What must Arsenal do to sort out their midfield.
Posted by Featured Articles | Published on December 26, 2016
Arsene Wenger’s men took a huge blow to their title surge as they suffered consecutive defeats for the first time this season. One week ago, Arsenal sat joint top of the Premier League in a very promising position, but to show how intense this league can be, two heart-breaking defeats sees the Gunners drop down to fourth position, now looking over their shoulder at the fifth and sixth place instead of looking up as they sit nine points behind League leaders, Chelsea.
The Gunners had two massive away games last week which would certainly show their title credentials and show if they have overcome the mental strength which they have lacked in recent seasons. Firstly, they travelled to Goodison Park where they faced a very off form Everton side. But, Arsenal was out fought and technically not good enough as they suffered their second defeat of the season with Ronald Koeman enforcing another heartache on Arsene Wenger. On Sunday afternoon Arsene Wenger’s men travelled to the Etihad stadium where they again were coming up against a side who were missing three key players and not being able to find their feet thus far. Again, Arsenal crumbled under pressure and was battered against Pep Guardiola’s side with the 2-1 score line flattering the away side for as City side showed no remorse.
Arsenal took the lead in both games after quick starts and controlling the tempo and the speed of the game. Something Arsenal struggled with immensely was when they were pressed in the middle of the park and high up the pitch, it was something the Gunners could not cope with as they were not able to control the game. The attitude they dealt with the press suggests they thought it would just subside, but it didn’t and City and Everton were both bypassing many areas of Arsenals structure with ease.
The reason Arsenal are struggling to control games as of late is because the midfield pivot is still not quite right. Since the brilliant Santi Cazorla has been sidelined we have seen Granit Xhaka and Francis Coquelin in the midfield base of the starting XI for both games, and in both games neither player was contributing to any kind of control for their team, with the latter, in my opinion, holding back the former’s ability to dictate from deep.
Since Coquelin broke into the starting XI he was straight away deployed into a deep defensive midfield role, and that position suited him perfectly. His job was to break up play, win tackles, fight for duels and cover Arsenal in case they become vulnerable on the counter attack. But, this season he has become a more box-to-box player for the Gunners and it is holding their rhythm back significantly. The Frenchman, playing this box-to-box role must adapt himself to become much more prodigious in possession and become a more efficient passer, maintaining quick tempo and ability to move play on from defensive positions and supporting the attacking players. This is where Coquelin struggles due to lack of ability in each of these demands. He has been instructed to press from the midfield, which is fine, he is a superlative counter-presser. But, often when he does win back position high up the pitch his lack of technical ability becomes apparent, as you can see from the diagram below which shows Coquelin’s attacking/defensive phase against Manchester City.
In offensive areas, Coquelin does not possess the qualities of other Arsenal midfielders nor has the natural ability to become dangerous in the final third due to him not being good enough on the ball or in offensive space. A real weakness of Coquelin is his control in possession and lack of the first touch, this can slow Arsenal’s tempo down due to the Frenchman wanting to play safe too often and wanting to go backwards rather than into offensive areas.
So, speaking of Coquelin’s natural abilities, one trait he carries is his tackling, but again this has seemed to have taken a hit since him deploying this new box-to-box role. He won just two tackles against Manchester City, which for a supposed holding midfielder, is quite shocking, and considering he does not help going forward nor starts counter attacks, his inclusion next to Xhaka must be questioned.
Coquelin does not have great dribbling abilities nor does he have efficient passing skills, him occupying space further up the pitch is quite wasteful, he is yet to score a goal for Arsenal in over 80 appearances and does not help our attack flow at all. The Frenchman also has flaws playing this role, he often presses high up as far up as Alexis Sanchez and leaves massive gaps for the opposition to attack, our press could be bypassed and counter-attacked ever so quickly and this then puts real pressure on us defensively.
At Goodison Park, Coquelin did get into some good offensive positions but as you can see from the diagram below he does not have the ability to pick out passes in tight areas, with him having the ball and going forward just a few times in Everton’s half whilst sticking to passing sideways / backwards which allowed Everton’s midfield and defence to regroup.
Arsenal should not have to reply on Coquelin in the third phase of their attack, but, playing the same role as the likes of Aaron Ramsey and even to an extent Mohamed Elneny you must question why these players are not playing alongside Xhaka instead as they are much more fluent in the same role in the squad and offer as much defensively and a lot more in the offensive areas.
