usual practice, but four goals by the second string at Nottingham Forest point to a wealth of worthy attacking options.

The incoming quartet would bring a slightly different style of play from that of the vanquishers of Chelsea. A little less aggression and a little more flow in midfield, primarily. Lucas and Alexis Sanchez interchanging in attack could also cause problems for a Basel defense unaccustomed to their levels of speed and tenacity.

Of course, the XI Wenger sent out against Chelsea, with just Xhaka in for Coquelin, would be just as daunting a proposition for the visitors.

Key Matchup

Mesut Özil against Taulant Xhaka. Arsenal’s playmaker ran the show against Chelsea. His skills and smarts pose a constant menace to opposition defenders. Xhaka, facing his brother’s new team, will have to marshal his midfield teammates to minimize the space Özil can exploit.

Where to Worry

Arsenal’s biggest concern should be overconfidence. The Gunners look convincing but can’t take any match for granted. They’ll need to bring comparable intensity and swiftness of thought to this encounter, even if on paper the opposition is weaker. Because we’ve seen the consequences of not doing that in the past.

Match Verdict

I’m not entirely convinced by the momentum factor in football; I’ve never seen statistics to support the narrative of a team on a roll. So in this case, the focus, form, and quality Arsenal can showcase in 18 players will most likely be too much for Basel.

Players to Watch

Arsenal. Granit Xhaka. Arsenal’s Swiss acquisition will have a chance to run this match from deep in the midfield. He launches attacks in a different way than Coquelin does—incisive passing vs. aggressive interception—and it will be interesting to watch Arsenal’s attack flow with Xhaka in charge.

Basel. Seydou Doumbia. Basel’s Ivorian striker, who has been rotated like Swiss clockwork with target man Marc Janko, will likely get the call with his teammate injured. Doumbia has six league goals in eight league appearances.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Match Preview, PSG v Arsenal: The Setup

Arsenal’s initial match of the Champions League campaign in Paris on Tuesday carries both peril and potential.

On paper, it’s the toughest of the Gunners’ group stage encounters. The runaway Ligue 1 champions are the top seed and recent four-time quarterfinalists in this competition. Arsenal also have a habit of starting the Champions League slowly, if not stupidly, losing the last two openers.

You wouldn’t fancy a reversal of that trend against one of Europe’s free-spending clubs. But other factors may weigh in Arsenal’s favor this time.

The biggest advantage is disarray at PSG. The club cashiered Laurent Blanc at the end of last season and hired Unai Emery from Seville, where he won an unprecedented three consecutive Europa League titles. The two managers’ philosophies differ, and a roster largely of Blanc’s making hasn’t easily adapted.

The Parisians also lost their most potent offensive threat, striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Without their Swedish talisman, PSG have so far lacked a player capable of rescuing them from pedestrian displays. They’ve labored in three of four Ligue 1 matches, including Friday’s home draw with Saint-Etienne.

Part of those struggles can be attributed to defensive injuries. Team captain Thiago Silva has been out; Maxwell, Serge Aurier, and Layvin Kurzawa have also missed time. With the exits of David Luiz and Gregory Van Der Wiel, PSG had only one experienced defender, Marquinos, by the end of the Saint-Etienne match.

Will Arsenal’s offensive threat be enough to capitalize? In eight halves of league play, the Gunners seemed fluid in one, the first half at Watford. They mustered just one non-penalty shot on target in Saturday’s 2-1 victory over Southampton. That came from center back Laurent Koscielny, a bicycle-kick equalizer.

In truth, though, manager Arsène Wenger hasn’t yet fielded his first-choice attacking unit. Center forward Olivier Giroud has only appeared as a substitute, playmaker Mesut Özil had limited action in the season’s first two matches, and Alexis played just a half-hour on Saturday.

If Granit Xhaka and Aaron Ramsey are also candidates for the first XI, we’d have to say the Gunners haven’t deployed their firepower in full.

