Arsene Wenger made three changes to the team that drew 1-1 versus Crystal Palace, with the most noticeable one being the addition of Aaron Ramsey to the starting lineup.
It was noticeable not for the fact that it was the Welshman’s first time to start a game since March 3rd, but for who he replaced. Francis Coquelin has been nigh on undroppable since returning to the club 16 months ago, but on this occasion, Mohammed Elneny was preferred ahead of him.
It indicated a marked change of strategy in centre midfield by Arsenal. No longer would it be the job of one player to be the holder and the other player to dictate tempo in the centre, as it is when Coquelin plays as the holder, but both Ramsey and Elneny would be expected to contribute to each role at different times during the game.
Is it a tactic that can be deployed in every game Arsenal play? No, because sometimes an extra defensive shield in front of the back four is needed against a team with a significant attacking threat. But against a West Brom side that would have deployed landmines in front of their penalty area if they could, no such caution was necessary.
The results were almost instantaneous. With another viable passing option in the middle of the park, Arsenal were able to put together several moves that opened up the West Brom defence at will. Instead of just one centre midfielder able to keep moves going, Arsenal had two, giving West Brom no time to regroup.
Against Crystal Palace, with Coquelin sitting deep, Palace were able to mark Elneny more tightly and deny any forward balls. Against West Brom, Ramsey and Elneny made it impossible for the defence to close just one of them down, thus leaving more space for Mesut Özil and Alexis Sanchez in front of the opposition area.
To illustrate this, here are two lists. The first is a list of the five most frequent passing combinations between Arsenal players during the Crystal Palace game. The second is the same list but during the West Brom game.
Against Crystal Palace:
- Özil to Elneny – 26
- Elneny to Özil – 23
- Koscielny to Gabriel – 22
- Bellerín to Gabriel – 20
- Gabriel to Koscielny – 20
Against West Brom:
- Elneny to Ramsey – 18
- Bellerín to Elneny -17
- Ramsey to Özil – 16
- Monreal to Iwobi – 15
- Koscielny to Mertesacker – 15
Look at how in the first list, the passes indicate either Arsenal passing back to centre midfield or back and forth in defence. Now look at the second list, and how passes are going forward more often. This is all down to Arsenal having that extra option in midfield, as it opens up the field for so many others to make an impact.
Aaron Ramsey was key to all of this. 105 passes, seven tackles, three take-ons; he just never stopped running. With the right partner in centre-midfield, he is more than capable of doing this on a regular basis. Francis Coquelin hasn’t got the passing ability to be that partner. Elneny might. There’s only one way to find out.