Slightly obsessed is how you can describe my association with the Arsenal midfield dynamic over the last few years. I’ve written many articles about partnerships and steps to take in order to achieve balance. In my opinion, this issue is bigger than simply players that are deployed or who we can sign in a transfer window. As a firm believer that the majority of games are won and lost in the heart of the pitch, my focus when watching Arsenal matches shifts to this area almost automatically. My eyes have been telling me two things:
- Our deep-lying midfield pairing is being set up to fail tactically.
- Our issues don’t revolve around quality of personnel, but stylistical values associated with our playing philosophy
Looking back over the last few seasons, the Coquelin-Cazorla deep-lying midfield pairing has been our most effective. We were able to observe it in 3 main phases over the last 2 1/2 seasons: Coquelin’s loan recall during the second half of the ‘14-’15 season, the time leading up to Santi’s December injury in the ‘15-’16 season, and up until October of last season when Santi left the Ludogorets match. Few can doubt its effectiveness. Coquelin would serve as the withdrawn cover ground option covering ground horizontally to win balls as Cazorla was positionally aware enough to be a short distance support option for Coq to pass the ball. Their distances were healthy and their individual skill sets complemented each other perfectly.
Something changed stylistically in between Arteta vacating the midfield and Coq-zorla in its heyday. The Arsenal midfield has gradually evolved to play differently off the ball. They’ve been instructed to engage higher up the pitch in attempt to disrupt the opposition’s fluency and win the ball back to play in advanced areas. Gone are the days of a deeper-lying midfielder that reads the game and shields the back line like a Gilberto, Petit, Song, or Arteta. We now have holding midfielders vacating their traditional spaces in an attempt to disrupt the opposition building play.
Our tactical evolution was most clearly evident in the change of Francis Coquelin from a deeper-lying game reader that focused on analyzing angles and winning balls to an advanced pressure option. Almost acting as a one man press at times.
This off-the-ball philosophy works well the majority of the time for Arsenal because we have our front-footed defenders pinching in to intervene when the opposition attempts to break the lines. This different style of pressing that relies on CB intervention and a high defensive line often works for us. Here’s an ideal scenario:
There are two primary problems that arise with this consistent midfield engagement higher up the pitch.
- When teams can effectively pass around or break pressure, it leaves our defenders exposed and isolated. The goal we conceded against Stoke is a clear example:
The goal shows Xhaka vacating typical holding midfield space in an attempt to win the ball back in an advanced area. Ramsey is caught making a final third run and Ozil is slow in his recovery defense, as it was his turn to alternate with Ramsey as the deeper midfield option.
- When we play against superior, possession-oriented teams that make us play off the ball for sustained stretches, we struggle to hold our defensive shape which leads to goals for the opposition. This is not comfortable for us. The goal Robben scores here as we try to maintain two banks of four is one such example:
The personnel have been plentiful in recent seasons and the tactical deployment has seemed the same. This tells me it’s due to implicit instruction to our holding midfielders to play in these areas. Flamini, Elneny, Ramsey, Coquelin, and Xhaka have all been constantly pushing into advanced areas at the detriment of team shape and results have suffered.
A goal that has stuck with me for a while was during the ‘15’-16 season, long after we lost Cazorla to injury. It serves as a euphemism of our defensive frailties. It was against Barcelona at the Emirates in the first leg of the Champions League knockout stage in the round of 16. We held Barca scoreless for 75 minutes and then were punished due to holding midfielders in advanced areas. Here is a clearance from an Arsenal attack that leads directly to a goal due to our off the ball shape:
Our defensive philosophy is simply not conducive to sustainable, winning football. We approach a match this weekend against Liverpool where we will be forced out of our possession game, where we dominate the ball, and will need to make quick decisions in the midfield while playing more direct. Will we adapt our tactics accordingly or fall into the same off-the-ball habits? We’ll find out in a few short days.
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