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

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.

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

When to Expect Arsenal's Next Transfer

Last week’s arrival of the skillful and feisty Swiss midfielder Granit Xhaka seemed perfectly coordinated with the unlikely St. Totteringham’s Day of May 22nd to tamp down unrest in the Arsenal fanbase.

Yet after the revelations of this spring, you have to wonder how widespread that unrest is.

The situation on the ground and in the ground

In particular, all the hullabaloo and lobbying from three supporter groups resulted in only the most tepid and amateurish of protests during Arsenal’s 1-0 win over Norwich on April 30th. This led some observers, Arseblog’s Tim Stillman prominent among them, to suggest that social media produce an inaccurate representation of Arsenal support.

That certainly jibed with my experience at the Crystal Palace and West Bromwich Albion matches earlier in April. There was localized grumpiness and limited encouragement during the uninspired display against Palace, but I would describe the environment as disinterested rather than toxic. Two early goals against West Brom and a different fan demographic made that a more festive affair.

The atmosphere at these matches surprised me a little, because with my support restricted by distance to television, blogs, and Twitter, I had feared outright revolt in person. What I got instead was more evidence that the self-regard, outrage, and hyperbole we witness through social media aren’t pervasive among our fellow supporters.

How time rolls

In addition to attitude, social media tends to warp the sense of time. The immediacy of the vehicle, especially Twitter, creates an endless desire for news and feedback. But, in the real time experienced by most people, revelations and faux-revelations are not constant.

It’s worth remembering the different dynamics of virtual and earthbound existence during the close season. The patterns of the league and cup competitions aren’t there to guide us through the summer months, but the appetites and expectations driven by social media don’t abate.

To satisfy these desires, many fans look to the club’s player acquisitions. Intensified by print and broadcast media, supporters’ hunger for transfer news has further distorted reality. Now, we’ve reached the point where some observers expect their own needs for news to drive the club’s decisions. As if solipsism and ceaseless satisfaction of the Arsenal twitterati should somehow guide the business.

When manager Arsène Wenger responded to questions about fan discontent by saying “I’m sorry if I can’t keep [everyone] 100 percent happy,” he was referring to the team’s overall performance and its inability to sustain a challenge for the league title. But he could just as easily have been speaking about the way the club conducts its business activities.

Alternatives to PR priority

It doesn’t, for example, let public relations become the dominant priority during the transfer season. That might be an obvious point, considering the futile clamoring of supporters and observers for the acquisition of a top center forward since 2013. Still, Arsenal officials do very little to manage perceptions of what positions need to be filled, and they certainly don’t measure acquisitions to fit the social media news cycle.

More important are the club’s background work, the clarity of negotiations, and the preferences of incoming players. In the case of Xhaka, Arsenal’s scouts “have been watching him for a long time,” in the words of Wenger; Xhaka confirmed that the manager had made the initial contact in mid-2015: “It was a year ago, I was almost speechless when he called!”

From the outside, we can’t know how straightforward the negotiations with Xhaka’s representatives and former club Borussia Mönchengladbach were. The news cycle and popular appetites encourage misinformation, as when stories emerged that Arsenal had lowballed the German club. All we can assess is the outcome, which suggests very little fuss.

The timing also depended on Xhaka’s interest in concluding the move before the start of the European Championships on June 10.

So if any fans are thinking that their own desires and perceptions had anything to do with these events—the position Arsenal are filling, the player’s identity, the unfolding of negotiations, the arrangement of the announcement--all the evidence indicates other factors drove the business.

At the other end of the transfer period, when moves are about to be cut off for four months, the forces could be different. Even so, Arsenal isn’t likely to act based on fans’ longings. Opportunities might materialize, such as when playmaker Mesut Özil became available in late summer 2014. Now that the club has greater, perhaps unprecedented, financial stability, we can expect it to be a buyer more often than a seller in those situations.

No matter what the scenario, the plan for the business and the sporting strategy will guide decisions. Our own personal or collective preferences of what position, which player, or when won’t.

Although a football club’s business is entertainment, Arsenal’s genre isn’t fantasy.