Arsenal's Central Midfield Problem: Life without Santi Cazorla

Arsenal’s previous two seasons have followed similar patterns, with the team in exceptional Autumnal form until an injury to Santi Cazorla derailed their campaign.

Both years, this left Arsene Wenger struggling to find a midfield equation that gave him the same answers the Spaniard offered.

It was hugely disappointing news for Arsenal fans to learn earlier this summer that Cazorla had suffered a further injury setback and now stands little chance of playing at all next season, leaving a frustratingly familiar void in Arsenal’s midfield.

Cazorla must now be considered to be in the same position both Mikel Arteta and Tomas Rosicky found themselves in in their final years at the club – a great option if available, but not one to be relied upon. Wenger must now put a similar asterix next to Cazorla’s name when drawing up his plans for next season, and work on the assumption that he will not be available for selection.

Same issues can't be repeated

This has proved problematic in the past two seasons. Indeed, Wenger spent large parts of last season thrashing around trying to find a functioning pairing, with little success until late on in the campaign. Granit Xhaka was in and out of the team in the opening months; Francis Coquelin and Mohammed Elneny as the first-choice pair at Old Trafford; a trio of Aaron Ramsey, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Xhaka was used for Bayern Munich at home and West Brom away and quickly shelved; indeed, it was not until mid-April, coinciding with the shift to the back three, that Wenger settled on Xhaka-Ramsey as his preferred pairing.

The two worked well together in those final few weeks, most notably in the two games at Wembley against Man City and Chelsea. Both players were able to play to their strengths, with Xhaka able to pull the strings from deep and Ramsey given the licence to make those late runs into the box he did so often in his golden 13-14 season – as we saw for his winning goal in the FA Cup Final. The two were picked together for Saturday’s friendly in Sydney and, we expect, will start the season as first choice, but the question that needs to be asked is what Wenger chooses to do when he has to look beyond Plan A.

Coquelin and Elneny are the most obvious next two in line, as both featured frequently last season. Even at this point, some fans may raise questions. Are these two good enough to be the immediate cover for a side with ambitions to win the title? Some may feel an addition is needed on top of what Arsenal already have to offer three ‘first-choices’ in a sense, in the way that Chelsea had N’olo Kante, Cesc Fabregas and Nemanja Matic to choose from last season.

Indeed, had Arsenal signed Tiemoue Bakayoko last week, I wouldn;t suggest many fans would be concerned at where they would all fit in. Let us not forget, Xhaka and Ramsey themselves are two players who divided opinion in the fan base at times last season, and their ability to look like a strong partnership was aided by the fact there were some desperately poor Arsenal performances put in last year. Arguably, by April anything that was not a total disaster looked quite promising.

Coquelin and Elneny?

Sufficient cover? (Photo via Getty Images | Stuart MacFarlane)

With regards to Coquelin and Elneny, most feel they are two good squad players, each with useful abilities that in specific games, at specific times are beneficial to the team, but there are concerns at their ability to cover either of our first-choice pairing.

The word cover should be emphasised in that most feel while they have useful strengths, they are very different strengths. If Xhaka were to pick up a suspension (as is certainly possible) for example, Coquelin is not able to come in and offer the same range of passing that Xhaka does, which is a crucial element of our build up play in the 3-4-2-1 system.

Similarly, if Ramsey were to pick up a hamstring injury (which requires similarly little imagination) and was replaced by Elneny, then you do not get the same late runs into the box that Ramsey offers, which again is a key part of that formation. This means that when Arsenal lose a player in midfield, or even so much as rotate the line-up, they have to bring in a completely different player – which has it strengths, but also can be a bit of a hindrance. Much of this does assume Wenger persists with the three-at-the-back system, but the same could apply if the Frenchman goes back to a 4-2-3-1.

Internal Solutions?

Then, of course, we have to throw Jack Wilshere into the discussion. Wilshere is now back in North London and there are conflicting reports as to whether or not he will be at the club next year. Should he end up staying, he could be viewed as a useful asset to have.

He does have more of an ability to run with the ball and push forward than Coquelin or Elneny do, so perhaps it could be considered that he is a stronger direct replacement for Ramsey. Wilshere can, though, also be considered to have a stronger long range pass to Coquelin or Elneny and thus be able to slot into either of Ramsey or Xhaka’s positions, which starts to suggest it may be worth keeping him in the squad.

Arsenal have been burned in the past by relying on Wilshere to remain fit and have a strong season, so it would naive to be too expect him to play a leading role in Arsenal's season, but he well have the right kind of qualities to a member of the supporting cast.

Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain is then another ingredient to throw into the mix, as he has often spoke of his desire to play as a centre midfielder. He has played there on occasions in the past, to varying degrees of success, and doubts remain as to whether he is capable of doing so in big games – with February’s trip to Stamford Bridge still fresh in the memory. It seemed at one stage as though Chamberlain would be heading for the exit door this summer but Wenger has recently said The Ox will “100%” be at the club next season.

You have to wonder if a discussion regarding his position has taken place, and if a promise of any sort to give him time in his favoured central position has been made. He is also much more of an attacking player than Coquelin or Elneny and thus Wenger may see him as the ideal alternative to Ramsey, in that he may benefit from the greater licence to go forward offered in a system with three centre-halves. Chamberlain is yet to play in the centre in the new formation, which perhaps is something Wenger sees as potentially successful. If so, this could be the season for Chamberlain to really nail down a regular place in a central role, and could be the answer Wenger has been searching for.

A signing definitely needed?

Oxlade-Chamberlain is with the squad on their pre-season tour of the far East (Photo via Getty Images | Stuart MacFarlane)

There is definitely an argument to be made that for Arsenal to compete at the top of the Premier League next year, they need to upgrade their midfield options with a signing.

Whilst most Arsenal fans would welcome an addition to this area, Arsene Wenger may not see it in quite the same way. In Wilshere and Chamberlain, he may consider himself to have two players at his disposal who can provide cover for the styles of Ramsey and Xhaka in ways that Coquelin and Elneny are unable to.

It would be an enourmous show of faith to both players if Wenger does place his faith in them, but this is not something Wenger has ever shied away from doing, and I imagine will be his preference heading into next season.

If one or two leave, the Frenchman could be forced into the market.