Whether Wenger decides to open up in Paris is an intriguing question. When Arsenal have had poor results in Europe, the cause has most often been unwise aggression. The Gunners have been undone by continentals’ tactical savvy and efficient finishing. So there’s a case for a more circumspect approach here.

That would include enhanced positional awareness and flow in the midfield. PSG’s biggest strength, developed under Blanc, is in the center of the park. Marco Veratti, Blaise Matuidi, Thiago Motta, and Adrien Rabiot are all smooth conductors of play. It wouldn’t be a surprise for Wenger to choose Xhaka and Mohammed Elneny as a partnership to try to counter PSG there.

Their relative freshness—and that of their teammates farther forward--gives the manager flexibility he’s rarely enjoyed. As he remarked in his pre-match press conference, “I haven’t decided. The players don’t know the team.”

How he clarifies his thinking will be telling.

Key Matchup

Nacho Monreal against Lucas Moura. What dynamism PSG have generated thus far has come from the Brazilian winger. He’s a crafty presence, shown by the average of 4.1 dribbles he’s attempted every 90 minutes he’s played. Monreal held up well as Southampton tried to isolate him. He’ll need a similar performance and more support against Lucas.

Where to Worry

Arsenal’s midfield left too many gaps against Southampton, especially in the first 20 minutes. The Gunners can’t allow their hosts’ slick passers time to find their forwards, even if the likes of Edison Cavani and Angel Di María have been less than efficient in front of goal.

Match Verdict

Midfield skill will be on display, but the sides’ strengths in this area will likely cancel each other out. Loose defending permits a goal each. Arsenal emerges with a draw in its toughest group match.

Players to Watch

Arsenal. Olivier Giroud. The Frenchman has an opportunity to silence some of his homeland critics. He’ll face a PSG backline unsettled by injury and unused to his brand of physical play.

PSG. Angel Di María. The Argentine is PSG’s creative mind. He’s capable of magical moments off the dribble, with the pass, and on free kicks.

Friday, September 9, 2016

Match Preview, Arsenal v Southampton: New Boys Rewrite Old Tale

After an eventful international break, Arsenal host Southampton on Saturday. It will be the first home match since the ignominious, season-opening loss to Liverpool. That seems long ago.

The Emirates Stadium will see a substantially different squad this weekend. Not only are the team’s top players—Alexis, Mesut Özil, Laurent Koscielny—now ready for action, they will be joined by recent arrivals Shkodran Mustafi and Lucas Pérez.

As a result, manager Arsène Wenger has a deeper pool of talent and experience to plumb for his starting lineup. Wenger admitted as much in his pre-match press conference, saying “It’s the first time in a long time that I’ve had a team of what you can call men ready to compete.”

Southampton will, as always, test how ready these Gunners are.

Although three league matches aren’t enough to determine patterns of play and statistical trends, it does seem that new Saints manager Claude Puel is departing from the style of his predecessor Ronald Koeman. As Adrian Clarke explains in his “Chalkboard” segment on the Official Arsenal Weekly Podcast, Puel has installed a 4-4-2 formation with a midfield diamond of Oriol Romeu, Steven Davis, Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg, and Dusan Tadic.

This presents two opportunities to Arsenal. The Gunners can gain numerical superiority in the midfield and weave their way around their counterparts, using the skill and vision of Granit Xhaka, Santi Cazorla, and Özil to full effect. They can also exploit openings created when Southampton’s fullbacks advance to provide width to the attack. The runs of Alexis and Theo Walcott could be especially dangerous in this respect.

Whatever the path forward, the key will be finishing the chances the Gunners create. That was obviously the downfall in this fixture last season, when Arsenal took 22 shots, put 11 on target, and drew a blank. In two of three matches so far this season, scoring has not been a problem—while Southampton have failed to prevent their opponents from scoring each time out. Perhaps we can expect a different dynamic from this encounter.

Arsenal’s defense will most likely have a different look. Mustafi will probably take over from Rob Holding beside Koscielny, giving the Gunners an experienced, aggressive central defensive tandem. Mustafi’s decision-making will be tested right away by the wily and speedy Saints attackers Nathan Redmond and Shane Long.