Then there is the argument of relying on Mesut Ozil, Alex Iwobi and Theo Walcott to create from the midfield three behind Arsenal’s number 9 Alexis Sanchez, sticking with two holding midfielders and being sure to sit deep and win duels. But, when Coquelin sits too deep, he restricts Xhaka’s qualities, due to the fact Xhaka has sublime ability to pass through the lines and bypass an entire attack/midfield with one immense pass, he can also refrain pressure on his side due to having the capability to play with the ball in tight positions. When Granit Xhaka played for Borussia Monchengladbach he was the deepest midfielder, by quite a margin and 8/10 would pick the ball up from the centre-backs to start an attack from deep, allowing the Switzerland man to dictate and control. So, if Coquelin sits in the exact same positions it stops Xhaka feeding out from deep, and of course takes a body away from offensive areas to receive the ball between the lines. This is more of a tactical problem, though. Arsenal should be playing 4-1-4-1 with Xhaka being the only holding midfielder and arguably having two number ten’s in Mesut Ozil and Aaron Ramsey with the later deploying the box-to-box role.
Xhaka finding the right partner is crucial to Arsenal’s success in being able to dominate and control their opponents. The suggestion of playing Aaron Ramsey alongside Xhaka could raise eyebrows on the defensive side of the game with both players not being formidable tacklers, but many would be surprised at how well both players can contribute defensively with the former thus far winning 31 tackles this season. This pivot was tested in the Champions League only a few weeks’ backs and it worked wonders. The Gunners played Wenger Ball and were fluent in all phases of play in both defensive and offensive situations. Xhaka made over 100 (one HUNDRED) passes that night and was finding the ball in between our defence and the half way line a lot more, allowing him space to dictate the play whilst Ramsey could influence/impact the game at both the ends of the pitch. This was helped massively due to Ramsey’s high stamina and bursting runs in possession. This pivot reminds me of the one which Arsenal had in 13/14 with Arteta sitting at the base and Ramsey playing box-to-box which was Arsenal’s most functional midfield they have had in recent years.
As you can see below, the impact of both players playing together was influential in Arsenal’s 4-1 away win to Basel as they dominated the game whilst allowing Xhaka to dictate from the middle of the park. Xhaka could patrol just in front of the back four, protecting them and covering for them if needs be whilst recycling the ball excellently.
Both players won tackles, was efficient in possession and made sure the midfield was not bypassed in build-up play, which has happened sometimes this season. Ramsey was less effective in the build-up phase but this brought out the best in Granit Xhaka, as he had space and extra body with the ability to pick out in between the lines. Having Ramsey partner Xhaka also gives us that extra engine we must have to run from deep, whilst keeping a very strict balance between them.
At the moment, our midfield could be very easy to stop, because Coquelin does not contribute in the build-up phase, if teams were set out to stop Xhaka and pressing him in packs then our build up play dies as he has no secondary option, that’s why Ramsey blossomed next to Xhaka as he can receive and progress play efficiently.
The midfield position has changed significantly in recent years and the pivot of Ramsey / Xhaka would indicate why. Benching an old school defensive MF like Coquelin would be the best way for Arsenal to move forward as they look to get back to dominating games. The likes of Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil thrive off playing with a dictator like Xhaka, something the man himself Arsene Wenger has confirmed. “Alexis Sanchez and the strikers like to play with guys who play well through the lines; I think the strikers appreciate him,” Wenger said.
Sticking with the same midfield pivot and rectifying the issue must be resolved quickly as Arsenal cannot keep chop and changing the most crucial position on the pitch. I spoke about Arsenal not being able to deal with intense pressure but both Xhaka and Ramsey are good at resisting pressure and can pass out of it quite well, bypassing a press and getting the Gunners into a counter attacking position or simply relieving pressure.
The last two defeats hurt, very much so, but no way is Arsenal’s title hopes over just yet. If they get the balance and team selection right, then they will be challenging throughout the season as they have all the foundations to do so. Arsenal played some magical football with Xhaka ad Ramsey in the midfield pivot and this should certainly be the first choice. Francis Coquelin is an immense squad player to have, he loves the club like no other and gives 100% each game, but his passion does not mean he has the ability to start.
Aaron Ramsey and Granit Xhaka are both supreme midfielders, and I feel this is a duo which could finally help Arsenal end their twelve-year title drought and get the Gunners back to playing the game the right way, the beautiful way.