It is said that a week is a long time in politics. The same also applies to football.
A week ago, I was sitting here breezily acclaiming the purchase of a proper goalkeeper and highlighting Arsenal’s squad depth as a a reason to believe Arsenal could not only challenge for, but also win, their first Premier League title since 2004.
One week and an excellent impersonation of Manuel Almunia from Petr Čech (the man who was going to make it better, Goddammit!), Arsenal fans could be forgiven for feeling a little, in the parlance of our times, ‘mugged off’. Never mind the hilarious, in the context of claims about our squad depth if not in real life, cameo from a blatantly and understandably undercooked Alexis.
If there is any consolation to be taken from the weekend’s defeat it is that it’s difficult to imagine Arsenal playing as badly as that again. Although, as I noted on this week’s Daily Cannon podcast; after a largely positive 2015, the team are picking up a nasty habit of making pig’s ears of games they really should be winning. See Sunderland and Swansea as exhibits A and B in a file that now includes West Ham as exhibit C.
There was something of perfect storm about Sunday’s performance though. Aside from a couple of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain moments, nothing our attacking five did worked, whilst West Ham defended well and were clinical in the extreme with what little they created. It was enough to make you believe in New Manager Theory, wasn’t it?
There was certainly an element of rustiness and a lack of cohesion in the way the team played. Passes which would normally be played into space for a colleague to run into repeatedly running behind the target, forcing him to check and kill his momentum. There were also instances of a player, okay, Aaron Ramsey, ignoring the chance to spread the play, thereby creating some width and instead choosing to try and create something individually. I found this, and the narrowness of the team, incredibly frustrating.
An average position graph taken from the game shows you that Francis Coquelin, Santi Cazorla, Mesut Özil and Ramsey basically played on top of each other. Whilst I would take Stephen Bradley’s point, also made on the Daily Cannon podcast, that the graph is slightly misleading due to the way Ramsey, Cazorla and Özil would have alternated in the centre, you didn’t need a map to see that we were crying out for some width on Sunday. The problem is that when Santi, Mesut and Aaron are on form in that midfield, their interplay can dazzle in an approximation of what was once called Barcelona’s carousel. Obviously, you don’t want to leave any of them out. However, on Sunday, they were less carousel and a bit more Magic Roundabout.
I don’t think there can be any real complaints about the team selection, they just didn’t get it quite right. The one thing I would question is, after half a season where we saw Coquelin and Cazorla really flourish as a central midfield partnership, why break up that partnership in an attempt to get Ramsey involved centrally? At a stroke, we lost the fluency that Santi habitually provides in possession and the penetration that Aaron can provide from the right side and so became an easier side to stop. We may have been easy to stop regardless. However, especially in the absence of the turbocharged Hector Bellerin, there was too much onus on the Ox to provide that penetration. The balance of the midfield, from early on, was clearly wrong.
This leads to a second thought and here I back up my colleague, Matthew Wade. Can Arsenal afford to play Olivier Giroud up top in front of a midfield like the one we saw on Sunday?
As we saw in the cup final, you have a centre forward with genuine pace and no defence in their right mind will play a high line because they don’t want to be turned around. If they don’t play a high line, they will sit off and defend deep, particularly if they’ve nicked a goal just before half time. However, if you have a centre forward with little pace to speak of ahead of a midfield with only one real threat, the opposing defence can come up safe in the knowledge they can’t be hurt and that they can also close space down. Space, and the appreciation of it, is key to the likes of Cazorla and Özil’s chances of causing danger; as well as the two having runners to aim for.
Without Walcott to stretch the West Ham defence and only Ox providing impetus from midfield, can it be much of a surprise that a pedestrian Arsenal were so easily nullified?
It seems obvious, and right, that the manager wants to fit Cazorla, Ramsey and Özil into his midfield. It also seems obvious, to me anyway, that the best way to do this is by using last season’s system. Of course there will be times when it doesn’t work, but no system can be utterly infallible so why not use something that we know is tried and tested?
We know Santi, at thirty, is not going to be around forever but having just signed a new contract extension, it seems reasonable to assume that we don’t need to start succession planning just yet. I wonder how much of Aaron Ramsey’s shift inside has been motivated by conversations we know he has had with the manager, perhaps it’s just something Arsène wanted to take a look at. A Coquelin-Ramsey axis is something that feels like it should work, and work well, but neither of them are as sure footed under pressure as the little Spaniard.
I wonder if, allowing for the fact that Coquelin has, like Cazorla, effectively made himself undroppable in a way that nobody could have foreseen, whether a Ramsey-Cazorla midfield (also trialled unsuccessfully at the end of last season) might be looked at again? Sort of a 2015/16 and, in my view, likely to be better version of the Ramsey-Arteta partnership which served us so well for a year.
It just seems to me that if you want to play the three midfield maestros without sacrificing the velocity of the team, this is a way you could do it; obviously, it allows you room for Özil at #10 with Alexis and Ox/Theo/ Danny Welbeck occupying the flanks. You still have the possibility of playing one of Theo and Danny Welbeck up front then.
We’d be the fastest guns in the west and, with Cazorla and Özil pulling the strings in midfield, we’d likely be the smartest too.