Now that the chaos of the transfer window is behind us, and Arsenal have played a couple of games will all of our new players available for selection, what can we ascertain from both the starting XIs that were picked and how they were deployed tactically?
Let’s start with team selections. There are already a couple of patterns emerging that show what the pecking order is in certain positions. For example, the first choice back four looks to be Nacho Monreal, Shkodran Mustafi, Laurent Koscielny and Hector Bellerin. Even with Gabriel and Rob Holding fit, and Monreal not in the best of form at the minute, that foursome played both on Saturday against Southampton and on Tuesday against PSG. That would suggest that Wenger has more faith in that combination than any other, which is understandable. It’s further up the field where things get a bit confusing.
In centre-midfield, Santi Cazorla and Francis Coquelin also started both games last week. With Granit Xhaka and Mohammed Elneny both fit and available for selection, there simply is no logical reason that neither of them started at least against Southampton. Cazorla is still getting fully match fit after his injury problems last year and two games in four days is an unnecessary gamble on his fitness.
As for Coquelin? I can somewhat understand Wenger’s reluctance to drop him, seeing that he’s the best pure defensive midfielder we have at the club, and with Cazorla and Mesut Özil playing, you need someone who can help shield the back four. But the limitations in his game are so severe, they are hurting Arsenal more than his defensive qualities can help them.
For Arsenal to function as an attacking unit, ball movement is crucial. To create space for the likes of Özil and Alexis to work in, Arsenal needs to be able to move the ball at will, and at pace. It also needs runners from deep to draw defenders away from where they want to be, and to provide Özil with passing lanes whenever he manages to get the ball in space.
Coquelin does neither of these things. What’s worse, is that he knows this, so he hides from possession whenever Arsenal have the ball, he literally runs out of the way of the ball so that someone else can have it. This creates two huge problems:
- He runs into the centre of the opposition half so that Cazorla or whoever is playing beside him in centre midfield has as much room as possible to work in. He basically ends up in exactly the position Özil wants to be in once Arsenal have dragged the opposition out of their defensive shape, clogging up the middle as a result, leaving no space for those quick balls into the striker that Arsenal depend on so much.
- Not only does Coquelin know that he’s a liability going forward, the opposition know it too. In fact, it’s so obvious that he doesn’t want the ball, the defence will make a concerted effort to give him space, just so the ball gets forced to him because of the space he’s in. As a result, Coquelin tries to push further and further up the field just to get out of the way, and as a result, is massively out of position to help defend a counter-attack when we lose the ball.
I can understand why Wenger is reluctant to play Xhaka in a big game when he isn’t 100% convinced about his temperament or his defensive capacity. But if he wasn’t going to play him against PSG, why didn’t he play him against Southampton? Xhaka needs to learn what he can get away with in terms of discipline in the Premier League, and perhaps more importantly, what he can’t. It further becomes less clear why Xhaka didn’t start either game when we consider that the one game he has started for Arsenal, away at Watford, was by far our best performance of the season, one that he contributed significantly to.
And if it looks a bit odd as to why Xhaka didn’t start either game, then how about Elneny? Maybe he hasn’t got the full trust of the manager either, but it would be hard to imagine why, as he’s been nothing but consistently solid since arriving in January. Even with Aaron Ramsey injured, we have four good options at centre-midfield, yet Arsenal have picked the worse of the four of them for both our games after the international break.
As for the attack, it appears that the tactics we used at the start of the season haven’t changed. The non-selection of Olivier Giroud for either game would suggest that the Frenchman is very much now in the role of Plan B. Lucas Perez looked lively on his debut but it’ll take him time to get used to the pace we play at.
As for Alexis up front? It works when we have wide players running past him and quality possession behind him. It doesn’t work when either of those are missing, because he then feels the need to drop deep and get the ball himself. With Coquelin playing, the ball doesn’t get to him quick enough. With Alex Iwobi and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain playing on the wings, nobody runs past him.
It appears as if, with the strongest squad at his disposal in a decade, Wenger is unsure as to what his best starting XI looks like, defence excepted, and how certain players can’t work in tandem with others. We know that he’s not going to change the way Arsenal plays, but he needs to work out how his players can bring the best out of each other as soon as possible, because at the moment, nothing is clicking the way it should, and performances are suffering as a result.
If we see change against Hull on Saturday, (Xhaka/Elneny, plus Alexis playing with either Giroud or Lucas would be a start) then it’ll be an indication that Wenger indeed is trying to figure out his best team, which is totally okay. It is still early in September, after all. But if we see Coquelin playing again, and Alexis isolated again, then that would indicate that Wenger thinks that he’s already playing his best XI right now.
I sincerely hope that we see the former.