In all, there should be plenty of new developments to hold the interest in this one. Let’s hope the conclusion differs from those of recent Arsenal-Southampton meetings, of which only one of the past six produced an Arsenal win.

Key Matchup

Granit Xhaka against Dusan Tadic. These two will determine which team dictates play. Tadic provides the creativity for Southampton, while Xhaka patrols the opposition’s creative zone and launches Arsenal. How each fulfills his respective offensive role while hindering his opponent will influence the course of the match.

Where to Worry

The biggest Arsenal concern is integrating new arrivals and recent returnees. How well do Mustafi and Koscielny gel at the center of the defense? Is Olivier Giroud ready to lead the line again, and can he destabilize the powerful Southampton defenders José Fonte and Virgil Van Dijk? Or will the more mobile Pérez be introduced right away, and, if so, how will he cope with the Premier League’s physicality?

Match Verdict

A protracted tactical contest in the midfield swings Arsenal’s way thanks to the mobility, variety, and intelligence of the Gunners’ front line.

Players to Watch

Arsenal. Mesut Özil. This team is so much more threatening with the German playmaker in the lineup. He’s a genius at manipulating space and buying time to make the killer pass. He can also get himself into promising scoring positions, as he did in the most recent league match against Watford and in this fixture last season.

Southampton. Fraser Forster. The Saints’ #1 suffered an arm injury on England duty, but Puel says he should be ready for Saturday. Forster stood on his head in this fixture last season, and a similar performance would frustrate Arsenal and its fans.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

The Arsenal: Betwixt and Between

In the summer of 2016, Arsenal finds itself in an enviable yet unenviable position.

Enviable in that the first team achieved its best finish since 2005 in the Premier League and has the strongest imaginable financial foundation. But the club’s spot is not so desirable because its strengths have raised expectations to hysterical levels.

Commentators professional and amateur have found benefits, either monetary or emotional, in feeding the hysteria. Speculation and outrage dominate, especially during the summer silly season, when no meaningful on-field action is around to grab our attention.

Three years ago, I began taking advantage of that downtime to assess Arsenal’s state. It’s an unavoidably presumptuous exercise because I am not privy to leadership discussions at the club, knowledgeable about performance objectives there, or experienced in attempting to achieve comparable objectives in the professional sports business.

Still, I think it’s both important and interesting to analyze the club’s situation based on specific developments. Doing so reduces the effects of transfer Twitter-tattle and helps us understand how Arsenal has evolved.

Indicators of progress

The factors that would advance the club haven’t changed substantially since 2013; their influence on Arsenal’s fortunes has varied over the years, though. Here’s an update.

1. The club’s own financial strength. Clear. Arsenal appear to have more money in the bank than any other club in world football, at least according to the reliable Swiss Ramble blog ("Arsenal – Brass in Pocket” ). The Arsenal Supporters’ Trust  estimates the May cash balance at almost £200 million, with about half that sum available to fund player acquisitions and increases in the wage bill. This doesn’t even include Arsenal’s take of the Premier League broadcast revenue from the 2015-16 campaign—the highest such figure ever--£101 million. This means that manager Arsène Wenger and his staff have the wherewithal to continue to acquire talent at the level of Mesut Özil, Alexis Sanchez, and Petr Cech.

2. The different level of transfer target. Steady success. Arsenal started its off-season business with the acquisition of the young yet accomplished Swiss midfielder Granit Xhaka. He showed his worth as one of the top performers at this summer’s European Championships. As such, his arrival solidifies the trend that began in earnest with Özil in 2013, when Arsenal again became a feasible destination for the upper echelon of players. If the club can convince one or even two more outstanding talents to join before current transfer window closes, it will confirm that it’s operating in exclusive territory.

3. Unrest elsewhere. Deceptively promising. Although Antonio Conte, Pep Guardiola, and Jose Mourinho all bring impressive credentials to their new roles at Chelsea, Manchester City, and Manchester United, respectively, and although their new employers will provide financial backing for massive overhauls, the trio may not enjoy immediate success. That’s because they have to integrate players unfamiliar to each other, the management style, and the league. As a result, Wenger and Arsenal may have a window of opportunity in 2016-17 before the challenge gets more formidable the following season.

