Arsenal are just three points off the top of the table, but they aren’t being talked about as title contenders in the same way that Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester City are. Issues remain for Arsene Wenger to solve before they can be considered as a real force in this division. They have a squad that should be challenging for major honours, but there remain doubts about their tactics and team selection, especially in midfield. Their transition phase has been a weakness in recent weeks, with the midfield lacking the vision to launch attacks from deep, which allows the opposition side more time to regain defensive formation. This is mainly due to the absence of Santi Cazorla and the Gunners don’t have a like-for-like replacement in the squad. If only Arsenal had duplicates of Cazorla in the same way there are the rich variety of applications for internet gambling but unfortunately for Arsene Wenger, squad building doesn’t work that way.
The main issue with Arsene Wenger is that he is a very stubborn coach and he is not likely to move away from the 4-2-3-1 formation, even if his side would benefit from it. It has been relatively successful for Arsenal, but without Cazorla available, it could be useful to move to a three-man midfield. There are some good options in the squad to play in central midfield, but they are being limited by the side’s formation as they don’t have the correct profiles to mesh in a 4-2-3-1.
Wenger has tried several different combinations of Aaron Ramsey, Granit Xhaka, Francis Coquelin and Mohamed Elneny, but none of them have been effective. This suggests that it is a problem of the system rather than any one individual underperforming. A move to a three-man midfield would provide Arsenal with defensive cover, but the players would be able to play roles that are better suited to their skill-sets. It would take a huge change from Wenger, but it is one required if they are to challenge for the title this season in the absence of Cazorla.
Xhaka, in particular, has struggled since moving to Arsenal due to the role that he is being asked to play. At the moment, he is being utilised as a ball-winning midfielder, which doesn’t suit him entirely. Although he is a robust tackler and a good reader of the game, he is limited by how much he can get involved in the attacking play. The Swiss international has a powerful strike from distance and is an intelligent passer, therefore he should be given more licence to get on the ball and influence the game.
Arsenal should experiment with a three-man midfield containing Xhaka, Ramsey and Coquelin. This is a good combination of tenacity, energy and technical ability. The latter could play a holding role in front of the back four, providing the other two with the opportunity to play a box-to-box role. They both have the work rate and attacking qualities to thrive in such a role, while it would lead to Arsenal being a lot better in transition as they would have runners from midfield.
The problem with a move to a three-man midfield is that it would create questions about the role of Mesut Ozil, as there would no longer be a number ten role. The German is one of the best creators in the league, but his performances have suffered recently due to the problems that lie in central midfield. He is no longer getting the ball enough to influence matches and that is a huge worry for Wenger.
In the last three Premier League matches, Arsenal have had only six shots on target and they need to improve the quality of their chance creation. They are beginning to become over-reliant on Alexis Sanchez and unless they improve in the midfield, they will start to lose ground on the leading pack. It is unlikely that Wenger is going to move away from a 4-2-3-1 formation, but he must find a midfield two that he can rely on in the transition phase. He could be forced to change the roles that they are asked to play or make a tactical tweak elsewhere, but he needs to change something as Arsenal aren’t looking quite right at the moment.