The Arsenal Conundrum – Arsenal’s Midfield Setup?


In modern football, a team creates opportunities in two ways (largely a lateral movement from an attacking player): 1. Wide players drifting inside from a wide position. For example: David Silva at Manchester City in a narrow 4-2-2-2 formation, who creates an extra angle for attack with this inside movement with or without the ball; adding an extra attacking option centrally, who’s capable of provide an incisive ball in-behind the defensive full-back for the attacking fullback (Zabaleta). 2. Central players drifting wide. For example: how Eriksen’s off the ball movement (from a central area to wide-right) dragged Matic along with him, freeing Kane’s pathway. The player (defensive midfielder) marking this central player wouldn’t like to mobile out of his natural position and create unnecessary indiscipline, which will eventually create space ahead of the centre backs or in the middle of the park. Also, this movement provides another option for the wide player to move centrally or an attacking full back to overlap – Anyway, causing a havoc situation for the defending fullback.

Against AS Monaco, Arsenal was vulnerable at defending counterattacks. Though, in the Premier League, Arsenal has moderately improvised in their proficiency to defend counterattacks.

Most Premier League clubs (including Arsenal) aren’t admirable pressing contingents defensively. In England, there’re two methods clubs traditionally adopt to penetrate pressing: 1. In order to move forward, provide long passes towards the striker or distribute a measured diagonal pass in the channel in-behind the fullback, where the attacking fullback can collect and cross or pass the ball. 2. Runs through the middle (with the ball) into spaces, holding the opponent(s), and once you’re successful at creating an opportunity provide an useful pass to an attacking player or wait for a foul to be committed by the opponent.

What’s recognizable is the fact: the defending team doesn’t have to squeeze-down. They rightfully require to be positional-ly alert, and pressure the opponent enough. There isn’t much movement without the ball in England.

On counterattacks, a team generally doesn’t need to do a lot of movement. Here, the defender should see-off the striker and a defensive midfielder should make sure he doesn’t get bypassed. Take into account, Ozil’s goal against Spurs at White Hart Lane. Initially, when the ball was played to Giroud, Vertonghen rightly committed himself in order to stop the counterattack, but his inability to hold Giroud and not allow him to distribute the ball resulted in a pass to Welbeck, who dribbled passed Rose and formed a 3 versus 3 counterattacking opportunity for Arsenal – Welbeck, Giroud and Ozil versus Rose, Dier and Walker – Resulting in an Arsenal goal after Giroud’s misfired shot from the edge of the box fell kindly to Ozil, who scored. Point of the matter being: while, counterattacks if the committing defender is successful at holding-off the striker and clearing the ball, there’s no problem. But, if the defender fails to produce the instructed the inevitable outcome enhances its certainty.

Most cautious sides (for example: Arsenal) let the defensive midfielder do this job, who and which provides an additional layer of defensive protection to the “slow” centre backs. Of course, it doesn’t change the outcome if the execution is imperfect. This provides a disciplined pairing and team of three at the back and allows fullbacks to attack timely; in case, the holding midfielder is unable to protect the centre backs it creates a furthermore dreadful situation of 3 versus 2. For example: Aguero’s goal against Arsenal at the Emirates. There’re teams for example: Everton, who create artificial counterattacking situations; while, Southampton last-season used Lambert to hold and distribute the ball during counterattacks. Arsenal’s quite comfortable holding the ball off the strikers and distribute the ball or coupe-up with surging midfield runs – Coquelin, Mertesacker and Koscielny are certainly equipped to deal with these moments.

Well, that’s acceptable in the Premier League, but continental football is another story, where Arsenal deals with different varieties of counterattacking and pressing. When we understand Berbatov’s goal for AS Monaco against Arsenal, the structure at the back for the Arsenal was Coquelin in front of Mertesacker and Koscielny. Seems structured and assuring? When the counterattack started via Echiejile from the back both Coquelin and Mertesacker committed; leaving Martial on the left-wing free dangerously against Koscielny, who was marking Berbatov. Initially, Arsenal had a numerical advantage – and Mertesacker should have let Coquelin deal with Echiejile, and he (Mertesacker) could’ve positioned better to stop the counterattack, but now Arsenal were 1 versus 2. There was surprisingly yards of space in the middle of the park (and behind the Arsenal defence) to run into, which Berbatov and Martial ran-into happily leaving Koscielny miserably helpless.