4. Continuity in Arsenal’s management and playing squad. Reasonable but not of unquestionable value. A year ago, Wenger touted the team’s chemistry and chose the unconventional strategy of relying on that collective understanding to carry Arsenal to glory. That choice did not pay off for the Gunners, while it did, in a fashion, for Claudio Ranieri and title-winners Leicester City. In the face of the correlation between financial outlay and league position, it’s hard to see this approach succeeding again. More promising would be a mix of continuity and top-level acquisitions, particularly in the attacking contingent.

5. Winning mentality of the current squad. Displayed in spurts. The group that carried Arsenal to two FA Cups remains in large part, and the league results against top competition (P8 W4 D3 L1 against other top-five teams) show that the team can still deliver on the day. Now the focus will have to be on playing at the same level against teams lower in the table; the defeat to Swansea and draws against West Ham and Crystal Palace ruined any chance of a spring run to close the gap with Leicester.

6. Exits of unwanted players. Manageable. It’s a good bet that Mathieu Debuchy will leave Arsenal after his agitations resulted in a loan move in January, while the midfield trio of Mikel Arteta, Mathieu Flamini, and Tomas Rosicky all departed at the expirations of their contracts. Calling any of them unwanted would be unfair, but age and injury limited their contributions on the pitch. The question is whether any of the remaining players can attain their influence off it.

7. Impact of Financial Fair Play (FFP). Negligible. The Premier League’s broadcast windfall and UEFA’s loose enforcement mean that spending on players has few, if any, restrictions. It’s not the ideal scenario as Arsenal planned for the long-term, so the club will need to adapt to the new landscape.

Signs of stagnation

1. The existing distance between Arsenal and the top of the table. Mixed signals, again. Arsenal amassed four fewer points (71) than in the previous season and finished with eight points fewer than it collected in 2013-14. The Gunners couldn’t capitalize when their traditional rivals for the title faltered. Yet the runner-up finish was Arsenal’s best overall showing in 11 years, and, as noted above, the performance against top opposition was strong. Delivering similar results throughout the league campaign will be required as the competition intensifies.

2. The risk-averse transfer approach. Done. Although Arsenal won’t spend for the sake of spending, the club has displayed its willingness to take financial risks on proven talents like Sanchez, potential stars like Xhaka, and promising youngsters like Calum Chambers. Considerations other than cost—ability level, playing style, and mental outlook—seem to be more influential in the efforts to acquire players.

3. Lack of experience in transfers at the high level. Righted. Arsenal remain at the table with other elite clubs, having successfully negotiated for players with Real Madrid, Barcelona, Manchester United, and Chelsea in recent years. Whether that experience is of any benefit in this summer’s transfer dealings, only the next five weeks will tell.

4. Uncertain enforcement of FFP. Pointless. See #7 above. As in last year’s assessment, the main advantage Arsenal may have relates to home-grown players. So far, none of the departing players belonged to that category, leaving Arsenal with 10 home-grown players and five under-21 players among the 31 currently listed on the club’s first-team roster. The club can make a maximum of 25 over-21 players eligible for Premier League competition (under-21’s don’t count), of which no more than 17 can be non-home-grown. Suffice it to say, Arsenal enjoy considerable flexibility here, while teams recruiting lots of players from abroad may not.

5. The composition of the Arsenal board. Unchanged and concerning. The homogeneity of the Arsenal board receives a lot less scrutiny than transfer activity, tactical approaches, and even club finances, but it carries the biggest risk for the club. When Wenger moves away from managing the first team, a small group of white males will plan for and decide his successor. Diverse views tend to lead to sounder decisions in such circumstances.

Where things stand

This review suggests that progress at Arsenal has slowed somewhat over the past year. The long-term arc is definitely positive, but there are signs that the club is finding it challenging to reach greater heights. That shouldn’t be surprising in an extremely competitive field such as the Premier League.

