Arsenal's Array of Midfield Options Can Make the Difference in Title Race
Arsenal and Arsene Wenger have had a phenomenal start to the Premier League season, and much of the credit can be attributed to the growing and glowing riches in midfield—the most frightening collection of midfielders in Europe.
The Gunners have taken 16 points from the last 18 available to lead the Premier League table while also sitting on the verge of qualification to the Champions League knockout stages. Wenger's team has only lost once from their last 22 matches in all competitions and are now rightfully regarded as major title contenders.
The midfield that the Frenchman has assembled is formidable to say the least. It is packed with talent of all types, shapes and sizes. Each and every player would command a spot in any other Premier League team, but Wenger and Arsenal can select them all. Unfortunately, not all at the same time.
The biggest headache Le Prof will face this season is not from the questions the opposition will ask of his team, it is which midfielders to select.
Here, Bleacher Report takes a look at Arsenal's vast array of midfield talent and offers why they could make a difference in the title chase.
Ryo Miyaichi: The 20-year-old Japanese has only featured once for Arsenal this season, and that was an 18-minute cameo against Stoke City. The 6'0" winger-cum-attacker, out of contract in 2015 according to TransferMarkt, has been on loan three times in the last two seasons and could benefit from another loan deal. He is not expected to feature much this season given the riches on offer.
Abou Diaby: Diaby is fast becoming the forgotten man at Arsenal. The French international is recuperating through ninth recorded injury in the last three years according to TransferMarkt. Also out of contract in 2015, Diaby has not been given a return to playing date from his latest injury and is not expected to return this season.
Emmanuel Frimpong: Like Diaby, Frimpong has endured an injury plagued time at Arsenal. The Ghanaian has been at the club since he was nine. However, over the last two seasons he has endured two cruciate ligament ruptures.
Thomas Eisfeld: The German youth international joined the Gunners on a long-term deal in 2012 from Borussia Dortmund. The 20-year-old has established himself as an important part of the reserves and has featured just twice for the Gunners in League Cup action. Next season will be hugely important for him.
Jack Wilshere: Position LM, CM, ACM, DCM
Jack Wilshere has long been held as England's and Arsenal's great hope.
The 21-year-old is still on the road to a full recovery after missing the entirety of the 2011-12 campaign through injury. Since then he has played 44 matches for the Gunners but is still showing signs of ring rust.
Arsenal fans will not see the best from Wilshere until towards the end of the season when he should have, at least, another 25 games under his belt. He lacks pace from a standing start and offers a limited amount of attacking penetration from wide positions. When he is moved inside, however, his passing is crisp, clever and full of creativity.
He will eventually challenge for the central midfield positions. He has a great engine, superb technique and that perfect amount of devilment that all great midfielders possess. When the World Cup comes around next summer, Wilshere will be the man that Roy Hodgson builds his team around—not Steven Gerrard or Frank Lampard.
Santi Cazorla: Position LM, ACM
Santi Cazorla was one of the best players the Premier League had to offer last season. The very fact that he was not even mentioned among Gareth Bale, Luis Suarez and Robin van Persie for the player of the year awards is mystifying.
Last term he weighed in with 12 goals and 11 assists and played in every single league game in what amounted to his debut season. Who Scored rated the Spaniard as the third-best player in the league and awarded him a superb 7.83 on his overall performance, just 0.06 behind double player of the year Bale.
The 28-year-old has only played three games for Arsenal this season due to an ankle injury. It says much that they have not missed the Spanish international one iota.
Cazorla may feel a little aggrieved when he does return to first-team action as Mesut Ozil seems to have claimed the former Villarreal and Malaga man's favored position. Like Wilshere, Cazorla does not possess the kind of pace needed for devastating wing play. He is, however, a far trickier customer with the ball at his feet and is a phenomenal dribbler.
Just as creative as Ozil, Cazorla is more than capable of slotting in on the left or through the center as Ozil moves to the left or right. It is more likely though that Santi, Ozil and Wilshere will trade positions as Lukas Podolski looks on forlornly.
Mikel Arteta: Position CM, DCM, LM
Mikel Arteta is the man most under threat by the form of Aaron Ramsey and Mathieu Flamini, the return to fitness of Jack Wilshere and the versatility of Mesut Ozil.
Arteta has been a good servant for Arsene Wenger but has been a square peg in a round hole for much of his time at Arsenal. During his days with the Toffees, Arteta was utilized as a left-sided and central midfielder by David Moyes. There, the new Manchester United manager could get the best from the creative Spaniard.
At Arsenal, Wenger has almost exclusively used Arteta as a disciplined defensive midfielder in front of the back four. He has thrived against lower opposition but has usually come unstuck at the highest level. With the re-signing of Mathieu Flamini, Wenger now has a natural player for that position.
It was interesting to note that against Napoli the Spaniard was utilized in a flat midfield trio, and he was excellent.
