One thing that I have noticed over the last few matches, particularly so in the Premier League match away to A.F.C. Bournemouth and the away F.A. Cup tie with Preston North End is that Arsenal seem to struggle with starting quickly in matches.
All too often, we see a lot of sluggishness in the opening 20 minutes of the match, usually resulting in a goal being conceded – that happened in both matches I mentioned above. I think that this is an issue due to Santi Cazorla being unable to play at the moment due to his ongoing recovery from an Achilles tendon operation. Santi is instrumental, much like Mikel Arteta was in his pomp, of being able to dictate the speed of play that Arsenal can play at.
The different midfield pairings that have been started in matches, which feature a mix of Aaron Ramsey, Granit Xhaka, Mohamed Elneny (now away with Egypt for the AFCON tournament) and the now-injured Francis Coquelin (hamstring, due back January 31st according to physioroom.com), have been unable to start matches with any speed. Let’s have a look at why this occurs. Of course, all of this is just my opinion from having watched the last few matches from my comfy sofa at home.
Aaron Ramsey, admittedly not one of my favourite players, is not the sort of player to dictate the tempo of a match, as he seems to prefer a free role – it’s generally accepted that he is Wales’ Number 10 (attacking midfielder, or trequartista). Unfortunately, Ramsey sometimes is not able to read the opposition defence, which is why his passes or runs into the penalty box get intercepted and result in turnovers. Sadly, Ramsey is not positionally disciplined enough to attempt Santi’s role, which is essentially one of a deep-lying playmaker. Ramsey also is quite injury-prone too, with numerous hamstring injuries occurring since his leg was broken at Stoke 6 years ago, so he is not a player to be relied upon to take Santi’s mantle in his absence.
Mohamed Elneny and Francis Coquelin both fall into the role of holding midfielder – they rarely advance into the box and rely on short passes out of defense. Coquelin, though, has been trying to take the initiative of driving the team forward in the absence of Cazorla and, while Coquelin is a fine midfield disrupter, I don’t think he quite has the ability to advance the tempo of play in the same manner as the Spaniard, but his passing is better than many think and, in my opinion, superior to Elneny’s.
The closest to Santi in overall skill-set currently is Granit Xhaka, who is more of a deep-lying playmaker. Xhaka is a great passer of the ball and can fulfill Santi’s role once he is more up-to-speed with the Premier League and Arsenal, though Xhaka is still a recent signing and some players take more time to settle than others. However, Santi has got quicker feet and, with his past playing time on the wing with Villarreal and Malaga, he has the ability to beat a player in a one-on-one situation with the ball, an ability that Xhaka does not have. Xhaka is also, unfortunately, not very quick across the park – which means that he is more often pressed quickly when he has the ball and can’t get out of situations as quickly as Santi can.
One who also could take on the role of Santi for the long-term is Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. He has the skill to beat another player in a one-on-one scenario but he often focuses too hard on his own play when he is on the ball and doesn’t see the better-positioned team-mate. If he can work on improving this, as well as being better disciplined defensively, he could well be a long-term replacement for Santi.
So, what do Arsenal have to do to start quicker? In my opinion, a tactics tweak is required, particularly when Mesut Özil is playing. Özil is also capable of playing the Santi role, possessing quick feet, great passing ability and the ability to move the ball forward quickly and accurately, but it would blunt our attacking play slightly with Özil having to play closer to the defense. Can Özil control the tempo of a match? Yes, I think he can as he has all the tools to do so. In a more fortunate turn of events, Arsenal have also had Danny Welbeck and Lucas Perez return from injury – this greatly increases Arsenal’s ability to counter-attack at pace, which also lessens the need for controlled build-up play. Lucas and Welbeck are hard-working players and one could be used in the wider areas (likely Welbeck) and one at number 10 (I’d pick Lucas here due to his ability to defend capably as well as being able to accelerate quickly away from players; also, he is more match-fit at the moment than Welbeck). Obviously, Alexis would be in the mix too, with Giroud on the bench. Theo Walcott is also due to return next weekend from his calf strain, with Oxlade-Chamberlain available for the attack too.
Even with those changes, they may not help Arsenal to start matches quickly. Arsene Wenger needs to focus the team on moving the ball forward quickly, which the squad has not been doing well enough of late – Giroud’s brilliant header vs. Palace being the exception and a great example of the quick counter-attack that Arsenal need to use more in Santi’s absence. Sitting deeper may, unfortunately, be the only option and this again points towards a shift towards a more counter-attacking style until Santi returns.