From a defensive-minded, reactive 4-3-3 to an attack-minded 4-2-3-1, and with so many attacking options, Arsenal can no longer be characterized as too predictable. Wenger has become more tactically flexible over the past 18 months. Arsenal’s tactical approach varies – Wenger’s changing his team’s approach between games.

Ozil’s obvious accommodation in Arsenal’s 4-3-3 system is on the left-wing, but Wenger’s shift to a 4-2-3-1, timely, resides Ozil in his natural position, is significant. Ozil’s isn’t a playmaker, who is a specialist against teams, who are ready to sit deep and defend (and provide attacking threat on the counter against Arsenal’s high defence). The German’s innovative, incisive and decisive actions are best utilized, when Arsenal counterattacks, either by dribbling at speed and passes with the ball or movement without the ball.

Arsenal’s sheer wealth lies in its attacking talent, where Wenger experiments; trying to bring-about a different dimension to Arsenal’s outlook in the league and cup competitions. For example: against Aston Villa, Ozil, Cazorla and Walcott started for Arsenal for the first-time in the Premier League – and for a side, who’s timely lacked balance in attack, this trio looks the most balanced on paper. Giroud’s quite underrated for his first touch to control long balls; often when he’s off-balanced having shrugged off an opponent too.

“Walcott runs in behind while either Ozil or Cazorla can act as the central playmaker, with the other drifting in from the left. That’s the balance Wenger loved when he was able to field Walcott, Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri behind Robin van Persie a couple of years ago, as it brings the greatest variety to the Arsenal attack. With two playmakers out wide, Arsenal’s play can be congested; two forwards can make it feel too direct” – Michael Cox

“Variety” is what Arsenal’s attacking wealth provides: Welbeck, Sanchez, Cazorla, Walcott, Ozil and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. Though, versatility, sometimes, is the virtue in its own right. The greatness, ultimately, may lie in the ability to do many things well, if none of them quite to a level that would be great in themselves.

When Santi Cazorla arrived at Arsenal in the summer of 2012, the Gunners were a team shorn of most of its midfield creativity. But, with the arrival of Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil, not to mention Jack Wilshere and Aaron Ramsey as midfield competitors, many wondered if Cazorla might end up marginalized this campaign. With Mathieu FlaminiMikel ArtetaAaron Ramsey and Jack Wilshere all favouring a role as one of Arsenal’s two deeper central midfielders, not only does Wenger have plenty of quality, he also has a variety of tactical options. This season, Cazorla’s best performance was against Manchester City at the Etihad, where he twisted and turned – making the midfield tick, timely.

Meanwhile, deep in the midfield, Arsenal depended on Arteta, who intelligently positions himself and intercepts passes cleverly. For example: Against Anderlecht, Arsenal before Arteta picked-up an injury.

At his best, Arteta is the perfect holding midfielder for Arsenal – a classy, technical player with great tactical intelligence. He’s a natural at covering for team-mates when they’re drawn out of position, he communicates well with the defenders to minimize the space between the lines, and he’s a reliable tackler without being an old-school hard-man” – Michael Cox

In the defensive midfield position, importantly, Arsenal lack options. Though, lately, Coquelin has emerged as a positive – Flamini’s major issues are with his play distribution ability rather than tackling and interception.  But, is Coquelin a “solution”? The boring answer is: yes and no. He’s fundamental to Arsenal’s change in formation from 4-2-3-1 to 4-3-3, placing a natural anchor in front of the defence and converting to a more reactive style of play. There are a few players in the Arsenal side, who provide aerial dominance (which Coquelin lacks): Mertesacker and Giroud; either of them would go for the header, and while Giroud’s excellent in this art, Mertesacker leaves an opening, which can be exploited by a quick-runner and winning the second-ball. Against AS Monaco, Wenger shifted to a 4-4-1-1, where Coquelin partnered Cazorla in a flat midfield, in which the Frenchman didn’t prosper. He’s a good option ahead of Flamini in a 4-3-3 formation – but in a 4-2-3-1/4-4-1-1, perhaps not; Coquelin should soon, transfer his skills to slightly nuanced roles in midfield.

It is that time of the year, when Arsenal’s real stealth will be tested. With a trip to Old Trafford (FA Cup) and a second-leg Champions League tie against AS Monaco on the horizon, Arsenal’s attacking riches and defensive indigence will be tested before the climax of the 2014-2015 season begins.