23 January 2014

Thursday Throwdown: The Midfield Injury Issues

Sam Burgess: It's all been looking pretty good at the Emirates Stadium recently; Arsenal continue to win and retain their position atop the Premier League table. Despite this, the bad news comes in the form of injuries. Theo Walcott had returned from one injury to score 5 goals in 6 games, then was ruled out for the season after rupturing his ACL. The Gunners' star of the first half of the season, Aaron Ramsey, has missed several games of late. Without two of Arsenal's key midfield players, who do you think should be regularly playing in the midfield? 
Wilshere: a key cog in Arsenal's midfield
(Wikimedia / CC Licence)

Andrew Klema: Assuming that the midfield structure remains the same, I would think we'd agree that either Mikel Arteta or Mathieu Flamini has to play the deepest spot. Right now Arteta joins Walcott and Ramsey on the bench with an injury but he should be back within a game or so and when that happens I would prefer him over Flamini. The Frenchman is more likely to get stuck in and provide that imposing physical presence, but I think Arteta actually controls matches more with his distribution. He dictates the pace and the flow of play and that brings more stability to the team than the occasional authoritative tackle.

If Arteta mans the CDM position then it's a choice between Flamini or Jack Wilshere to fill the spot that Ramsey previously occupied. While I acknowledge that there are times when a double pivot of Arteta and Flamini makes sense in order to frustrate the opponent and put a stranglehold on the midfield, Arsenal tends to play tentatively with that lineup. It seems like the idea of clogging the midfield gets into the players' heads and there isn't enough dynamism. That's why I think Wilshere should get the starts in that box-to-box role even though it's not his natural position and even though he can be a defensive liability. He does such a good job of spurring the team forward that it's difficult for me to leave his talent on the bench. Do you agree with that analysis? What do you think about the various combination for the three more forward midfielders?

Sam: In my opinion, it depends on the opposition; sometimes you need a player like Flamini to get stuck in to the opposition and put them off their game early on - Arteta isn't going to provide that. I do agree that he's the better choice as a distributor, but against a team like Munich or City, where possession isn't guaranteed, I don't see him doing enough to stamp his authority on the game. I can't argue with you on Wilshere, and that's why I think Flamini is a better match for him; he allows Jack to surge forward and abandon some of the defensive duties.

Moving further forward, I'm liking the current combination of Mesut Ozil, Santi Cazorla and Serge Gnabry. Cazorla has proven quite adept at playing down, and coming in off, the left. It's not like having a Ribery or Ronaldo there, but his movement and technique cause more than enough troubles in an opposition defense. Ozil speaks for himself, and despite some negative press recently, he's still playing better than at least 90% of Premier League midfielders. His work rate hasn't decreased, and while his assist numbers have dropped, he has lost his favorite target in Ramsey. Assists are a fairly random stat - you're completely reliant on the target of your pass scoring for it to become a valid stat; it's probably better to look at chances created, and Ozil is creating around 3 a game. Serge is fast becoming one of my favorite players. He has speed, strength and a low center of gravity that make him hard to knock off the ball. He also doesn't lack in confidence, as we saw against Fulham, and his shot is enough to knock players out! What do you think? Could the like of Podolski, Rosicky or Oxlade-Chamberlain break in to the starting XI?

Andrew: It looks like we're going to agree on our current ideal combination as I also like Ozil, Cazorla, and Gnabry working together. Ozil and Cazorla both work well on the ball and have no problem interchanging. Cazorla is good on the left because he gets the ball with a bit less pressure on him and by cutting inside he opens up space for Monreal or Gibbs who both like to burst forward and maraud on the wing. Your points about Ozil are well made and I remember reading a piece earlier in the week that made the point that his core numbers (key passes, passes in the attacking third, chances created, etc.) are the same as before his "slump" so it's better to take heart in that than look at the flashy stats like assists and goals. Gnabry is a breath of fresh air because every now and then the team needs a more direct player and he can be aggressive with both his movement and passing, driving the team forward in the process.

