by Lewis Ambrose
Has Arsène Wenger found his new midfield?
The convincing manner in which Arsenal beat Everton on Saturday afternoon could be swept under the carpet as a simple pre-season win. Maybe it should be. Neither side was quite full strength and Arsenal simply looked fresher than their opponents.
However one tweak from Wenger was intriguing. Arsenal are yet to sign a midfielder this summer despite being linked with almost everyone on the planet. What is it that the Gunners need?
Francis Coquelin is simply a ball winner. In possession he is not quite up to Arsenal standard. This is hardly even a comment on his technique but his ability to see the game and open space and passing channels when his defenders are in possession of the ball. This led to Santi Cazorla playing alongside him rather than Aaron Ramsey.
Ramsey has a superb engine and is too good in front of goal to be wasted taking the ball from the defence. Cazorla provided a good foil for Coquelin as he could take the ball from deep before passing or, as he prefers, carrying it through tight spaces.
The Spaniard is by no means bad going forward but cannot burst into dangerous areas as Ramsey does and is not as prolific when the ball falls to him in the box. As he heads further into his thirties maybe it is time for a more reserved role where he can control proceedings at his own pace.
Arsène Wenger could have done (and probably could still do) with a deep ball playing midfielder to partner Ramsey this summer as he looks to get his best all-round midfielder back in the thick of the action. Maybe he would like to test an internal solution before dipping into the transfer market.
It is clear that Arsenal will do everything to get Aaron Ramsey back into the middle of the park. The midfielder himself has expressed his desire to play centrally a number of times and Arsène Wenger spoke about his wide options this week without mentioning the Welshman.
“We have Walcott, Chamberlain, Sanchez, Wilshere who can play wide, Gnabry, so we have plenty of players,” said Wenger last week.
Presumably Mesut Özil will stay in the middle after an experiment to use him wide last season didn’t go to plan and Wenger named Cazorla as his personal player of the season after a campaign spent in centre-midfield.
The Arsenal manager has always endeavoured to find a way to fit as many attacking players on the pitch as possible without damaging the defensive integrity of the side. It hasn’t always worked but now he is set to try once more.
Can Ramsey and Cazorla work as a midfield pair?
Cazorla alongside Ramsey would see Arsenal go back a few years to a possession-based game, but the Spaniard is not a player who sets the tempo. His passing is impeccable, as is his close control, but that lends him toward a style where he can drive past players and through tight spaces. If he is to play this new role he will have to adapt, and he showed signs of being capable of that towards the end of the season.
He did the same again in the win over Everton. The Arsenal midfielder took the ball from the defence over and over again as Arsenal controlled the game. Cazorla offers a much more similar style to Mikel Arteta than Francis Coquelin, taking control of the game from a deep position when Arsenal have the ball and waiting for an opponent to lose possession rather than diving in to steal it.
In possession against Everton Cazorla was always secure. What he adds in these tight central areas is the ability to get out of any situation and create space for himself, which is crucial when under pressure.
Scenes like this one as James McCarthy looked to steal the ball demonstrate an incredible ability from Cazorla to keep the ball in tight spaces. He certainly has all the attributes to allow Arsenal to use him in this role from an offensive perspective, but can he put them into practise?
Surprisingly he may well be able to change his game, even at 30 years old. Taking the ball off the defence is one thing but Cazorla seemed happy to move the ball on quickly rather than carry it. Whenever a teammate was in space he released the ball quickly and made sure he was available for a return pass if necessary.
Perhaps most impressively the Spaniard, who loves a long-range strike, didn’t get within 25 yards of the Everton goal once during the opening 45 minutes.
As Arsenal built up in possession Cazorla was always the deepest midfielder and often deeper than at least one of Héctor Bellerín and Kieran Gibbs. He was happy not to get involved with play around the box, always available to play the ball to, often covering an overlapping defender and always moving the ball on quickly.
When Arsenal had the ball Cazorla’s effort as the deepest midfielder was an impressive one.
But the biggest question will be of his defensive capabilities. He is strong but not imposing, nor is he athletic. Ramsey’s running would help Cazorla in this pair but discipline can only get you so far. No dobt Cazorla would be willing to play deep and graft for the team, but is he capable of winning the ball repeatedly when he is largely responsible for that part of the game in midfield?
“Offensively we have lots of solutions. We have to find a team balance. It is more about team balance than any individual,” Arsene Wenger said last season.
“When you have the ball in the modern game you have to attack, when you don’t have the ball you have to defend. All the players who can’t do that, cannot play.”
There’s little doubt that Cazorla will defend, but can he do it well enough? Counter-attacks will be the main problem and Arsenal will have to work around Cazorla’s deficiencies.
Firstly Aaron Ramsey will have to do Cazorla’s running, but he won’t always be able to.
Cazorla’s poor acceleration was shown up by Gerard Deulofeu who launched Everton’s most dangerous attack of the first half.
There is little wrong with Cazorla’s positioning but, with Everton on the break, he just didn’t have the legs to keep up with the winger. Arsenal recovered the situation with Santi himself removing the ball from danger in the box, but Arsenal have to prevent opportunities to counter if they are to play with Cazorla in this role.
Which they did later on. Granted Steven Naismith is no Gerard Deulofeu but Arsenal stopped a dangerous situation by retreating and maintaining compactness rather than attacking the ball.
This is something the side has developed excellently over the last two seasons, bringing the best out of the defence and also suiting our goalkeepers – including new man Petr Čech – much better than the high line we used to implement more often.
While Arsenal are trying to press higher up the pitch more often now the team is also well versed in backing off when required. We have by no means perfected it but we are getting much better.
The other way Cazorla could be helped is, incidentally, by one of our defenders actually attacking the ball. A risky strategy, and not one that was needed in Singapore, but both Laurent Koscielny and Gabriel favour stepping out of the line to win the ball in the midfield.
It’s an incredibly tall order but if Arsenal could find the right mix of retreating from a break and attacking the ball Cazorla suddenly becomes a much more realistic option as the deepest midfielder.
If Arsenal can use this kind of shape more often, Cazorla’s long range passing will come in handy. Alexis Sánchez, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Theo Walcott and Danny Welbeck are quicker than most as well as – for the most part – being intelligent runners off the ball. Walcott in particular excels at this and it no coincidence that it was him Cazorla found for the opening goal on Saturday.
Once again moving the ball quickly out of his feet, one quick look up saw the Spaniard pick out Walcott with a superb ball from the halfway line. This is the big benefit of having Cazorla in this role, but it would require more decisive running from the forwards as well as our opposition getting pulled further up the pitch than usual.
I certainly have my reservations about playing Cazorla in this role. It was very much a ‘Plan B’ to use him alongside Ramsey last season. They only started one game as the base of the midfield and Arsenal were, to be frank, dreadful against Sunderland.
Cazorla has the attributes but will have to learn to play the game in a different way to before. Aaron Ramsey’s incredible athleticism could prove the perfect foil to Cazorla’s incredible technique but we are a long way form finding out just yet. Neither player is particular defensive and Cazorla in particular may need more protection than the free-scoring Ramsey to play in such a deep role. The role requires a great amount of defensive work and I’m not sure Cazorla has that in him. The only work around would see Arsenal adapt as a team, which could take a little while.
All that said Saturday’s first half was very encouraging and, considering the game was against Premier League opposition, it seems to be a system that Arsène Wenger will give every chance. Wenger knows he has to get Ramsey back into the middle of the park so it is a case of finding the right partner. Maybe Cazorla is that man.
The Arsenal manager may not sign a midfielder this summer but he may just have thought of a new midfield pairing.