Arsenal – Progressive Possession

Post by : @KingHenryTheFif

It’s been a mixed start to the season for Arsenal, largely borne out of the fact that Arsène Wenger’s side have produced more questions than answers in the Gunners’ first seven games of the season, albeit with things gradually now looking a bit brighter in recent weeks.

Much of early abstruse moments have emanated from the decisions made in central midfield partnerships, which in my opinion apparently lays the foundation of just how Arsenal shape up and achieve any kind of success in what is already an eventful season.

Granit Xhaka was brought in from Borussia Monchengladbach to restore creativity and purpose to Arsenal’s build-up phase, in a bid to recreate that solid foundation that has somewhat been absent since Mikel Arteta’s exit from the first XI, the club, and ultimately the game respectively. Arsenal’s latest Bundesliga import has endured a cautious start to his Premier League career, much in the same way ex-Basel midfielder Elneny was introduced into the team’s fulcrum on his arrival at the Club in January.

This caging preference utilised by Arsène Wenger has left Santi Cazorla as the only possession expert to partner Francis Coquelin, who has been consistently picked since the start of the campaign in August.

Competition for these Pivot places, therefore, looks an interesting prospect as it can ever be, among the options currently at the boss’ disposal. That said, team (and performance) stability seems on the horizon and that’s largely down to the resources in the middle of the park.

Regardless of what led to the selection of the pair as a Pivot, current first choice central midfield duo – Francis Coquelin and Santi Cazorla have for most parts of their partnership, maintained a consistent, industrious influence, dating back to the famous 2-0 win over Manchester City at the Etihad in January, 2015. These two have since never looked back, mixing individual strengths of brawn and beauty to Arsenal’s collective artistic approach, in an effort to complement a new counter attacking system.

Meanwhile, in spite of the “ravy” applauds both were greeted with, major flaws in different patches of the pitch were still slightly evident around the duo, with a recurrent one (flaw) considered by the bulk of the Arsenal Faithful being the incapabilities of the “pass and move” fluency in and around the Pivot’s build up phase.

Also in question is the tactical awareness of both players in central midfield, and I for one, was also concerned about this, especially when Mathieu Flamini had to partner Cazorla (and later, Aaron Ramsey), in the wake of Coquelin’s spell on the sidelines.

In light of this, home games against an organised opposition (eight-ten men behind the ball) most times looked insipid, with the team labouring to play their way out of The Press (pun intended), despite the immeasurable dynamism of Our Little Spaniard. In any case, the ambidextrous deep-lying playmaker got injured in the most predictable way, sustaining a knee problem in at Norwich in November, 2016. This got me so furious not because we lost our creative linchpin, but due to the fact that I had called it months ago, as Santi remained Arsenal’s only possession expert.

Arsenal's Santi Cazorla goes down injured against Norwich City.

Arsenal’s Santi Cazorla goes down injured against Norwich City.

Now ten (10) months on, It’s a completely different situation of midfield personnel, with possession expert duo, Mohamed Elneny and Granit Xhaka now added to the mid-fold, which leads to the crux of the matter:

‘Top class’ were the words used by Arsène to describe the ex-Basel midfield engines and I couldn’t agree more, ’cause I strongly believe Xhaka’ s “foil”, Mohamed Elneny is the only player to enhance ball distribution so quickly, since Cesc. In the same vein, Xhaka has also outlined his penchant for progressive/purposeful distribution, a huge part of his game, bossing from deep.

Similarities, therefore, appear evident in both players but it actually is a huge part of what makes them different from Arsenal’s midfield pack. As seen against Nottingham Forest in the EFL Cup win on Tuesday albeit a much inferior opposition, Elneny shows up for a pass whenever he can, in advanced parts of the field, which comes only after how well he helps Xhaka orchestrate build-up play.

The Egyptian’s engine is arguably second to none, constantly pressing/probing in compact spaces, and laying-off to ‘free’ teammates. While he prefers keeping it tight with his passing choices, distributing out wide is very much a forte of the 24-year old and he executes multiple forward passes without hesitation, an ability also shared by Xhaka (something the intelligent Mikel Arteta didn’t do as much IMO).

In plain terms, Elneny’s triangular passing oozes quality and this gives more credence to the fact that a long diagonal-ball specialist like Granit Xhaka represents a perfect complementary partner for Mo. This difference in the technical ability of both in passing styles even epitomises the similarities of the pair, with regard to how  impressively well they read the game.

That said, Unlike Santi, who has undergone a complete transformation of his game as a deep-lying/box to Box playmaker, Elneny still has a few parts of his game to modify, if he is to replace the Spaniard or Coquelin in the team and sharpen his partnership with Xhaka. With the intelligent movement he shows and those interesting positions he gets to in the final third, his conversion rate needs to be highly improved upon, a flaw which was pointed out even on the day he recorded his first Arsenal goal, a beauty against Barcelona at the Camp Nou in March, as he could and should have been more clinical in front of goal on the night.

Arsène planning a Chelsea masterstroke?

Arsène planning a Chelsea masterstroke?

As Arsenal prepare to face Chelsea this weekend, it is tempting to crave for yet another coup from Arsène, reminiscent of that which he created against favourite rivals at the Etihad in January, 2015 unearthing a soothing duo of Santi-Coq in midfield. While it seems unlikely to ditch his 1st choice midfield pair thus far, a surprise introduction of Xhaka-Elneny would certainly throw Arsenal’s least favourite rivals off guard and kick-start a seamless partnership that I’ve always maintained, can hit unprecedented elite levels, duly centered around the team’s progressive possession.

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