A theme of Arsenal's season so far has been a lack of balance in the midfield. When Abou Diaby and Mikel Arteta played as a deep axis in front of the defence with Santi Cazorla in front, the side looked good, particularly against Liverpool and Manchester City away. However, the inevitable injury to Diaby and the return of Jack Wilshere led to a reshuffle.
The potential combination of Wilshere, Arteta and Cazorla had had mouths watering since before the Englishman had returned from his long-term layoff – indeed, there were several brilliant moves involving the trio such as the superb triangle against West Brom last month. However, the midfield just didn't quite work.
Arteta had coped fine in front of the defence alongside Alex Song, and found Diaby to also be a capable partner. But when it came to playing alongside Wilshere, who's becoming more and more attack-minded as the games go by, Arteta has had little support in screening the back four. For a naturally defensive-minded midfield player, one with a bit more pace too, that role might be alright, but Arteta isn't a proper holding midfielder, and recent games have highlighted his lack of pace.
While he was one of Arsenal's most vital players last season, Arteta's injury before the Manchester City game came as a bit of a blessing. Although Diaby slotted straight in for the Spaniard and not much changed, the FA Cup third-round replay saw real progress in terms of Arsenal's midfield balance. Santi Cazorla was moved out wide, and Francis Coquelin came into the middle, with Wilshere moving further forward.
Playing Cazorla on the flank was something that had been advocated by many Arsenal fans, as he'd enjoyed success there in Spain, and it was useful in allowing him to drift inside away from his marker, rather than being stifled by a defensive midfielder keeping tabs on him. It also gave Kieran Gibbs acres of space to run into down the left, with the full-back marauding into the gap several times.
Wilshere meanwhile was man of the match in the advanced role in which Cazorla usually plays – it always seemed inevitable that he would follow the steps of Fabregas in gradually becoming more attacking, and his performance against Swansea marked a significant step in that.
Finally, the pivot of Francis Coquelin and Abou Diaby was much more disciplined and balanced. Coquelin has seemed to lack awareness in the past, but he made some well-timed runs from deep to create space, and played well as Arsenal's disruptor of play. Diaby is still returning from injury, but put in a decent performance, maintaining his positional discipline well on the whole.
While Wilshere, Arteta and Cazorla might be Arsenal's most aesthetically pleasing midfield trio, for them to strike the correct balance, it seems sensible to move Cazorla out wide more often, with Wilshere in front of a more disciplined midfield two. It's unsure whether Arsene Wenger will continue with Wilshere as the main playmaker against Chelsea, but it's been obvious that Cazorla and Wilshere are too attack-minded to play together centrally of late, and against a team of Chelsea's attacking potential, it seems likely that Wenger continues with the more balanced approach.
On top of achieving that vital balance, it also means Wilshere, Arsenal's most influential player at the moment, is at the heart of every move, more able to drive his team forward. Arsenal haven't had a player to build around since Fabregas left, and while it was hoped Cazorla could be that player, he's struggled a little for consistency in his first season at the Emirates.
The process of making Wilshere the Gunners' most important player will be continued by playing him as the main playmaker, and the doubts that he isn't ready for that role were emphatically silenced by his match-winning performance against Swansea. Of course, he'll need experience in the hole to be able to be called a proper number 10, but he's certainly come on leaps and bounds since he was last tried there, in the absence of Fabregas in 2011.
It will be a huge test if he is started there at Stamford Bridge, and it'll show whether Wilshere has the ability to dictate big matches. Still, there aren't many better times to play Chelsea in west London and it's vital that Wenger addresses the balance issue.