Arsène Wenger will soon have to choose between keeping the dogged Francis Coquelin in his team, or putting his captain Mikel Arteta back in to the side.
Of course neither can, nor will, play every game. Competition for places is more than healthy, as I spoke about last week, but with games against Chelsea and Manchester United still to come, Wenger will need to decide which one of Arteta or Coquelin is more important for the big games.
Francis Coquelin’s no nonsense approach in front of the back four has brought him plenty of adulation since he came into the side this year. Coquelin loves a battle in midfield and – characterised by his oft broken nose – puts his body on the line. He ticks a number of the boxes that fans have been crying out for since Gilberto Silva and Mathieu Flamini both left in the summer of 2008.
Flamini’s false dawn
It’s worth remembering that Flamini’s style was lauded after he was signed at the beginning last season. His want for organisation was appreciated, but is now criticised as aimless pointing and screaming. For a period of time people were asking for Flamini to take the place of Arteta in the Arsenal midfield. His will to win and physical style won him plenty of fans early on.
But now fans see what Flamini was (and is) more often than not. An unintelligent liability. Not always willing to help his defenders play out from the back, sitting right on top of them when we are deep, and being sucked out when we are high. Flamini generally makes us a worse side.
Flamini chases around where Arteta cooly positions himself and picks up possession when a loose pass is played. The Spaniard is not only the superior footballer but also the better option for Wenger and his side.
The better Frenchman
But that was last season.
The man in Arteta’s place now will take some shifting.
The inclusion of Coquelin initially raised some eyebrows, having been recalled from a loan spell at Charlton Athletic and put straight into the first-team squad in the wake of Arteta’s latest injury.
There’s plenty of evidence to suggest Coquelin has more than lived up to the challenge of coming to Arsenal’s midfield.
Wins away against Manchester City and Manchester United have underlined the appreciation he is receiving. No player has won more tackles and interceptions than Coquelin in 2015 – you can’t really argue with that.
His best game definitely was in the 2-0 defeat of Manchester City. He was intelligent, positioning himself in between the two banks of four in our 4-1-4-1, drifting to whichever side looked more dangerous. Playing a bit like a sweeper, but in front of the defence and behind the rest of his midfield.
He didn’t mark David Silva out of that game as many seemed to think, but he positioned himself – as did Ramsey and Cazorla – to starve Silva of the ball.
That point is vital.
Ramsey and Cazorla played incredibly close to Coquelin that day, as Arsenal defended with a very low block to be as stable as possible.
Ramsey and Cazorla gave more support to Coquelin that day than an Arsenal player playing in midfield in a very long time, in front of the most sensible deep-lying back four we’ve used in a long time.
As I said a few weeks back, it’s about a collective effort. Coquelin’s best Arsenal performance came in a match where he won just two tackles.
Stats like tackles lack context – if you’re a centre-half winning tackles in the final third you aren’t doing your job as a defender and will leave your team exposed.
Coquelin’s hunting of the ball can be as damaging as it is crucial.
He shouldn’t be starved of credit, but he still isn’t the best option for Arsenal.
That collective effort wasn’t present in Dortmund this year, as Arsenal lost 2-0 with Arteta at the base of the midfield. Deserted by Ramsey and Jack Wilshere, the team needed to offer Arteta the support that was given to Coquelin at Manchester City, but they didn’t.
Coquelin boasts an impressive record this season. Arsenal have won in 10 of his 12 Premier League starts. A superb 2.5 point per game, the team has kicked on. That Coquelin’s run in the team has coincided with the returns of Mesut Özil and Olivier Giroud, both in the best form they ‘ve shown since signing for the club, is even more crucial.
But an Arsenal with Arteta wins, too. An Arsenal with Arteta and Ramsey wins, is perfectly balanced, and can play in different ways.
Since they became the first choice pair in our 2-0 win in Munich in 2013, Arteta and Ramsey developed a superb understanding. Ramsey hunted the ball while Arteta swept up and distributed it excellently.
