Last Sunday, when Arsenal’s team selection to face Manchester City was announced, there were two immediate reactions of disbelief.
Coquelin at centre-back? Really?! Lacazette on the bench? Really?!
The reasoning behind the first choice was laid out quite clearly by Arsene Wenger after the game, when he said: “I can explain to you that Mertesacker came in sick, Holding had a thigh strain and Mathieu Debuchy has just come back from a long time absent.
“I don’t see it as a big problem. To play in the middle, if you are a defensive midfielder, it is exactly the same.”
Half of this makes perfect sense. With so many defensive injuries, someone was going to have to be playing outside of their usual position in order to utilise the three/five at the back formation that Wenger first used in April.
Mohammed Elneny was far from impressive when he played at centre-back in the previous game against Red Star Belgrade, so Coquelin was pretty much the only other option available. Arsenal have been successful before when they’ve been forced to use sub-optimal line-ups, but the second part of Wenger’s quote is rather indicative of the club as a whole.
If you’re going to play with five at the back, then unless your three centre-backs are re-incarnations of Tony Adams, Sol Campbell and David O’Leary, you do one of two things; you play someone in front of them to stop the opposition’s midfield running at them at will, or you push everyone up as high up the pitch and press the opposition back as far as possible.
Chelsea won the league last year with both N’Golo Kante and Nemanja Matic in front of the defence, just to make doubly sure that they kept things tight at the back, whilst Tottenham played Eric Dier as a centre-back so that they could pick more attacking-minded players in midfield. There are templates out there that can be used to build on, but Arsenal tried to combine the two, and ended up doing neither well.
Arsenal tried to keep their backline deep AND have the attackers press high up the field. It was bizarre watching Alexis starting the press by himself, only to signal for the cavalry to charge behind him once he reckoned he wasn’t going to get the ball. By the time Õzil, Ramsey and Iwobi had tried to put some pressure on the City defenders, the ball had already been whipped either around or over the press.
If Arsenal had played Coquelin as a defensive midfielder, then there wouldn’t be so much of a problem with the Gunners’ front four trying to force an error high up the pitch. But he was standing alongside his fellow defenders, trying to keep in line to prevent long balls over the top. The result was this:
If Coquelin was playing anywhere inside that red box, then City are at least restricted in their ability to pass out from the back. I’m not suggesting that this purely by itself would have led to an Arsenal win, but there were too many occasions in which City had the ball in this area of the pitch, and Arsenal, even whilst playing five at the back, were outnumbered.
It’s been an issue ever since Arsenal have played with five at the back, especially when Granit Xhaka is the more defensive-minded of the two centre-midfielders selected. That red box is routinely left open when Arsenal have the ball, and is never closed down quickly enough when Arsenal lose possession.
With the team selected as so, Wenger is clearly indicating that he thinks a front four of Ramsey, Iwobi, Özil and Alexis is good enough to beat Manchester City. So he could have easily afforded to set up like this:
With Xhaka and Coquelin sitting deep, it would give Ramsey almost of the license to roam he enjoys when he plays for Wales, whilst still giving the front three the same freedom they have in the current setup.
But it does beg the question that, if Wenger doesn’t want to play in this fashion, and he feels the need to not play Lacazette because he thinks he needs another midfielder to help on the defensive side of the game, then why did he buy him in the first place? Why, when you think you can win games with Alexis up front, do you spend £53million on another striker?
It’s okay to have a glittering array of talent up front when you have someone in midfield good enough to get them the ball, but Arsenal neither have the personnel nor the tactics to help the likes of Özil have more time on the ball with fewer defenders in front of him. The prospect of playing Lacazette, Alexis and Özil is a fantastic one, but without anyone to the defensive work behind them, it’s merely putting a cherry on a mud cake.
Arsenal didn’t need a Lacazette, they needed a Kante, or a Matic, or someone vaguely able to do Xhaka’s running for him so that he can sit in midfield whilst Ramsey pushes further up.
Then there’s Arsenal’s desire to try to beat high presses themselves with quick passing, but their defence don’t have the ability to pass the ball like City can. Pep Guardiola has a team that is drilled in playing quick passes one moment, followed by running into space the next.
Arsenal may want to play like that, but whilst Petr Cech and Coquelin are in the team, any chances of threading more than three passes together at the back disappear quicker than Tottenham players do from a England squad before a friendly.
There is no clear identity that Arsenal are carving out for themselves, no clear game-plan or even a sense that they’ve been set up to take advantage of an opposition weakness. It’s either a team picked to play in a manner that it can’t, or a tactic employed that doesn’t fit the skill set of the players that are selected.
At some point, Arsenal are going to have to work out how they want to play and who they need to play in those roles. The game at Manchester City should have resolved once and for all that their current tactical setup is defective.
Swapping Iwobi for Lacazette alone won’t fix much if that space in front of the defence is still ignored as much as it is. There is a front three at the club that can win just about any game. Build from there. If that means sacrificing Ramsey to accommodate Coquelin or Elneny, then so be it. Arsenal have lost the ability to decide how they want to win any more.