The Polarising Pivot: A Look at Arsenal’s Divisive Midfield Pairing

The Polarising Pivot: A Look at Arsenal’s Divisive Midfield Pairing

Are Aaron Ramsey and Granit Xhaka a good centre midfield pairing? Ask that question of 100 Arsenal supporters and their answer will be accompanied by almost as many differing opinions on each player, as well as on their work as a duo. The answer will also depend on when it is asked, as one week the two could dominate the tempo of an entire match and contribute to multiple goals, while in the next could easily bear the brunt of the criticism for a disappointing loss. Both players are well respected across Europe and have performed in major roles for their countries at international level.
Since Arsene Wenger has been in charge, a hallmark of most Arsenal sides has been the strength of its central midfield. Whether it was the 90’s with the big and physical midfield general types like Patrick Vieira and Emmanuel Petit, the mid 00’s with the technical mastery of Cesc Fabregas and Tomas Rosicky, to even a few short years ago when Jack Wilshere, Ramsey and Santi Cazorla wove together magical combinations, it has often been the best and deepest group in the squad. Lately, however, the depth is just not there. Where before there was a weekly dilemma for the manager about how to get his midfield talent all on the pitch, now there are questions whether or not the club even have enough serviceable players in the position. Arsenal have even switched to a formation that highlights the redistribution of talent and depth toward the flanks.
If Aaron Ramsey has always been an incredible talent with maddening inconsistencies, it appeared that Granit Xhaka might have struggled last year in part because his manager did not even know how best to use him. Signed last season from Borussia Monchengladbach for £35 million, Xhaka was the most expensive midfielder ever signed by Arsenal, and came with corresponding hype. Fans thought they were finally getting Patrick Vieira with Andrea Pirlo’s passing range, but they soon found out he was not that sort of midfielder. Xhaka lacks the pace and tackling technique to shield the back line at the base of a midfield, so Arsene Wenger quickly started touting his qualities as a box to box midfielder, a role he was forced in to at times last season due to injuries. Possessing neither the motor nor the pace (a common theme with Xhaka, you’ll notice) to carry out that role effectively, and having made a few poorly timed turnovers and disciplinary gaffes, fans started to wonder if they had a transfer bust on their hands.
From almost the beginning of Xhaka’s time with the club, and especially after the crushing loss of Cazorla last autumn to an Achilles injury that has still not fully healed, many fans believed Aaron Ramsey to be the perfect partner to the less rangy but much more efficient Swiss international. His tireless running and attacking nous should have been complimentary at the base of Arsenal’s midfield in their 4-2-3-1 still favoured at the time, but the result was almost shockingly disjointed, with the pair often proving woefully inadequate at shielding the defence. With Ramsey also suffering through nagging injuries and poor form throughout the first two thirds of the season, The beating heart of most Arsenal teams in years past was starting to look like a liability.
Mercifully, the performance of the midfield improved massively in the run up to the end of the season after Arsene Wenger totally changed the formation to a 3-4-2-1 after an embarrassing 3-0 loss to West Brom. Aaron Ramsey had recovered enough by April to start to string together consistent performances, and Granit Xhaka was beginning to assert himself on a regular place in the starting XI after himself returning from suspension. The pair once again resumed their partnership, but this time, and within the framework of a new formation (though similar to one that Xhaka played in at Monchengladbach) they started to click.
With the added protection of an extra central defender, Ramsey in particular was relieved of some of his defensive responsibilities and was really able to impact matches with his marauding forward runs. Xhaka was able to sit in the hole and distribute the ball all over the pitch while helping to dictate the tempo of the match. As a whole, Arsenal improved immensely, only losing to rivals Tottenham in the run up to the end of the season and a third FA Cup in 4 years.
After such a promising end to the previous season, fans could be forgiven for thinking that Ramsey and Xhaka would build on their successes from the end of last season. What instead transpired was a reversion to the worst versions of themselves: Ramsey the erratic chicken with his head cut off and Xhaka, the cement legged midfielder with inexplicable momentary lapses of judgment. Fans looked on in dismay as the transfer window ended just as it looked like this team was developing a real need for reinforcements in the midfield. An international break and improved performances afterwards have one increased the uncertainty surrounding the pairing.
