The Failing Midfield Dynamics threatening Arsenal’s season – Breakdown at the Breakdown

Gunners Town is pleased to share this fantastic post by the brilliant Jane Cavendish (@jcav90). Enjoy!

Coquelin on the break, Cazorla never far away

Coquelin on the break, Cazorla never far away

Football at the top level is now more than ever about transitions. Gone are the days when a team aspires only to having countless minutes of possession, moving the ball slowly in front of the opposition defence waiting for an opening before pouncing to score. This used to be the only way some of the better teams played but since defences have learned how to defend against this style (mostly by defending much more narrowly and being prepared to cede the wide areas) attacking teams have had to add an extra string to their bow. The transition.

There are two types of transition, the counter-attack from deep and the one arising from a high press in the opposition half. They both call for slightly different types of player to implement and to defend against.

Let’s look at the defensive side of dealing with transitions. When the opposition break from deep in their own half, your first and best defence is for one of the midfielders to press the ball carrier and prevent him playing a key pass. Speed and mobility is obviously important but also the ability to read the game as a situation unfolds in maybe only three or four seconds. He has to be able to calculate angles and distances then position himself close enough either to jockey the ball carrier into a safe area, prevent him playing a pass, intercept a pass or even to tackle him.

An incredible selection of authentic Arsenal shirts at amazing prices!

An incredible selection of authentic Arsenal shirts at amazing prices!

When the opposition employ the second tactic against you, pressing you high in your own half, you need a different set of skills; the ability to retain possession and pass your way through the press as one, two or even three opposition players target the ball carrier not far from your own goal. Close control, good first touch, the ability to use either foot and turn both ways, the ability to lay off simple, accurate passes in a fraction of a second are all key skills.

In an ideal world all your midfielders would be adept at both but in the real world, some are better at one, some the other and some can manage neither. When Arsenal were playing the best football of the season before injuries disrupted our team Wenger seemed to have stumbled upon the ideal combination.

Coquelin was our anti-counter attack and Cazorla was our anti-press.

The pair of them were thus able to deal with all eventualities between them, providing a solid platform for our front four to do their stuff. It’s no surprise to me that the fluency of our whole team has nosedived since both have been injured.

Though he's given his very best - Flamini is unable to successfully deputize for Coquelin

Though he’s given his very best – Flamini is unable to successfully deputize for Coquelin

Coquelin is back, so that deals with half of our problem. Watch Mertesacker’s red card against Chelsea as an example of what we’ve missed in his absence. Willian wins the ball on the edge of the Chelsea penalty area then, inexcusably, Flamini retreats instead of closing him down and making it difficult to play that killer ball forward. Willian has so much freedom, he has all the time to pick the perfect pass and then our defence is in trouble. Coquelin’s instinct is never to drop off when he needs to press and I’m fully confident we won’t be as naïve for the rest of the season if he can stay fit.

But Santi Carzorla won’t be fit until the end of the season and it is unrealistic to expect him to play an important part in our title challenge. Who else can perform the anti-press task? Aaron Ramsey has been asked to play in his favoured central position but so far has shown no sign of being able to do this specific thing. It doesn’t mean he’s a bad player (he’s not, he’s a fantastic footballer) but in the modern game someone has to be able to escape the press. Someone has to be able to receive the ball from the keeper or one of the defenders with his back to goal, turn and transition forward. Ramsey’s ball retention and short passing accuracy under pressure hasn’t, so far, been good enough. He’s a much more effective player higher up the pitch, already facing play, where he can be deadly.

Can Elneny fill the Santi-shaped void?

Can Elneny fill the Santi-shaped void?

Is Elneny the answer? Wenger talked about his ball playing skills but it’s asking a lot of someone new to our league to take on so much responsibility so early. His one outing against Burnley in the Cup suggested it would be a huge risk. But what alternative does Wenger have? Jack Wilshere is injured and is anyway so one-footed that he’s much easier to press because everyone knows which way he’s going to turn to try to wriggle away. Iwobi, while impressing in a few cameo appearances, is so raw that it would again be a huge ask for him to step up. Could Ramsey improve this aspect of his game? Does he have the technique to do it and the discipline to remain focused only on this task? What is the opportunity cost of depriving us of his presence further up the pitch with his ability to make runs into the box as well as to contribute to our offensive press? I don’t know the answer to these questions and perhaps Wenger doesn’t either. If we are to re-find our team balance, restore the fluidity to our play and put our title challenge back on track we need to find a solution to this problem. The stakes are high; we have a title to win.

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Do yourselves a favour and follow Jane on Twitter: @jcav90

This blog is kindly reproduced (with permission) from Jane’s blog Horses In Avenell Road – which you should definitely check out.

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6 Responses to The Failing Midfield Dynamics threatening Arsenal’s season – Breakdown at the Breakdown

  1. Family Enclosure Man February 4, 2016 at 1:55 pm #

    Brilliant analysis: totally agree. Iwobi is hard working and creative, but looks more like an understudy to Ozil. Hard to say how Elneny will work out, but my initial feeling is that he looks more like a box-to-box player in Ramsey’s style, so I think we will continue to suffer against the high press. Anyhow, thanks for this thoughtful contribution.

  2. Ervin Forth February 4, 2016 at 2:08 pm #

    I agree with your article whole-heartedly. Ramsey’s ball retention under pressure is an issue so playing him in deep areas is a huge risk. While Flamini is too indiscipline for my liking. As you pointed out, Arsene found the solution when Coquelin and Santi were playing together deep. Both were extremely discipline in deep areas and even Santi was making Coquelin-like tackles to protect the back. Contrast that to Flamini and Ramsey, who are all over the place while Ramsey is a little shy about tackling players.

  3. Mus February 4, 2016 at 10:08 pm #

    Wenger should drop Ramsey and Flamini to get title race alive.
    No Flamini
    No Gib
    No Arteta
    No Ramsey

  4. Arsenig February 4, 2016 at 10:20 pm #

    Your article is spot on mate. Ramsey lacks positional discipline and exposes flamini far too often. Santi is the biggest injury blow for arsenal this season. I really miss him.

  5. Rick February 5, 2016 at 9:56 am #

    Brilliant article, youre spot on! Cazorla is the best ball retainer on the team. He has been the biggest lost to Arsenal. His ability to get out of the press is outstanding. Not even Ozil in my view has that ability. Until we get that balance in the deep right again. Im afraid we will strugle. Barcá on the horizon!!

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