With impulsive tackler Granit Xhaka slated to miss four matches for his second red card of the campaign, Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger is considering inserting one of three youngsters in the Swiss international’s stead.
Compounding Xhaka’s second ban in a 13 league-match span is a host of other first-team absences.
Mohamed Elneny is in Gabon for Africa Cup of Nations play, Jack Wilshere remains on loan at Bournemouth sans recall clause, and Santi Cazorla continues to recover from an Achilles concern, meaning Wenger and Co. head into a weekend FA Cup clash against Southampton with just Francis Coquelin and Aaron Ramsey manning the central midfield role.
Speaking with reporters ahead of Saturday’s trip to St. Mary’s, Wenger addressed the shortage of deep-lying midfielders.
“After (Coquelin and Ramsey), we have Jeff Reine-Adelaide and Ainsley Maitland-Niles, and Alex Iwobi can play in there although he’s not a defensive specialist,” Wenger offered, according to the Evening Standard’s James Benge.
Of the three, angular ex-Lens player Reine-Adelaide is likely the most natural fill-in, having played the role since emerging from the Gunners’ academy last season. Maitland-Niles is a converted winger who has played once in the league as a right-back, and Iwobi is an attacking midfielder most comfortable deputising for Mesut Ozil as a No. 10.
With Coquelin and Ramsey set to start against League Cup finalist Southampton, Wenger is sure to include the trio of youngsters in the matchday squad – especially Iwobi, who has been a mainstay this campaign, starting 14 times in the Premier League.
A short turnaround for Tuesday’s league match with Watford could also prompt Wenger to opt for a younger side in the cup.
Sounding content with the idea of turning to the trio of academy graduates, Wenger added, “Those are the options we have.”
Despite Xhaka’s ban – on which Wenger commented, “Tackling is not the first quality of Xhaka” – Arsenal will be boosted by the return of Theo Walcott and Per Mertesacker. Both were in training Friday at Arsenal’s Colney ground and could appear on the team sheet for the weekend FA Cup sojourn.