Chelsea vs. Arsenal: Going without Granit

Granit Xhaka’s influence on this current Arsenal setup cannot be over-emphasized.

The Swiss was given a red card for a two-footed tackle in the Gunners’ last home game against Burnley and as a result was served with a four-game ban – of which he is two games in – and his absence has lead to to two very contrasting midfield performances in those games. The double double-barrelled name pairing of Maitland-Niles and Oxlade-Chamberlain producing an outstanding performance away at Southampton at Saint Mary’s Stadium in the FA Cup, however the pairing of Ramsey and Coquelin produced probably the worst midfield display for Arsenal this season in the limp and lacklustre home defeat to Watford at Emirates Stadium.

Like most teams, Arsenal’s central midfield is the heart and soul of the team, and a weak midfield often means a quick route to disaster for the entire team. Arsene Wenger’s preference for a two man midfield behind Mesut Ozil means the balance of the team lies on whoever plays there, as Arsenal’s pivot. The team’s best player over the past few seasons has consistently been Santi Cazorla who has often been at his most successful when playing alongside Francis Coquelin. Xhaka has also showed himself to be a tidy, competent addition in the midfield, completing 1,096 passes this season and maintaining a pass accuracy of 89% (with 74% of them being forward passes). However, with Cazorla injured and Xhaka now banned, manager Arsene Wenger now has a real conundrum on his hands when it comes to choosing a midfield partnership for this weekend’s crucial match against runaway leaders Chelsea.

Coquelin has recently returned from injury and has not been convincing of late, Oxlade-Chamberlain has been hit and miss when used in a central role during his time at Arsenal whilst Maitland-Niles, despite his impressive display in the cup, has never started a game in the Premier League before. Arsenal’s defence will undoubtedly be put to the test at Stamford Bridge and they could have to deal with an awful lot more pressure if a porous midfield is set up before them. Controversial, I know, but I’d actually like to see Maitland-Niles given a chance to impress in midfield alongside Coquelin with Ozil roaming in front of them. I’m not too bothered about who starts on the flanks, although I would ideally like to see Iwobi get the nod with any one of Walcott, Oxlade-Chamberlain and Welbeck starting on the other side. It’s vital that Alexis Sanchez starts as a striker where he was so deadly earlier in the season.

This is the team I’d go for but I believe it’s the central midfield where this game will be won or lost. No matter who starts alongside Coquelin, the Frenchman is going to have to put in a real shift and it’s also vital that Mesut Ozil does his bit and drops deep on occasion to in order to stop Chelsea from overrunning the midfield. During the defeat to Watford it was very obvious that Arsenal laboured to create anything from deep in the absence of Xhaka and Arsenal’s best route to attack was when Iwobi dragged the ball forward down the flanks, and this could be a huge problem against a side as well-drilled as Chelsea’s. If Arsenal are to enjoy some success at the weekend, they’re going to have to adopt a similar tactic that they employed against Manchester City at the Etihad Stadium in 2015  – defend deep, counter efficiently and be clinical in front of goal.

For the likes of Ozil and Alexis it’s time that they reminded people of the money spent on them by leading the way in a game of this magnitude. Arsenal have failed to mount a serious title challenge for years, with their push for the league championship often stalling around this time of year. With their current challenge hanging by a thread, will this team finally stand up and be counted? With their terrible record in West London in recent seasons, is this finally the year they exorcise some demons and win at Stamford Bridge? A win is needed, but without Xhaka it feels all the less likely.

By @franktulze

Guest Writer

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