Saturday, July 23, 2016

RC Lens 1 Arsenal 1: Three Observations

Arsenal’s first activity of the season was a lively 1-1 draw with RC Lens in Friday’s friendly at the Stade Bollaert-Delelis.

If the point of a pre-season encounter were the outcome, we’d focus on Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s equalizing goal in the 81st minute and the mistake by Calum Chambers that led to Mathias Autret’s first-half opener.

But the result isn’t the objective of these matches; instead, manager Arsène Wenger will focus on how the match improved the team’s fitness and whether any players displayed a readiness to make an individual impact in the coming season.

Here are three observations of Arsenal’s progress toward those objectives.

Lens gave Arsenal a proper workout

The French Ligue 2 side, set to open the season next Friday, put in a performance full of energy. Lens moved the ball quickly, and without they ball they put consistent pressure on Arsenal’s midfield and center halves.

This level of activity forced Arsenal to think and move quickly from the outset. The Gunners’ decision-making was acceptable, especially for a first outing, but as one might expect the execution was spotty. On a number of occasions someone would attempt a pass through Lens’ back line, only to discover that a forward teammate had run into a different area.

In midfield, misplaced passes were noticeable, as Arsenal could not achieve the precision needed to avoid Lens pressure.

Meanwhile, the defensive line Lens chose, relatively high by the standards of lower-league teams Arsenal face, gave Gunners’ forwards room to run. Theo Walcott was particularly active in the first half in his attempts to exploit the space.

The absence of a true playmaker, such as Mesut Özil, Aaron Ramsey, Jack Wilshere, or Santi Cazorla, created the opportunity for a more mobile attacking midfield, and Alex Iwobi and Jeff Reine-Adelaide in the first half and Joel Campbell and Oxlade-Chamberlain in the second used the occasion to shift positions quite a bit. They’ll all feel like they exerted themselves.

The backup fullbacks started to state their case

Mathieu Debuchy and Kieran Gibbs, both definite Premier League starters a couple of years ago, found themselves sidelined last season by injury and the impressive performances of Hector Bellerin and Nacho Monreal. It seemed the pair recognized the need to impress this pre-season, putting in noticeable effort and making an impact.

Playing the first 45 minutes, Debuchy sought out Walcott on the right flank with several clever passes and charged forward himself on a number of occasions. He was aggressive defensively as well, eventually picking up a rare friendly yellow card.

Gibbs, who replaced Monreal at halftime, delivered one of the match’s best individual performances. He limited Lens’ effectiveness on his flank and protected the young center half Krystian Bielik. Going forward, Gibbs showed clever movement, a deft touch, and an eye for a pass. His cutback for Campbell led to a shot on target.

The prospects for Debuchy and Gibbs—either to secure more playing time with Arsenal or to land a move to a starting position elsewhere—won’t have been harmed by their efforts Friday.

Ox looks in fine pre-season form

Oxlade-Chamberlain has a knack for the eye-catching pre-season goal. In last summer’s Charity Shield against Chelsea, he netted the winner by curling the ball in with his weaker left foot. On Friday, he gathered Serge Gnabry’s pass on the right and chipped it delicately into the upper left corner of the Lens goal.

That equalizer was a reward for a sturdy second-half performance. After a halting season of injury and iffy form, Oxlade-Chamberlain showed he’s ready to take on opponents, including the mammoth Lens center half Abdoul Ba. He also synchronized well with Campbell, Gnabry, and Alex Iwobi as Arsenal moved forward.

Although we shouldn’t draw any tactical conclusions from this initial runout, it was interesting to see Oxlade-Chamberlain exchange positions with Iwobi in central midfield as well. That will be a crowded area in the Arsenal squad, with Ramsey, Cazorla, Wilshere, Mohammed Elneny, and Granit Xhaka all potential starters.

Still, if playing there improves Oxlade-Chamberlain’s vision, decision-making, and confidence for the season ahead, the team will benefit. His physical preparation looks quite advanced already.