Having said that, I think it is very important that our other midfield pieces receive time on the pitch as they will be key to the stretch run this season. Rosicky is a great player to start if Ozil or Cazorla need a break, or if a creative mid will be more effective than a mid with pace. Oxlade-Chamberlain needs to see the field because he's still coming back from injury and if he can find his form again I do think he'll be more effective than Gnabry at the role they are both asked to play. I think Podolski is more deserving than anyone of some run because he provides excellent finishing and his enthusiasm for the game is infectious. It would break my heart to see a situation where Poldi becomes sad or frustrated due to tack of playing time because he is such a great fan and you can tell that he really loves being at the club. I don't mean that as a cliched statement either, I really think he helps create a sense of team among the players and let's not forget how important the German contingent was in bringing Ozil to the club. Everyone's favorite Twitter follow deserves his playing time due to both ability and Arsenal's culture.

Is there anyone else that deserves to see the field even a little? And perhaps more importantly, how on earth does Arsene balance things once Ramsey comes back?

Ramsey will surely be Arsenal's player of the year
(Wikimedia / CC Licence)
Sam: Rosicky has always been one of my favorite players (how many do I have?) and it's good to see him get an extended run in the side. He keeps the ball well and makes good decisions, and usually puts in a good performance in the bigger games (see: FA Cup v Spurs). I would think that once The Ox is fully fit again, he'd replace Gnabry, if not through form then perhaps seniority (can a 20-year old really be 'senior'?). I think their games are very similar, so perhaps rotation is the best bet here to keep them both fresh.

Other than the players we've already mentioned, there isn't really anyone else in the squad. I always appreciate seeing some of the young guys get some time on the pitch, so a chance to see Gedion Zelalem wouldn't go amiss for me; the Coventry game might give him a chance to get on the bench, as well as the likes of Kris Olsson, Thomas Eisfeld or Emmanuel "Dench" Frimpong. I can't see any of them featuring in the Premier League this season, though.

Ah, the $64,000 question: where does Ramsey fit in all this? His biggest contender for a place would seem to be Wilshere, and earlier this season when both played one would often be pushed higher up the pitch, usually playing out wide - though again, that was necessitated by injuries. Personally, I'd rotate the two of them, keeping both of them fresh and competitive. You could also go with the option of playing them both in the deeper midfield roles, though that would limit one - if not both - of them, and would probably only be used against a lower-table opponent.

This whole thing has been about injuries, so there is one name I have to mention: Abou Diaby. Where do you stand on him? I'm not his biggest fan; sure, he plays well, but for 4 games a season and then gets injured again. Doesn't seem worth it to me. Any thing else you want to raise on this issue?

Andrew: I tend to think along the same lines in terms of the borderline members of the squad. There's no one in that group that I believe will see any meaningful time on the field this season and unfortunately I think that includes Diaby. I like the way Diaby plays when he's healthy and I'm always rooting for him to finally stay that way, but this is a season where I don't believe he'll contribute even if it all comes together. He certainly wouldn't start over any of the usual eleven and it is much more important to give playing time to people like Podolski and Ox than Diaby because he will need so much more time to get back to match fitness and gel with the team. Maybe that's for the best and he can get a fresh start in 2014-2015, but it also might be time to move on from him, sad as that may be.

In my opinion Ramsey simply has to play in his favored box-to-box role once he returns. He was an absolute superstar in the early part of the year and he plays that position better than anyone else in the squad with his work ethic and knack for timing runs into the opponent's 18. If he is granted his spot, then I prefer a midfield that plays Cazorla on the left, Wilshere in the middle, and Ozil on the right. On current form I think Jack needs to stay in the lineup and playing him as the attacking mid takes away some of his defensive responsibilities, which can only be for the better. There will certainly be matches when it makes more sense to start a Gnabry or an Ox over him to get some pace on the wing, but that's more or less how I'd like to see it settle: Arteta, Ramsey, Cazorla, Wilshere, and Ozil. Any changes for you?

Sam: As I've said before, in my opinion the caliber of the opponent should dictate who plays, but with current injury issues, then I'm mostly in agreement with you. I like to see at least one 'true' wide player in the attacking three, so I would probably have Ox or Gnabry in there. You make a very convincing point about Jack and Aaron though, and I expect your line-up is pretty close to Arsene Wenger's thinking. It seems that Ramsey is close to a return, so I personally would choose: Arteta/Flamini, Ramsey; Cazorla, Ozil and Oxlade-Chamberlain. Wilshere and Gnabry would be pushing hard for places though.

Well, I think that about ties it up. Next week we're likely to have a new voice on the Throwdown, so I'm looking forward to that. 'Til then, let's look for a positive performance and good win against Coventry tomorrow and Southampton on Tuesday

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