Arsenal: Jack Wilshere, Aaron Ramsey & 2010-11 Midfield Balancing Act

Mycroft HolmesCorrespondent IAugust 10, 2010

When Arsene Wenger challenged Jack Wilshere to raise his game this summer, perhaps only the manager himself could have predicted how completely the 18-year-old midfielder would exceed expectations.

Three weeks later, after two brilliant displays at the Emirates Cup against AC Milan and Celtic, the jewel of the Arsenal academy has made a strong case for inclusion in the Arsenal first team. Much like Aaron Ramsey, who last season proved his worth and earned a regular spot in the senior squad, Wilshere appears ready to make the jump to the next level, at least in a limited role.

Wenger urged patience last week, citing a midfield already loaded with talent as a reason to not get carried away. Wilshere's largely anonymous and defensively suspect performance against Legia Warsaw on Saturday would seem to confirm that the youngster still has a lot to learn, and that those fans who still own horses need to "hold them."

Nonetheless, there is reason to believe that Wilshere will see his fair share of first team action in 2010-11.

With so many players already competing for playing time, and with Ramsey expected to return by November, however, the question of where and how often Wilshere will play is merely one piece of a much larger puzzle. Looking forward to the start of the 2010-11 season, the deeper issue is how Wenger intends to ensure adequate playing time for all his gifted central midfielders, attacking midfielders, and wingers.

In the following article, I will examine a few scenarios, some more likely than others, in the hopes of drawing out an idea of what the Arsenal midfield will look like and who will feature most prominently in Wenger's plans.

First Thing's First: Understanding the Formation

Before the 2009-10 season, Arsenal switched from a more traditional 4-4-2 to the 4-3-3, or more specifically, to a sort of 4-2-1-2-1 look. In doing so, Wenger's lineup at once lost a traditional midfield position and provided itself with an extra slot for the type of possession-happy attacker with which the team was and is so well stocked.

Before last season, the team played with two wingers, a defensive midfielder, and central attacking midfielder to complement their two forwards.

In 2009-10, and presumably according to what the squad will look like going forward, one traditional center forward was joined by a second striker-cum-attacking midfielder and a right-side winger.

The midfield took on a narrower, triangular shape designed to clamp down on the center of the pitch.

One defensive midfielder and one central attacking midfielder were joined by a left center midfielder who took on a dual defensive and offensive role. A holding midfielder and ball-winner as well as a supporting attacker and ball distributor, this hybrid player may have been tasked with mostly humdrum duties from a supporter's perspective, but his role was crucial to Arsenal's offensive fluidity and defensive cohesion (whenever they had any, that is).







I already mentioned that the midfield triangle of two center midfielders and a central attacking midfielder was designed to dominate the center of the pitch. This concept is crucial to understanding the philosophy behind the formation and the various players' duties within that scheme.

A decisive advantage in possession not only means many fewer offensive possessions and scoring chances for the opposition. It also enables the possessors to dictate the pace of the match, probe for defensive weaknesses, and strike on their own terms when and where they choose.

This is a far cry from the more direct, opportunistic style of play of most English teams. It is also a perfect counter to the strategic aims of the 4-4-2, as was demonstrated this summer by England's general offensive futility at the World Cup.

With three centrally oriented midfielders battling the other side's two-man creative and defensive tandem, it is nearly impossible for opponents to rely on the traditional midfield "engine room" to launch direct assaults up the pitch.

In possession, 4-4-2 formations aim to play longer, speculative balls forward in the hope that enough of them will connect to create scoring chances. Formations with central midfield trios generally prefer the short, conservative ball to the long, hopeful one, with the goal of a gradual buildup instead of a lightning strike.

Viewed in this light, the 4-3-3 seems like a natural complement to the Gunners' short-passing, technically sound, "beautiful" style of play. It is a formation that not only suits the modern game, but better utilizes the strengths of Wenger's roster.

While Arsenal's formation now features three designated midfielders instead of the traditional four, only one player among Arsenal's front six must be a bigger, classical forward-type, and both defensive midfielders should be players who are comfortable on the ball.

Thus, with four or five positions that can be filled by strong passers and dribblers—four in the middle and one on the wing—Wenger has a far more varied set of options for filling out his starting XI each week.

Arsenal's Midfielders: Naming the Puzzle Pieces

By my tally, ten Arsenal players who regularly featured in the first team last season could best be classed as center midfielders, secondary strikers, wingers, or a combination of the three: Alex Song, Denilson, Abou Diaby, Cesc Fabregas, Samir Nasri, Andrei Arshavin, Emmanuel Eboue, Theo Walcott, Carlos Vela, and Tomas Rosicky.

Some may quibble with the inclusion or exclusion of one or more of these players. To me, Vela seems a better fit as a winger or second striker at this point, even if Wenger's ultimate aim may be to groom him as a true center forward. Eboue is also a good backup right fullback, but his best contribution for club and country comes from the right wing.

Robin van Persie, Nicklas Bendtner, and Marouane Chamakh do not make the list, because all three are ideally suited to playing center forward. This creates a bit of a bottleneck, as only one can play at the point position at one time, but that is a subject for a different article.

