Often criticized for having a weak spine, Arsène Wenger has been searching for a strong defensive midfield option for a while. Wenger found success with the likes of Emmanuel Petit and club favourite Gilberto Silva, both of whom partnered Patrick Vieira, but as the “Invincibles” team aged, replacements were necessary.
Today, the club is still struggling to replicate the success of that era. Various names have been and gone since the stadium move; various names have tried to replace Vieira and his midfield partners, but the holding midfield role is still unstable. Mikel Arteta is another fan favourite who attempted to bring success back to a frustrated fan base. The two FA Cup successes in which he played a part were significant, as they calmed a disappointed fan base.
Arsenal Need to Move on From Francis Coquelin
Wenger’s latest attempt to fill an ever-present void was the signing of Granit Xhaka. The Swiss midfielder hasn’t exactly blown Arsenal fans away so far. Looking to create more often than not, Xhaka leaves the likes of Laurent Koscielny and Shkodran Mustafi exposed. But Francis Coquelin is the team’s main holding midfielder. Wenger has shown a lot of faith in the Frenchman, persisting with him in the starting XI, but as the team continues to struggle, Coquelin is a player Wenger should play much less often.
An unfortunate reputation
Known for being aggressive, undisciplined and reckless, all those have led to Coquelin becoming notorious amongst referees. He has already been booked on eight occasions this season, and is somehow yet to have been sent off.
Having just signed a new deal with the club, it is unlikely that he will leave Arsenal, but it wouldn’t be the worst outcome if he did. Xhaka and Mohamed Elneny are relatively new signings, and deserve at least some of the patience that was afforded to Coquelin. If Arsenal need to gather extra funds for summer signings, the longest-serving of Arsenal’s defensive-minded midfielders should be given the axe.
Who could replace Coquelin long-term
All of Europe’s top clubs have world-class defensive midfielders and a system which benefits them. Chelsea have N’Golo Kanté; Barcelona have Sergio Busquets and Bayern Munich have the soon-to-be-retired Xabi Alonso. Arsenal desperately need to catch up in this area.
Officially in his prime, Steven N’Zonzi is playing the best football of his career. A key player in Sevilla’s promising side, he would be a perfect fit for Arsenal. Capable of being an anchor in front of the back four, he is also a very good passer, which is key to the way Arsenal play.
During his time with Stoke and Blackburn, N’Zonzi gained a reputation as a solid, if unspectacular holding midfielder. Once rumoured to be joining Arsenal for a cut price, he headed to Spain. Now one of the best holding midfielders in the world, it would make perfect sense for him to return to the Premier League.
Labelled the new Yaya Touré, Franck Kessie is a box-to-box midfielder. Starting his career at centre-back, Kessie moved up into the holding role for Atalanta. With seven goals and four assists to his name this season, Kessie can do it all. He might not be at Vieira’s level, at least not yet, but the talented Ivorian has the potential to become a special player. Kessie would need a move to big club to reach the next level, and Arsenal can be that team.
Naby Keita—RB Leipzig
One of the surprise teams in the Bundesliga this season has been RB Leipzig. Currently second in the table, Leipzig look set for European football next season, despite being a newly-promoted side. One of Leipzig’s key players has been midfielder Naby Keita. The 22-year-old from Guinea has set Germany’s top flight alight, and playing as a defensive midfielder hasn’t stopped him from scoring six goals and tallying eight assists.
He may be small in stature but Keita doesn’t let that hold him back. His great strength, particularly considering he is only 5″8′, means that he won’t struggle with the physicality of the Premier League. In fact, he could be Arsenal’s answer to missing out on N’Golo Kanté, as he is of a similar mould and would be able to make an instant impact.
The future of Arsenal is very cloudy right now. The team is fighting for a top four instead of the title; Wenger’s future is constantly under threat, with the fans and the media speculating daily; plus the futures of Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Özil are unclear to say the least. The holding midfield role is just part of what needs sorting out, but it is one of the most important building blocks in any team.