He is likely to offer cover for the central midfield positions this season and another option when changing the system, but what a superb professional and option to have. His attitude will be vital going forward.
Aaron Ramsey: Position CM, RM
Aaron Ramsey has been simply sensational in the opening exchanges of the 2013-14 Premier League season. The 22-year-old Welsh star deservedly won the Premier League player of the month award as Arsene Wenger won the manager of the month award for September.
Ramsey has scored nine goals in 13 games for club and country this term and his game seems to have risen to another level completely.
What DOES Wenger see in Ramsey? A complete and utter liability. #Arsenal— Piers Morgan (@piersmorgan) December 4, 2012
This was indicative of the type of abuse Ramsey was forced to suffer. This season, Morgan has done a complete U-turn on the star, but he feels his criticism was justified last term.
Ramsey plays like a total liability last season = unacceptable. Ramsey plays like a goal-scoring genius this season = acceptable. #Afc— Piers Morgan (@piersmorgan) October 8, 2013
The difference between this and last season for Ramsey is simple. He has regained 100 percent fitness.
The goals are nice but are little more than a by-product of his superb work ethic from midfield. Last term he worked just as hard but could not return the same levels of productivity because he wasn't fit.
Technically he is an inferior player to Wilshere in almost every single way. He does, however, offer a far more powerful and imposing figure than his English counterpart. Ramsey is able to cover ground far better than any other midfielder Wenger has at his disposal.
For many, the dream team midfield pairing would combine Wilshere and Ramsey, but Wilshere has to prove he has the same levels of desire and patience as the Welshman.
If he can do that then Ramsey, the Gunners' most important player this season, will have a great, great partner and vice versa.
Serge Gnabry: Position RAM
In a season of positives, Serge Gnabry has been yet another.
The 18-year-old Stuttgart-born star has enjoyed a great start to the season. He has featured seven times for Arsenal in all matches and has scored five goals.
The German youngster is direct and likes to attack his opponents down the flank where he can expose them with pace. However, unlike Walcott, he seems to have an old head on young shoulders and often produces a final product.
This season will be ultra important in terms of his development, and Arsenal fans should not expect too much despite his great start to the season.
He is likely to feature less when Walcott returns, but the days of the England international being unchallenged on the right-hand side are long gone.
Theo Walcott: Position RAM, CF
The rise of Serge Gnabry as a direct challenger to Theo Walcott will raise all kinds of questions in the Arsenal man's mind.
Walcott, with the club the best part of eight years, had his contract extended last season. The question remains, however, would his contract have been extended this season given their midfield?
At his best, Walcott is unplayable. He is lightning-quick, capable of scoring great goals and of ripping defences to shreds.
At his worst, however, he is just as unplayable. He can be susceptible to tunnel vision, seem incapable of producing a final pass and lack any kind of positional intelligence.
At 24 he still has time to develop, but the clock is most certainly ticking.
He is almost essential in a 4-2-3-1 formation because he offers balance to the side. In a 4-3-3, however, he can be replaced by any number of attacking midfielders and Wenger has plenty of those at the moment.
Walcott will be important against the lower lights of the Premier League. Most teams in the bottom half are incapable of defending against his great speed as they push up to combat Arsenal's strength and mobility in midfield.
Against the top seven or eight he is most likely to go missing and in the long run this could determine his future.
Tomas Rosicky: Position CAM, RAM, LAM
Tomas Rosicky may be playing out his final days at Arsenal.
The 33-year-old Czech international of 93 caps has played over 180 games for the Gunners since he joined the club in 2006. However, a series of injuries have meant that he has missed whole campaigns, and the most amount of games he has played in a season is just 38.
There is no doubting his creative if frail talent. Rosicky is capable of picking out a pass where other men only see a forest of legs. He is comfortable anywhere across the attacking-midfield positions, but his lack of physicality and pace mean that he is best suited to attacking from the center in the Premier League.
Rosicky has already played six times this season and, somewhat ironically, is on course for his best ever return from a campaign.
He is little more than a first-team squad player now and should only play when there are no other options available. He is, however, a superb player and influence to have around the training ground.
He has always been a Wenger player, technical, creative and clever, and he could be exactly the right man to have to help the likes of Thomas Eisfeld and Serge Gnabry develop.
Mathieu Flamini: Positions DCM, CM
Mathieu Flamini has been a great success since he rejoined the club from AC Milan during the summer. The defensive midfielder has slotted in almost seamlessly beside Aaron Ramsey in central midfield and has produced some great and unheralded performances.
Flamini has played in all seven matches since he joined the club, with Arsenal winning six and drawing just once.
Who Scored rate his passing as being among of the best in Europe at 93.5 percent completion. He averages 2.2 tackles, 1.7 interceptions and 1.9 clearances per game, which highlights his defensive contribution to the team.