The end of 2012/13 saw Arsenal claim 2.5 points per game with Arteta in midfield with Ramsey in the league. The same record that Coquelin has this season, but without any defeats. Over a larger sample, the combination of Arteta-Ramsey propelled Arsenal’s title charge last season. The only loss they both played a significant part in was at Old Trafford, with Ramsey playing wide and Flamini partnering Arteta instead.
Nine wins and three draws from the other 12 games mean, when first choice in the middle of the park together over two seasons, Arteta and Ramsey maintained a record of winning 2.5 points per game across two seasons, and twenty games.
The title charge fell away as Ramsey was struck with an injury, but upon his return the team started winning again, and he partnered Arteta in both victories at Wembley.
This season has seen Arteta struggle with injuries, but when he is fit there is no sign of decline.
‘His legs have gone!’ He was never fast.
This season hasn’t seen Ramsey join Arteta more than a handful of times, but Arsenal have won four of the five league games the Spaniard has started in. The other was the freak loss to Manchester United.
And before I’m accused of offering excuses, it was a freak match. We went behind without conceding a shot on target and created more than enough before that to take the lead:
xG map for Arsenal – United. That was one hell of a match. Arsenal continue to win on xG but not on actual winning. pic.twitter.com/bHANhk4j2Q
— Michael Caley (@MC_of_A) November 22, 2014
There was nothing wrong with the approach that day.
In other competitions, Arsenal left Arteta incredibly isolated as we fell to defeat in Dortmund. He controlled the tempo of the return game next to Ramsey and Santi Cazorla, keeping us ticking and winning loose balls as we won 2-0 at home.
The collapse against Anderlecht also occurred with Arteta suffering an injury when we were 3-0 ahead. Without him, we folded.
Composure is key
We still look capable of that with Coquelin in the midfield. Arteta keeps the ball for us, and wins foul after foul to slow the play down and relieve pressure when we are struggling.
Keeping the ball and controlling the game is so important when ahead. Arsenal have led 2-0 and been pegged back to 2-1 six times in the league in 2015, never making the score 3-0. We have gone on to win all of them but, like at Newcastle, have often clung on in the dying stages.
The losses against Southampton and Tottenham saw us totally incapable of retaining possession under pressure. Where Arteta excels, Coquelin is at his weakest. A clumsy first touch, we can’t maintain our tempo with moves starting through the Frenchman. Arteta’s four seasons at Arsenal have seen him maintain a pass completion of over 90% every single year (while playing five long balls a game). Coquelin’s currently languishes at 83%, even though he’s only playing 1.3 of those more challenging long passes.
Myth will tell you Arteta only keeps it simple, but that’s not the case. Playing simpler passes, Coquelin is surrendering possession and putting us under pressure more regularly than many realise – usually because he has the same endeavour as Alexis Sánchez when trying to get the ball back.
Coquelin also stands very flat in front of the defence, where Arteta positions himself so Cazorla or Özil can drop in and collect the ball in more space. That or Arteta allows Per Mertesacker, our best passer from the back, the time and space to play out – by taking away the man who would close Mertesacker down.
Despite the form of the team lately, we have lost the ability to control games. Newcastle is fresh in the mind, but we’ve also let sides like Leicester City and Crystal Palace back in to games lately. It simply wouldn’t happen as often with Arteta there instead.
Solid, and still important
Arteta was Arsenal’s first choice defensive midfielder last year as the team kept more clean sheets than any other side last season and won the FA Cup, with Arteta the best player on the pitch in the Final at Wembley back in May.
Having a squad is important, I’m not saying Arteta has to play every game. He can’t.
He is, however, still crucial. No Premier League side had more clean sheets last season. That doesn’t sound like a team with a useless deep midfielder who can’t defend captaining the side through
Ever since his arrival the importance of Mikel Arteta has been overlooked. Covering for Alex Song’s ineptitude in 2011/12, being our only midfielder with any interest in clean sheets for much of 2012/13. A key component in the great start to the season and the FA Cup success last year, Arteta is still vital for Arsenal.
With the season coming to a close, and Arsenal needing to keep the ball better so we aren’t bombarded, Arteta has to return to the side.