To the ten we can reasonably add Craig Eastmond, who impressed in a limited backup role and should see more time in 2010-11. Ramsey made 23 Premier League and Champions League appearances before being brutalized by the moronic Ryan Shawcross. He will be a first-team regular upon his return, which may come as early as November.

That already brings the total to twelve players for five positions.

With Wilshere, Emmanuel Frimpong, Henri Lansbury and, theoretically, Havard Nordtveit to consider as well, the most expansive total for preseason consideration is 16 players.

The next natural step in this situation would seem to be to write out a five-column depth chart and start slotting in names. With the proven versatility of many of these players and Wenger's proclivity for creative lineup choices, however, such an effort would get messy in a hurry.

Suffice it to say, there is a considerable degree of overlap between the skill sets of many members of the squad. With so many options, the lineup that Wenger deploys from day to day may vary considerably depending on the look the manager wants to present.

A Quick Addendum

The question of multiple looks is extremely important.

Looking back at last season's lineups, Arsenal usually played with two defensive midfielders (one of whom usually drifted higher up the pitch), one attacking midfielder, and a trio of additional attackers. Within that rough framework, however, the specific positional assignments varied greatly, as did the personnel.

Sometimes even the formation changed.

Instead of a midfield triangle with one man deep, one man high up and another on the left, sometimes Arsenal simply added the extra attacker and played with Song, Diaby, Denilson, or even Ramsey as the lone defensive midfielder.

A lot of this resulted from the need to creatively address the difficulties posed by injuries, but a lot of this was simply Wenger trying different game plans and giving different players a solid run.

A greater degree of stability is to be expected if Arsenal do not suffer the same rash of injuries as last season. However, a high degree of variation would not be an unreasonable expectation given Wenger's track record.

A Likely Lineup

In an article that I linked above, I suggested that my favored forward line would feature both van Persie and Chamakh in the middle, with Arshavin playing as an Arjen Robben-style winger, but from the left side.

Though I feel this would be the best utilization of Arsenal's striking talent, I realize now that I failed to consider the way in which it would squeeze the midfield and limit many of Arsenal's best players' appearances.

For instance, I don't think I'm going out on a limb by saying that Nasri should be a major player this season. I have little doubt he will be a regular starter, and I expect 2010-11 to be a breakout year for le jeune Marseillais.

Not including Nasri in the lineup at right wing means either he or Fabregas would have to play from a deeper midfield position:

---------------Nasri---------------        ---------------Fabs---------------

-----------------------------------       -----------------------------------

--------Fabs----------------------  OR  --------Nasri----------------------

----------------------Song--------        ----------------------Song--------

While Fabregas was trained as a volante at some Spanish club ages ago, he also looked like this at the time. And even though he played at both right center midfield and left center midfield on multiple occasions last season, the Arsenal captain would be wasted in such a deep supporting role.

So would Nasri.

It's important to remember when planning a midfield lineup that Arsenal will mostly feature one attacking midfielder, one defensive midfielder, and a third midfielder who may be very capable of getting forward and making runs into the box, but whose primary offensive role will be a supporting one. Just ask Denilson and Diaby what happens when that third midfield gets caught too far up the pitch. Better yet, ask the defenders who had to play behind Diaby and Denilson.

While Nasri and Fabregas certainly can play a more reserved role (though I question Nasri's defensive bona fides), who wants to see either of them taking one or two touches then distributing the ball to someone else?

Who wants to see either of them hanging back 40 yards from goal and shooting from long distance when they have the ability to break down defenses and make plays inside the 18-yard-box?

The best way to get Arsenal's best players onto the pitch in the matches that matter would be to deploy them like this:







(*D/D = Denilson or Diaby, depending on how aggressively Wenger wants to play).

No team in the league, and perhaps only one or two clubs in Europe, can boast a creative foursome the likes of van Persie, Arshavin, Nasri, and Fabregas.

While Chamakh, Bendtner, and others should see a fair number of starts in 2010-11, the front four I listed represents by far Arsenal's best combination of offensive talent.

Further back, Song is generally considered to be a no-brainer as the starting right center midfielder. For the most part, I would agree, though I think few positions can be seen as absolute locks this year with so many players pressing for time.

As for the left side of the midfield, I am bound to take flak from some fans for including the mercurial Diaby and for even mentioning Denilson after what many believe was a terrible season for the young Brazilian. It's important to remember, however, that each will be entering his fifth full season with the club, each now has a year under his belt in the new formation, and each possesses the combination of skill and intelligence to excel in the left center midfield role I described in the previous section.

Denilson, in particular, has demonstrated that he is perfectly suited to the dual role. He reads the game extremely well, leading to many intercepted passes and timely tackles. He also makes excellent, lightning-quick decisions with the ball at his feet and passes with mind-blowing accuracy.

He is humble, intelligent, and tenacious. There is a good reason why his teammates respect him, why his manager loves him, and why he has captained the Brazilian national team at every youth level since U-15s.

