Four games into the season and Arsene Wenger still wouldn’t be confident in telling you his first choice starting eleven. One of the biggest positions up for debate is who should play centrally alongside Francis Coquelin; Aaron Ramsey or Santi Cazorla.
Ramsey put in an impressive display in central midfield against Chelsea in the Community Shield with Cazorla out on the left, however after the shock opening day defeat to West Ham, he has since been shifted out to the right wing, with the small Spaniard playing centrally against Crystal Palace, Liverpool and Newcastle.
Comparing the attributes of the two players, many would argue Ramsey is superior for the role. His work rate and energy in the midfield is something that Cazorla lacks. The Welshman has the engine to get up and down the pitch and provides power to the Arsenal midfield. Ramsey is a box-to-box midfielder. He will offer much more defensive protection to the team and at the same time will guarantee more goals than the Spaniard from central midfield.
Despite all this, it is very clear that Arsenal are a much better team when Cazorla plays centrally. This is evident from how much better Arsenal played against Crystal Palace compared to the woeful performance against West Ham. Moreover, Arsenal were one of the best teams in the league in the second half of last season. Cazorla playing centrally was key to this.
Aaron Ramsey is no doubt the better central midfielder on paper but because of the way Arsenal set up, Cazorla has to play centrally. Arsenal’s attacking play is based on the central midfielder’s picking the ball up from the defence and getting it forward into the gaps, between the opposition’s midfield and defensive line, as quickly as possible. Ramsey, for all his abilities, isn’t capable of doing this and it means that when Arsenal play a midfield two of Coquelin and Ramsey, Arsenal struggle to get the ball forward to key players such as Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez. Santi Cazorla for all his faults as a central midfielder, is one of the best at picking the ball up in space, turning and getting it forward. For that reason, he has to start centrally ahead of Ramsey.
Moreover, Cazorla is a much better midfield partner to Coquelin. The two compliment each other well, with the Frenchman offering the midfield the physicality that Cazorla lacks. At the same time the Spaniard offers the midfield the technical ability that Coquelin lacks. Whilst Ramsey is a better central midfielder in his own right, Cazorla playing centrally offers more balance to the team. It gives the team more fluidity and certainly brings the best out of key Arsenal players such as Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil.
If Arsenal had a more technically sound defensive midfielder in the Carrick or Busquets mould, then Ramsey could certainly have a starring role in central midfield as the responsibility of picking the ball up from the defence would be partially taken away from him. However, that is an entirely different debate. For the moment, the way Arsenal play and the current group of players that Wenger has at his disposal, it is vital Cazorla stays in central midfield.