Extra time

Francis Coquelin is another player who looks ready to fight for a role. He knows Arsenal have already made a major acquisition for his position, bringing in Xhaka from Borussia Mönchengladbach. The French defensive midfielder, one of the first names on the team sheet throughout 2015, again has to prove his worth.

On Friday, he got to work quickly. Coquelin made two full-blooded but fair tackles in the first 12 minutes and was one of only two Arsenal players, with captain Per Mertesacker, to complete the full match. He was a little messy with the ball and understandably tired by the end of 90 minutes, but Coquelin showed he’s up for the challenge Xhaka’s arrival presents him.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

How Can Arsenal Get the Most from Three Summer Stars

Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger faces a fascinating set of decisions as he prepares for the 2016-17 season.

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.

Possible formations

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.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Arsenal's New Midfield Mixes

The acquisition of the Swiss international Granit Xhaka will change the mix in the Arsenal midfield. That’s an indisputable and welcome development.

It’s easy to see Xhaka as a Mikel Arteta 2.0, a cultured distributor of the ball, an adept transition figure between defense and attack. The new boy also carries physical aggressiveness, as his disciplinary record in the Bundesliga shows.

But the Xhaka effect will be decisive only in the relationships he develops with teammates. These aren’t necessarily duos; the 4-2-3-1 formation recently preferred by manager Arsène Wenger favors the two-player combination, but Xhaka’s abilities might just encourage Wenger to experiment with other setups.

This piece looks at some of the potential combinations and tactical structures involving Xhaka.

Granit Xhaka-Santi Cazorla

If the choice of midfielders to ground the 4-2-3-1 relied on demonstrated skill levels alone, the strongest case probably lies with Xhaka and Spaniard Santi Cazorla.

This pair would offer several advantages, especially two effective styles of transition play, Xhaka’s long ball accuracy and Cazorla’s dribbling. Opponents would find it difficult to press this midfield because the close control and speed of ball movement would leave pressing midfielders chasing the play rather than influencing it.

The “Cazaka” combination would also be savvy and strong defensively. Although he arrived at Arsenal as a more forward-minded player, Cazorla has shown a knack for positioning himself to defend and for joining forces with teammates to limit opponents’ danger. His work with left back Nacho Monreal on Leicester City’s dynamic Riyad Mahrez in the 5-2 destruction of the eventual champions stood out in this respect.

Where this pairing might struggle is in offensive production. Yes, Cazorla was one of the team’s most prolific providers of key passes before his knee injury in early November 2015. So there’s little question the offense has flowed better with him than without.

The issue is actually putting the ball into the back of the net, a vital component of the game that Arsenal largely lacked in comparison with its competition last season. Cazorla scored no goals from 23 non-penalty shots in the 2015-16 Premier League, after having taken 87 shots to score one goal that wasn’t a penalty the season before. Xhaka’s goal output wasn’t much better: two goals from 32 shots, excluding one penalty, in the 2015-16 Bundesliga and two goals from 61 shots the season before. (Stats from whoscored.com)

Granit Xhaka-Aaron Ramsey

Can Xhaka, in his similarities to Arteta, help Aaron Ramsey regain the form of his breakout year of 2013-14? That’s the compelling prospect many Arsenal supporters have been entertaining since the club secured Xhaka’s services. The theory is that Xhaka can serve as both anchor and distributor, allowing Ramsey to take a freer role, whether in a 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3 formation.

In a 4-2-3-1 with Arteta three seasons ago, the Welshman scored 10 league goals and provided eight assists. He also succeeded in 3.3 tackles per game of 5.0 attempted, both career league highs. Ramsey's energetic defending has been on display at Euro 2016, where he and Xhaka were the top two players through four matches in regaining possession in the final third. On that evidence, the potential of a “Xhaksey” midfield combination looks enticing.

One wonders whether it could unlock deep-lying defenses in the way a grouping with Cazorla might, because the Spaniard’s creativity is impossible to duplicate and nearly impossible to repress for a full 90 minutes. Xhaka and Ramsey might also be less adept against a midfield press.

