Sunday afternoon’s third place play off* with Manchester United offered a graphic illustration of a problem which has begun to surface in the last few weeks.
I refer, of course, to the shoehorning of four central midfielders into one starting line up. A problem exacerbated by Alexis’ need to come in from the left onto his right foot, leaving Arsenal with very little width at all.
In his defensive work, Francis Coquelin has become so important to the make up of this Arsenal side that he is as close to undroppable as makes no difference. Alongside him, Santi Cazorla has – Sunday’s horror show excepted – had such a great season that he is also, pretty much, undroppable.
Then, there are Mesut Özil and Aaron Ramsey. Which manager their right mind would leave those two out?
The decision Arsène has made is that all of them will play, with Ramsey being included on the right side of the pitch. Against Liverpool and Hull City, this worked beautifully well. Against Burnley, Swansea and Manchester United… not so much (though it should be noted that Ramsey scored the winner at Burnley).
Lewis wrote of his belief that Aaron should be starting every game in the middle of the park. Based on the immediate transformation of both Ramsey and the Arsenal side when the Welshman moved inside yesterday afternoon, it’s not difficult to see why.
The problem is, who do you drop?
Le Coq has been the success story of the season and it would be a brave man to stick the influential Cazorla on the bench. Is the obvious call the one that sees Özil missing out? I’m not sure about that – though the German still has his detractors.
I had sympathy with him on Sunday as it’s hard to create much if you’re not getting on the ball. For example, one of the key partnerships in the team is the one that exists between Santi and Mesut. They found each other just 11 times at Old Trafford, a day when our passing, particularly Santi’s, was a bit of a mess. Obviously, if those two can’t get it going then we are going to struggle.
One point of interest was the goal and how it came about.
Ramsey’s pass from inside his own half out to Theo Walcott was a thing of wonder, but if you look at Theo’s starting positionit makes you wonder…
Chiefly, I wonder whether, had Cazorla got in a similar kind of position to make a similar kind of pass (yes, on the evidence of Sunday, he wouldn’t have made it – although there was that pass for Ramsey against Hull a few weeks back) whilst Ramsey was on the pitch, would Ramsey have been in a position to take it on the way the way Theo did?
If I haven’t shut my own argument down already with that Hull reference… Or would he have been coming inside, sucking all the width out of our play? Although Theo isn’t particularly wide as Ramsey releases the ball, he is plenty wide enough for Tyler Blackett and a fairly narrow United defence.
For me, the question isn’t necessarily just about whether Ramsey should be playing in central midfield, though he is clearly much more effective there. It’s about whoever plays in that position staying in that position unless absolutely necessary.
It was interesting to hear Gary Neville noting on Monday that both Alexis and Aaron were coming inside far too early, thereby making it easy for a compact Swansea defence.
It is also about who plays on the right flank if Ramsey comes inside. I wouldn’t, for example, want to see Santi swapped out to the right.
Though Jack Wilshere has often been deployed from the right flank, there is an element of the square peg about that selection, as impressive as his recent cameos have been.
Coming in off the right flank on his right foot will hardly solve our width issues either. Has Theo done enough to force his way back in? I’m not particularly convinced that he has, but he seems, in the absence of the Ox, to be the best fit for that role right now. He would give us width, and pace, and all the things Helen Trantum insists that nobody else does (she seems to have a point at the moment).
The temptation to write Sunday off as a bad day at the office is lessened by that laboured performance against Swansea where we could still be playing now and wouldn’t have scored. That said, it is clear that, although we have faltered recently – worryingly so, with the FA Cup Final less than a fortnight away – that this current configuration can work. I think it’s a question of picking and choosing the approaches game by game, not that there’s that much of this season to go.
One approach that hasn’t been mooted and may, I think, be worth a go would be to deploy Cazorla and Ramsey at the base of midfield in a similar manner to the Ramsey/Arteta axis which took us through the end of the 2012/13 season and the beginning of the last one.
I realise Santi is no more of a defensive midfielder than Arteta, but I do think that between the two players, they have enough about them to figure it out. Especially as Santi has become accustomed to the deep lying playmaker role anyway.
I’m not saying it’s THE solution, but if you want to keep Santi, Aaron and Mesut central – and why wouldn’t you? – this could be the way to do it.
A ball playing genius and a midfield dynamo, you also get to have Alexis + 1 genuine wide player on the pitch.
Everyone’s a winner.
*Don’t get bent out of shape, this was a tongue in cheek reference to much of the media coverage of the game…