These statistics only tell half the story. Flamini has been the perfect foil for the rampaging Ramsey and is happy to sit and do the donkey work for the free-scoring Welshman.
As the season progresses he will come under threat by Mikel Arteta and Jack Wilshere. He is likely to partner Wilshere at times if Ramsey is off form or is in need of a rest. He is unlikely to partner Arteta unless Wenger chooses to use a 4-3-3-type system with the two players protecting the back line.
Flamini's discipline and Wenger's complete trust in the player means that he is in the driving seat. While Ramsey may suffer from not scoring goals, Flamini's defensive contribution is unlikely to waver going forward.
This means he has made the position his own and he will not give it up willingly.
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain: Position RAM, LAM, CAM, CM, RM
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain has a huge future ahead of him. The 20-year-old Arsenal star is possibly the most mature youngster England has produced since the great Bobby Charlton made his debut, as a 19-year-old, for Manchester United in 1956.
The Ox, as he is known to Arsenal fans, has only played once this season and has been ruled out until November with a knee injury according to TransferMarkt. Having made his debut as a 16-year-old for Southampton, he has now played over 100 top-class matches and has a further 13 England caps to his name.
Many Arsenal fans argue over where the Ox plays best. Some feel it is on the right instead of Theo Walcott, while others feel it is in attacking central midfield. Arsene Wenger, however, feels the youngster will develop into a world-class central midfielder.
In March 2012, Wenger admitted to Arsenal.com that Oxlade-Chamberlain was not ready to take on the role, but he went on to state that the then 18-year-old would have to serve his time learning his trade and playing for the team before eventually moving inside.
The high praise came after the youngster impressed the world's media with a stunning performance in central midfield against AC Milan in the Champions League.
He is a player who is more than capable of flair moments. He has the skill to dazzle his opponents with mesmerizing runs or telepathic passes. However, what makes him stand out as such an amazing talent is his maturity. In short, his decision-making resembles that of a seasoned pro.
If and when he returns from injury he will push the likes of Tomas Rosicky and, maybe not this season, Mikel Arteta further down the pecking list. Until then he is another among Wenger's growing choice of midfield maestros.
Mesut Ozil has had a monstrous effect on Arsenal as a team. In just six games he has contributed five assists and one goal, and the Gunners seem to have moved up a level as a team thanks to the silken-skilled German.
There can be little doubt that the German international has improved Arsenal.
Ozil, one of the most creative players in world football, is also one of the hardest working. There is very little he cannot do on the pitch, and he is probably the best exponent of Total Football in the Premier League at the moment.
From attacking central midfield the German international of Turkish descent covers every inch of grass on the pitch. His form and contribution have been so good that it is hard to see Arsene Wenger finding any excuse, bar injury, to leave him out of the starting team.
When Santi Cazorla returns to first-team action we may see the pair sharing the central attacking midfield and left midfield positions. Although Ozil is more than capable of playing on the right. In the past he has featured there for Germany and for Real Madrid and could do so again for Arsenal.
Given the physical nature of the league and the selection of players on offer to Wenger, Ozil is unlikely to play central midfield. He will be used almost exclusively in the attacking positions of a 4-2-3-1 or a 4-3-3.
Regardless of where Ozil plays, Arsenal have a match-winner.
Who Goes Where?
Goalkeeper, defense and the striker pick themselves at Arsenal.
The debate for Wenger, therefore, is who to surround Mesut Ozil with.
Without pace on the left the current team lacks natural width and balance. That being said, Jack Wilshere, although he has not produced many memorable performances, has provided a certain balance because of his work rate.
In many ways the England man may be a better option than Cazorla on the left as he contributes far more defensively. The same cannot be said on the right, where Theo Walcott and Serge Gnabry offer balance.
If Wenger was to forego natural width and play Wilshere, Ozil and Cazorla at the same time he would almost definitely have to start Wilshere in the center.
Gnabry and Walcott will be used against most teams. However, against Napoli and Tottenham Hotspur Arsenal played 4-3-3 systems to upset the opposition. Walcott did play against Spurs, but at that stage Ozil had yet to join.
Central midfield will be the most intriguing battle to watch. Mathieu Flamini has made the defensive role his own, and Aaron Ramsey has taken full advantage with a hat-full of goals as he marauded from midfield.
In time, however, Wilshere will pressure both, but given the season and the way the team has developed he may be more likely to replace Ramsey than Flamini.
Mikel Arteta, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Tomas Rosicky will be squad players with the Ox claiming first among equals as he is only 20. Wenger loves developing players, and Oxlade-Chamberlain has a very bright future.
In the end, Arsenal's superb midfield may be let down by their defense, while Olivier Giroud should enjoy plenty of goalscoring opportunities.
Arsenal have easily one of the best midfields in world football, and if they can continue their development there is no reason to believe they won't dominate English football again.
Statistics from Arsenal.com, Who Scored and TransferMarkt.
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