Those risks aren’t likely to prevent Wenger from experimenting with Xhaka and Ramsey together, possibly even with Cazorla (“Cazakasey”?) or Jack Wilshere (“Cazakashire”) as a midfield three. Either alignment would depend on the traits additional acquisitions bring to Arsenal’s forward line.

Granit Xhaka-Jack Wilshere

Wilshere could join with Xhaka in ways that neither Ramsey nor Cazorla could by themselves.

Like Ramsey, Wilshere can be a dynamic presence in midfield. He propels Arsenal forward by running at defenders and unsettling them. Wilshere also possesses vision, particularly in attack, and the ability to orchestrate intricate passing moves in the manner of Cazorla.

This partnership would be a particularly spiky one: Both Xhaka and Wilshere have displayed a tendency to mix it up with opponents and a willingness to voice displeasure with teammates. Their collaboration would definitely revise Arsenal’s “too nice” image.

Francis Coquelin-Granit Xhaka

In a similar way, aesthetic and interpersonal nicety would not characterize a pairing of Xhaka and Francis Coquelin. Together, they’d form a physical, combative midfield.

We know what we have with Coquelin—a player quick into the tackle, disciplined in his positioning, and underrated in his passing. His qualities have shone in away matches against top opposition, when Arsenal needed to absorb pressure and thwart creativity; his outstanding performance at Manchester City in January 2014 is a prime example.

Similar scenarios might call for his inclusion alongside Xhaka. In addition to their defensive tenacity, Coquelin and Xhaka can find target man Olivier Giroud with long passes to relieve the pressure. But they wouldn’t bring much attacking dynamism.

Granit Xhaka-Mohammed Elneny

Fluidity would be the watchword of Arsenal’s two newest (as of this writing) midfielders in a tandem. Both are clever in the use of space, frequently moving to provide a passing option to teammates.

Depending on the match or season scenario, playing with Xhaka might encourage Elneny to take a few more risks with his own passes. He seemed restrained after he joined Arsenal during the January transfer window, which is understandable for someone in a new league and a new team itself struggling for consistency. Perhaps the stability of Xhaka would make Elneny into a more dynamic passer; we already know he’s a dynamic runner without the ball.

Other possibilities

Midfield lineups featuring existing Arsenal players have varied styles and track records, and we’ll not delve into those here. The most successful was the duo of Coquelin and Cazorla, which established the platform for the Gunners’ strong 2015.

The intrigue now surrounds Xhaka. In particular, will he and any other arrivals enable a change in formation? On the surface, he seems the type of midfielder who doesn’t need a close partner, at least against some opponents. If that’s the case, we may well see a midfield three featuring him with two of Ramsey, Cazorla, and Wilshere or a 4-1-4-1 with different personnel.

These are all exciting prospects, even without the arrival of attacking talent, as Arsenal’s 2016-17 season approaches.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Who Will Fire Arsenal Forward as Captain?

Arsenal’s new and potential players are dominating the discussion at the moment, but transfer talk doesn’t make issues facing the club’s existing playing staff any less important.

In particular, there’s the club captaincy, soon to be vacant with the departure of Mikel Arteta.

Arteta served in this capacity for two seasons. Despite the injuries that limited his involvement on the field, he was an influential figure behind the scenes and a classy representative of the club in public.

Activity in those spheres will be priorities for Arteta’s successor. As I wrote during the 2014-15 season in "The Passion of Mikel Arteta," the Arsenal captaincy has evolved during Arsène Wenger’s tenure from favoring firebrands on the field (Tony Adams, Patrick Vieira) to rewarding the first-team’s stars (Thierry Henry, Cesc Fabregas, Robin Van Persie) to focusing on players with professional management qualities (Thomas Vermaelen and Arteta).

It’s likely that Wenger and his associates will be looking for another ambassador who can speak to all the club’s audiences from boardrooms to the terraces. The financial and cultural positions of the club demand that kind of professionalism from its playing spokesman.