Diaby, a more naturally brilliant player than Denilson, is more inclined to contribute as a deep-lying playmaker and a penetrating dribbler. While he can play the more defensive role, especially with the physical attributes he brings to the table, he prefers to get forward. This habit often leads to stunning highlights and signature scoring chances, but more often it results in cheap turnovers. When distribution and defense are the name of the game, Diaby still represents something of a liability.

For now, I'd say that Diaby is probably best suited to play from the left central position when Wenger is looking to deploy an out-and-out offensive lineup with an extra play-maker and only one real defensive midfielder. This happened more than a third of the time last season.

Diaby's versatility enables him to play further up the pitch in a more attacking role. Thus, even when Denilson gets the nod as the left center midfielder, Diaby can still see significant time, depending on the lineup.

Other Options to Consider

There are a couple of alternative scenarios that I'd like to contrast with the projected lineup I offered in the previous section.

Option A—The Giant Line

The most obvious problem with a lineup that features van Persie, Arshavin, Fabregas, and Nasri at the front is that any notion of an aerial attack would go out the window.

Van Persie, despite standing over 6'0", is not great in the air, and none of the other players stands over 5'10".

Getting more height into the lineup would not be difficult in late game situations with Chamakh and Bendtner on the bench, but what if Wenger wants to deploy a starting lineup that provides Arsenal with more size and power from the outset?

In matches where dominating possession is never in doubt and the opponent forms a tight phalanx with ten men behind the ball, two things automatically change for Arsenal:

First, a ball-distributing, supporting midfielder becomes unnecessary when the opponent is already conceding the middle of the pitch. Second of all, space in the attacking third becomes hard to find, thereby making it tough for smaller creative players to maneuver.

The way to break down such a defense is to stretch the width of the pitch, cross the ball, and win headers the old fashioned way. If you send enough crosses into the middle, no team can defend for 90 minutes under a constant barrage.

With that in mind, I present my first, somewhat exaggerated, situational lineup:







This lineup presents an extreme, but I'd argue, effective solution to a tactical puzzle that has frustrated undersized Arsenal in the past.

Bendtner is 6'5" and, despite his "needs improvement" first touch, can be a deadly finisher. Diaby is a great playmaker, despite standing at 6'3". Van Persie is 6'2" and possesses probably the most dangerous left foot in the Premiership.

The great thing about signing Chamakh is that he has an excellent first touch and loves the short-passing game almost as much as he likes heading the ball in the back of the net courtesy of his 6'2" frame. With him in the lineup, you don't have a creative genius, but you have an excellent cog who can shoot and pass with equal precision.

With little Fabregas marshaling such a four-pronged attack, and with the bruising 6'1" Song holding back, it's hard to imagine Arsenal not putting on a memorable aerial demonstration.

Ultimately, this formation serves more to show what Arsenal can do, size-wise, rather than presenting a very likely day-to-day look. A less extreme version could realistically be deployed, with only one of Chamakh or Bendtner playing in the middle, while Arshavin or Nasri takes a break.

Still, wouldn't that be a spectacle?

Option B—The Balanced Look

As already mentioned, in matches where contesting the midfield isn't as much of a question, but where punching through the defense remains a trying task, the possession midfielder would become extraneous.

Instead of pushing the height advantage to absurd levels in the middle, a more natural way to utilize the strength of the roster would be to rearrange the lineup and add a second winger to test the edges of the defense:






This is one of the most highly variable lineups in which Arsenal can play. It also resembles the way they lined up against lesser opponents on several occasions last season.

With two wing positions, Rosicky, Eboue, Wilshere, Walcott, and Vela can all get into the action on the outside. Rosicky and Wilshere could certainly play in that second striker's slot behind van Persie, who could actually slide back into that role himself.

Concluding Thoughts: Will Wilshere and the Young Guns See the Pitch?

The versatility of the squad and the flexibility of the formation give Wenger many options.

Even with domestic cups and European play, however, it will be difficult for the manager to guarantee meaningful, regular first team action to all of his veterans.

Frankly, I don't see how it will be possible with the current depth on the wing and at forward.

With so many veterans, it will be hard for young players to crack the first team, let alone the starting XI.

Wenger believes in the value of experience, and he has shown in the past that he would rather loan out a young player who may be on the cusp of first team readiness than leave him to languish on the end of the bench.

Last season, Ramsey was helped by a rash of injuries, and the team turned out better thanks to the phenomenal way in which he rose to the occasion. Unless a similar tragedy besets Arsenal once again, it will be hard for Wilshere in particular to get playing time. There are simply too many players ahead of him.

At the beginning of the season, thanks to World Cup exhaustion, the absence of Ramsey, and a few lingering injuries to squad regulars, Wilshere should get a fair number of appearances. Hopefully, he and Frimpong will even get the opportunity to start a couple times.

Come January, however, Wilshere is less likely to remain with the squad.

This will be a pivotal season for Arsenal's young but battle-hardened squad. It's a shame Wilshere won't feature more prominently, but perhaps the fact that a player of his caliber will struggle to see the pitch speaks to the team's potential for greatness.


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