Things looked ominous for Arsenal as they went 1-0 down to Molde in the Europa League on Thursday night.
20 or so minutes in and it looked like the game was following a familiar pattern to our recent encounters against lesser oppositions. The Norwegian champions sat deep and were happy to cede possession to the Gunners. Frustratingly we did precious little with it.
A repeat of tepid defeats to Leicester and Aston Villa in recent months looked like it could be on the cards. That was until Joe Willock stepped up and took the game by the scruff of the neck.
The Hale End graduate has been restricted solely to Europa League football this season, but last night he offered an impetus that none of our ‘first team’ midfielders have done so far.
Before we get into exactly what that is, let’s take a look at we’ve lacked in midfield under Mikel Arteta.
Deep lying playmakers
As one of England’s biggest clubs, Arsenal regularly face up against oppositions who set up with a low block. This is where teams look to stick eleven men behind the ball in their defensive third in a compact shape and gamble on being able to create a chance at the other end of the pitch.
So far this is something Mikel Arteta’s sides have consistently struggled to break down. When I say this games against Leicester, Aston Villa, Brighton and Burnley really spring to mind.
Part of the main reason for this is because Arsenal’s midfielders tend to play the game in front of their opposition defenders.
Here Leicester have set up in what is effectively a 5-4-1 formation. All eleven of their players are in their own defensive third. Arsenal’s midfielders – Granit Xhaka, Thomas Partey and Dani Ceballos (all of whom are highlighted) – are comfortably where they can see them.
They can mark Alex Lacazette – who is by the penalty spot – and Bukayo Saka – at the post – who are both guilty of being too static in the box. Our best mover in the penalty box – Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang – is out on the wing and therefore not a threat, but that’s a conversation for a whole other article.
All this means that the Foxes can defend Arsenal’s crosses with relative ease as we don’t have a striker who can cause a threat in the air. They are comfortable.
What might cause them some concern is if a midfielder was to make a late unpredictable run into the box that would be a lot harder to track.
Sadly though, with the midfielders the Gunners have played in the Premier League so far this season that seems highly unlikely.
Granit Xhaka, Dani Ceballos, Thomas Partey and Mohamed Elneny all have their strengths, but making late runs into the box isn’t one of them.
What Willock brings
This is where Willock comes in. Joe’s ability to get beyond the striker with strong running was on full display in both of Molde’s own goals last night.
If we focus specifically on the second then it’s easy to see how his willingness to drive into the box and cause problems helped Arsenal melt the ice of the Norwegians’ defence.
Molde are set up well in their low block when Willock plays the ball out to Willian in the picture below. Eddie Nketiah is the only problem they have deal with in the box.
But as you can see Joe (highlighted) is already on the move.
After receiving it back from Willian he plays a quick one-two with Xhaka on the edge of the box. Through a mixture of persistence and fortune the ball finds his way to the 21-year-old who then plays it across the box for Sheriff Sinyan to turn into his own net. As simply as that, Molde’s low block is broken.
As well creating opportunities for others Willock has the ability to score himself when he’s allowed to surge forward from his deeper midfield starting position. His well-deserved goal last night was evidence of this.
Arsenal’s high press helps win the ball off Molde near the centre circle. In the 87th minute Willock then surges forward and finds himself the highest player up the pitch by the time he receives the ball from Nicolas Pépé and smashes it in.
This is a skillset Arsenal have not had among their midfield options since Aaron Ramsey left in 2019. The Welshman had a knack for knowing exactly when to surge forward into the box and grab himself a goal.
We can see this in what turned out to be his last goal for the club against Napoli.
Under the Thursday night lights of a Europa League quarter final Ramsey surged forward into the centre forward position as Arsenal won the ball high up the pitch. From there he scored to put us in control of the tie.
These types of goalscoring box-to-box midfielders are becoming increasingly rare in the modern game. But if you think about it the best teams have one. Look at Gini Wijnaldum at Liverpool or Phil Foden at Manchester City. Having goal threats from deep that can complement our strikeforce is key if we want to reclaim our seat at the Premier League’s top table.
It’s a skillset that has been associated with the Gunners since the days of the Invincibles. Think of Patrick Vieira’s run from deep to ensure we stayed undefeated on the last day of the 03/04 season against Leicester and you’ll see similarities with what Willock has to offer.
Why aren’t we seeing this in the Premier League
The simple answer to this is Mikel Arteta. The Spaniard tends to be slightly more rigid in his tactical approach when we face up against higher quality opposition in the Premier League.
Looking back through Premier League highlights while writing this article it’s interesting to make out Mikel’s constant shouts of “hold you position” to Granit Xhaka and what I can only assume is something similar in Spanish to Dani Ceballos.
I don’t mean this as a criticism on our manager because I get why he has done it. The immobility of our midfield and shakiness of our defence means he feels we can’t risk committing another midfielder to attack when games are tight. This was proven right by Vardy’s late sucker punch in the Leicester game.
It means that when we have seen Joe Willock in the Premier League he has been restricted to late substitute appearances as a centre forward where his sole instruction seems to have been to run the opposition defenders into the ground. His attacking threat from midfield remains unharnessed
Like I say, I get this. But something has changed this season that means we may be able to see the Europa League Willock finally strut his stuff on the domestic stage.
Mike McDonald made the point in his Positive Needs & Hopes blog that the big criticism of Aaron Ramsey during his time at the Emirates was that he was guilty of vacating his defensive responsibilities. I would build on that and say the reason this was so clear was the lack of effective cover alongside him as Arsene Wenger looked to squeeze every number 10 at the club into a five man midfield.
For the first time in arguably over a decade we have a central defensive midfielder who would be able to cover the Hale End graduate in Thomas Partey. The Ghanaian showed how complete a midfielder he is at Old Trafford and would surely be the man to bring the best out of Willock if they were to play in a two.
Aston Villa are the opposition on Sunday and I fully expect them to come to the Emirates and set up with a low block after it worked so well for them in July.
Arsenal games against lesser opposition – particularly at home – have become easy enough to predict. If recent patterns are anything to go by we’re all set for a pretty turgid form of attack vs. defence as the Gunners struggle to break down another low block.
I don’t expect Willock to start despite his performance on Thursday. Arteta will probably want to stick to the winning formula of Mohamed Elneny and Thomas Partey from Old Trafford.
But if the game is still 0-0 by about 60 minutes or so then I’d urge Mikel to throw caution to the wind and throw Joe on in a midfield two. He’s shown he has something different to break down opposition defences and that might just be enough to get the three points on Sunday.