So, can Arsenal win silverware with Xhaka and Ramsey at the pivot? Many still aren’t convinced. A brief scan through the depths of social media shows that some would prefer to see Xhaka replaced in the XI altogether, or that Ramsey should be moved out of the midfield and into a more advance position. Others still are desperate for Jack Wilshere to get a look in either position (though realistically it would be Ramsey’s), and the most pessimistic of the lot believe there to be no answers in the current squad, save perhaps for the brilliant but absent Cazorla, and are desperate to see Wenger add to the position this winter.
Despite the lack of a general consensus, it is clear for now that Arsene Wenger and the coaching staff believe both players to be the answer in the centre of the park. After the embarrassment at Anfield, the team went back to the drawing board, simplifying the defensive roles and pushing the wing backs’ position further back into more useful defensive areas to help the midfield stop an opponent’s attack. Granit Xhaka is still in the eye of the midfield, his distribution abilities and positional awareness really coming to the fore when the team are clicking. Ramsey on the other hand, has added back some more traditional central midfield responsibilities back into his game.
One of the biggest problems that Arsenal faced early this season after losing the ball was the total ease in which their opponent was able to bypass the midfield and create scoring chances against the overmatched Gunner defence. Because the attack had so much success at the end of last season in creating discomfort for opposing defences with Ramsey’s verticality, it was really turned into a common feature to open the year. However, leaving just one midfielder to shield a back 3 proved to be woefully inadequate, especially against counter attacks, resulting in a disastrous 8 goals being allowed in the first 3 matches of the Premier League campaign. Against Bournemouth and again at Stamford Bridge against Chelsea, Ramsey’s average position was much closer to that of Xhaka. He also played far more under control when defending, a far cry from his totally ineffectual first half at Anfield that saw him subbed off to open the second.
As improved as the team has looked since recovering against Bournemouth, it was Sunday’s performance against Chelsea that offers the most hope for this team looking ahead. With the amount of attacking talent at Wenger’s disposal, the goals will come, so being held scoreless by a very good defensive Chelsea side shouldn’t be that alarming, especially given that Arsenal often looked the more threatening of the two, particularly in the first half. No, what impressed more than anything was the organisation and tenacity that every Arsenal player showed, but particularly the midfield pairing. Far from putting his blinders on and pretending to be a support striker, Ramsey was all over the pitch, maintaining effective distance between him and his Swiss partner while also not being afraid to drop deep into the defence to collect the ball and turn up field when Chelsea dialled up the pressure. This renewed awareness and efficiency in his own end did not do much to take away from his attacking contribution either, as he still found himself around the box during Arsenal’s closest scoring opportunities, as well as making some of his patented ‘is he brilliant or just clumsy?’ escapes with ball in the middle of the pitch.
Finally, there is a real reason to believe that there is more still to come from this midfield duo. With the Welshman entering the heart of his prime at 26, and Xhaka still only 24 and only in his second Premier League campaign, the Gunners potentially have years of quality football remaining from both players. Despite having been at Arsenal for ages, Ramsey has never really had a consistent place in the side since Mesut Ozil’s arrival in 2013. As the clear second choice behind the magical German in the number 10 role, Ramsey was forced to earn game time either as a holding midfielder (with uneven results, as previously discussed) or stuck out unceremoniously on the right flank, where his poor crossing was obvious and his ability to dribble through traffic not easily translatable to the wide areas. Last season’s formation switch was the first time in about 4 years in which there was a role that Ramsey was the most suitable candidate.
Those who believe Granit Xhaka’s lack of pace to be an insurmountable hurdle have only to look at the career that Andrea Pirlo has been able to carve out for himself over two decades. Never blessed with pace in his prime, Pirlo was always a success because of his uncanny vision and laser precise passing ability with limitless range. Though Xhaka is not yet, and may never be, the passer of the ball that Pirlo is, he is twice the defender that the Italian ever was. Players with their combination of good technique and poor pace need a midfielder that can shoulder the bulk of the running duties for them, so that they may do what they do best: read the game and turn defence into a scoring opportunity with a perfectly placed long pass. Pirlo had that in his halcyon days at AC Milan with the tireless Gennaro Gattuso next to him, and Xhaka has that now with Ramsey.
If it was good enough for one of the most legendary European club sides of the last two decades, surely it is good enough for ‘struggling Europa League side’ Arsenal?

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