After a shaky start to the season with a 3-1 loss to Aston Villa, Arsenal have bounced back to win their last eight matches largely due to the strong showings from their midfield. One outstanding performer in that midfield has been Aaron Ramsey. Ramsey’s goal scoring and over all play has been key to Arsenal’s early success, but a major talking point for Arsenal fans has been who should play next to him? The three options Arsenal have to pair with Ramsey are Mikel Arteta, Jack Wilshere, and Mathieu Flamini. Arsenal play the 4-2-3-1 formation and, with the three pretty much set, when everyone is fit, with Cazorla, Ozil, and Walcott, the question is: who is the first choice man to pair with Ramsey in the other defensive midfield spot? The key is to find the player who can strike the correct balance in the team.
Flamini was signed this summer on a free transfer from A.C. Milan to start his second spell with Arsenal, after playing for the club from 2004-2008. Flamini is a combative midfielder that will just sit in front of the back four and protect the defence. He is probably the most defensive of the three choices. Since rejoining Arsenal, Flamini has started three Premier League games and also came off the bench for the second half of the North London derby. He has impressed since coming back, proving to be a good rock in the midfield. When he sits in front of the defence it allows the other midfielders like Ramsey, Wilshere, Ozil, and Cazorla, to go forward with more freedom. Since he has come back to Arsenal, Flamini has made a tackle every 35 minutes but has only won 44% of those tackles; nevertheless, he has been able to win the ball back every 16 minutes. His passing has been good, completing 92% of his passes including 91% in the attacking third. While his passing percentage is high, his passing is not very penetrative and he in not a creative player like Arteta or Wilshere – in fact, he’s only created two chances so far this season equating to one every 159 minutes. What many have been impressed by is the way Flamini leads the teams, organises the defence, and shouts orders the entire game. Flamini is also not scared to put a foot in and pick up a yellow card, having picked up three yellow cards already.
Wilshere is the most offensive option of the three and has been labelled as the saviour of English football because of his obvious technical ability and potential. All that said, most people believe, unless Wilshere is able to raise his level, he is the least likely of the trio to be paired with Ramsey right now. Wilshere is a creative player who loves to push forward and is a good dribbler, completing 56 dribbles last season, that is great at driving forward with the ball. The big problem for Wilshere is when he plays, he throws off the balance of the Arsenal team. Wilshere is a very forward thinking player and is a good creator, creating a chance every 36 minutes last season and, while he isn’t a bad tackler, making a tackle every 51 minutes and completing 85% of the tackles, he does not stay back enough – making it too easy for the opponent to bypass the Arsenal midfield. Wilshere is not afraid to put in a tackle but, with his injury record, sometimes it is a bit risky for him to go in hard. While the Ramsey/Wilshere partnership could be extremely fruitful in the future, at the moment WIlshere seems the least likely to be paired with Ramsey, unless he can recapture some of his pre-injury form.
Arteta was Arsenal’s primary defensive midfielder last season, but has missed the first few weeks of the season through injury. Arteta was not a defensive midfielder when he came to Arsenal but he has adapted well. Arteta is the middle ground of the three players in terms of playing styles. He is not nearly as forward thinking as Wilshere but is also not as defensive as Flamini. Arteta, at 31, does not have the same physical attributes that he used to have but he makes up for that by having fantastic positional awareness, and made 101 interceptions last season. Arteta is usually described as a midfield metronome because of the way he just sits back, pinging passes all over the pitch. Last season, Arteta made 0.92 passes every minute and completed 91% of those passes. Arteta is not as vocal as Flamini but still is able to organise the Arsenal midfield and defence. Last season, when Arteta did not play, you could tell the Arsenal midfield lost it’s shape and they became a lot more porous in defence. Arteta was paired with Ramsey last season during Arsenal’s run late last season that allowed them to jump above Tottenham and into the Champions League. During this run in the last 11 games of the season, Arsenal allowed only one goal from open play during that stretch and the run was built on the defensive solidity that seemed to appear once Ramsey was paired with Arteta, and Koscielny came into the defence. While Arteta did play pretty deep, he still created reasonably well last season, creating a chance every 115 minutes.
Arsenal will want to continue this run of form, go forward and end that eight year trophy drought; getting that balance right will be key to doing so. With all the injury problems so far this year, Arsene Wenger will not be disappointed about having to make this decision, but it is a big decision (although all three are likely to get their chance at some point). With Arsenal comprehensively beating an in-form Napoli in their important Champions League game, with Arteta and Flamini in midfield, it will be interesting to see what part Wilshere has to play and whether Wenger will change a winning formula.