We should keep this notion in mind as we evaluate the candidates to succeed Arteta as Arsenal captain. Although a dark horse might arrive, the following players seem the most likely nominees.

Per Mertesacker

Arteta’s chief deputy, Mertesacker was the smiling bailiff of the first team’s kangaroo court, enforcing team rules and collecting fines. The German was also the on-field captain for the majority of Arsenal’s Premier League matches in 2015-16. Arteta and Vermaelen before him served as vice-captains before being elevated to the captaincy, so that pattern would put Mertesacker first in line.

Mertesacker is comfortable in his own skin, skilled with the media, and an instigator of much camaraderie as well as honest talk. Those qualities would make him an effective club captain.

However, his influence on the field waned as the 2015-16 campaign concluded. He ceded his spot in the center of Arsenal’s defense to Gabriel, as Wenger explored the potential of a more aggressive pairing of Gabriel and Laurent Koscielny. Mertesacker will turn 32 in late September, meaning his playing time probably won’t increase, and Wenger may prefer to name a more likely starter as captain.

Laurent Koscielny

As the French national team prepared to kick off the European Championships, reports emerged from France that Koscielny had been tapped to take over the Arsenal captaincy. It’s not a crazy notion: He’s been the team’s most consistent performer in the area of the pitch that seems to grow captains.

Indeed, Koscielny started 33 Premier League matches, second most on the team after Nacho Monreal, and wore the captain’s armband as the season concluded, even when titular vice-captain Santi Cazorla returned for the final match.

The question is whether leadership by example on the field of play is sufficient in this captaincy era. By his own admission, Koscielny is not one to rally his teammates vocally, nor does he seem in his element with the board, the media, and supporters. He’d be a reserved, but perhaps an effective, spokesman.

Petr Cech

Cech warmed quickly to the Arsenal club culture and presented the image of a thoughtful, articulate, and responsible man to supporters and the media. His is the level of professionalism we have come to expect from Arsenal captains.

The Czech keeper is accomplished – having won the Premier League and the Champions League with Chelsea – and commands the respect of his teammates. He developed an easy rapport with Mertesacker, in particular, and visibly supported others during several difficult stretches of games. He was also, despite some shaky moments on long-range shots, one of the team’s top performers overall.

Still, he’s been at the club only a year and plays in a position whose occupants have never served as club captain under Wenger.

Santi Cazorla

The Spanish midfielder was Arteta’s other vice-captain. He led the team in matches early in the season when Arteta and Mertesacker did not play. Cazorla suffered a lengthy injury absence from November until late in the season, and when he returned to the starting XI on the last day, he did not regain the captain’s armband.

Cazorla would be a jovial and unruffled captain, imparting his good humor on teammates and onlookers. He’d certainly be able to charm audiences and set an example of skillful play, but his laid-back demeanor and serviceable English might not contribute to a successful club captaincy.

Aaron Ramsey

Ramsey is an intriguing candidate. He’d be a young captain, like Fabregas in that respect, one who’s not visibly vocal, and one who hasn’t yet made a solid starting position his.

All that said, he possesses the professional qualities that the club has valued in its recent captains. You can see Ramsey being equally comfortable in conversations with board members, the media, teammates, and fans. Perhaps that’s because he doesn’t take many risks in those interactions. Yet he’d represent the club very well.

Jack Wilshere

A Wilshere captaincy would be all about passion. He loves the club and relates to its fans, as his two famous taunts toward Tottenham showed. Wilshere’s also not afraid to make his point to more senior teammates.

Naming Wilshere captain would buck the trend of professional management, though. He’d cause controversy at some point, and that eventuality is probably enough to dissuade the club from making him one of its most visible public figures.

Our choice

As with any group of candidates, these potential Arsenal captains each bring strengths and weaknesses. My own preference, knowing nothing about how the whole team interacts on a daily basis, would be for Cech. He seems to instill confidence in others, represents the club expertly, and brings a distinctive, winning perspective.

Those might be misperceptions, or they might be qualities that Wenger sees in other candidates as well. Whoever the captain, the new dynamics of leadership will be interesting to watch.