How to fit ten into three: Arsenal’s growing midfield selection headache

For as long as we can remember, Arsene Wenger has enjoyed playing three central midfielders: a dedicated ten, a true holding midfielder, and a creative/box-to-box midfielder. As a result, he has always kept the first team stacked with plenty of players to fill the roles with the option of pushing some of them out to the wings when necessary.

This however, has started to become an issue for Wenger in recent times – for the best of reasons – as he has cultivated a rapidly improved central midfield. Along with that, the emergence of Alexis Sánchez on the left wing and the return to form of Theo Walcott possibly on the right has left Wenger with a complete selection headache.

The easiest problem that Wenger has had to handle thus far has been the competition for the ten slot. Mesut Özil, Santi Cazorla, and Tomáš Rosický all compete for that position and with continuous rotation, all of them have managed to maintain a fair balance of minutes on the field.

Özil has been widely regarded as the favourite for the position with Cazorla rotating in and being forced out wide at times before his new reinvented position deep in midfield. Rosický as the elder statesman of the three has been content with limited appearances off the bench.

However, next season may require more careful rotation of Cazorla into the lineup to keep him satisfied with his role in the Arsenal first team. His secondary position of left midfielder has been taken by Sanchez and he may have to resign himself to less minutes than he had in the 13/14 season as one can’t imagine Ramsey continuing to play out wide.

Luckily for all three, Wenger has not been looking to the transfer market to provide that position with even more competition. As a result, the European trio should have a clear idea of what they will be fighting for within the team next season. Özil would be expected to get the lion’s share of minutes just ahead of Cazorla and with Rosický having an even more limited role than last season.

Wenger’s next dilemma comes in the form of the true holding midfielder, a role that some people have come to know as the ‘destroyer’ midfielder. Since returning from loan at Charlton Athletic, Francis Coquelin has burst into the spotlight and has grabbed the first team holding midfield position by the throat and has yet to relinquish it. Despite arriving at Arsenal as a 17-year-old in 2008, Coquelin has only just gone through his breakthrough season at the age of 24.

The timing could not have been better due to a large patch of inconsistency from the only other true first-team holding midfielder; Mathieu Flamini. With Flamini past his best, coupled with the long-coming release of Abou Diaby, long term injury of Mikel Arteta and inexperience of Krystian Bielik, a lot currently rests on the shoulders of the young Frenchman.

As a result, Wenger has been looking toward to transfer market to bolster this position, either for a young understudy to Coquelin and Flamini or an outright starting holding-midfielder to give competition to Coquelin.

So far, the only true holding midfielder or ‘destroyer’ that has been linked with Arsenal in the transfer rumour mill has been the 25-year-old Polish midfielder; Grzegorz Krychowiak, who currently plays for Sevilla (as the rumours of Morgan Schneiderlin have died down recently).

With a very similar style of play to Coquelin, Krychowiak has had an outstanding season in La Liga and has been rated as one of the best holding midfielders of the year in Spain. However Wenger has signaled his faith in Coquelin to maintain his first team position with Flamini to back him up (assuming he is not released or sold).

Even with all that sorted out, Wenger still has to work with the position for which he has the most competition, the remaining creative/box-to-box midfielder. Currently, it seems Aaron Ramsey holds this position with competition from the returning Jack Wilshere from injury, Arteta who is looking to sign a contract extension, and the rapidly emerging American; Gedion Zelalem.

Arteta and Zelalem look to be the easiest to deal with as their respective ages allow Wenger the excuse to use them in more limited roles. Arteta is becoming increasingly injury prone and thus, his creativity can only be used in short stints while Zelalem’s youth has not allowed him enough experience to crack into the starting XI just yet.

The remaining dilemma sits with the competition between Ramsey and Wilshere. Both play very similar roles in the team and only through Wilshere’s more extreme tendency to get injured and Ramsey’s single impressive season in 13/14 has him emerged as the favourite. Upon both players being fit, Wenger has been forced to experiment with one of them on the right wing with the other filling the box-to-box position.

It serves as a surprise to hear that Arsenal are being linked to even more central midfielders. Players like Claudio Marchisio, Schneiderlin and Geoffrey Kondogbia who have all been linked.

Aside from that, Wenger also appears to be looking at serious box-to-box midfielders to bring into the squad. The names cropping up that are linked include Arturo Vidal and Lars Bender – the latter of which Arsenal have had a protracted interest in before. If either were to sign for Arsenal, Ramsey and Wilshere would be in an even tougher battle to keep their minutes for the 15/16 season.

It would be a very distinct signal from Wenger in a push for more trophies for the new season if he were to sign another player for this position. It would also be an unusual ruthlessness from Wenger as he has been very loyal to his current players over new transfer signings but it would be a welcome change for the fans.

For too long Arsenal have been seen as a pushover club to the other big clubs in England and Europe in general and it may take a ruthless streak from the manager to change that. Regardless of any new signings coming in to bolster the midfield over this summer, Wenger already has a nightmare in maintaining such a good and expansive midfield with adequate play time for everyone.

Only time will tell us as to how Wenger hopes to carry out this task but with the likes of very tactical rotation and the potential release of one or two current players, he may just pull it off.