On Sunday, Selhurst Park once again proved a happy hunting ground for Arsenal as a well balanced Crystal Palace side were defeated, but didn’t really clear up the uncertainties surrounding a possible title challenge.
The West Ham game exposed frailties that the summer had allowed us to forget, and although Sunday once again showed the skill and battling qualities of the side, some of the questions raised by that opening day disappointment feel just as relevant three points later.
Creative Midfield: Width v picking the best players available.
With the Cazorla back out wide experiment ending as quickly as it had begun following the central congestion against West Ham, the little Spaniard returned to impressive form in the deep lying playmaker role. The contrast of his impact in the two games highlighted why Le Boss prefers him in that role.
Despite the best efforts of the Palace fans and Francis Coquelin to break up our reformed Cazorla/Coquelin axis via disciplinary means, the team did look better balanced with them dove-tailing. Ramsey, for all his energy and comparative physicality, offers too much as a goal threat and as a box-to-box force to be best utilised when limited to a deep lying role. The fact is that the 4-2-3-1 we saw in the latter part of last season and yesterday gives the team better balance and defensive solidity, but this leaves the manager trying to find a place for Ramsey, who is clearly one of the best 11 players at the club.
Sunday saw the Welshman return to his roaming inside right position of late last season, with mixed results. When he is carrying an overtly creative burden, Ramsey has a habit of returning to the excessively flicky, back-heel-ey, wannabe trequarista style that we saw from him when he inherited the Cesc role after our former captain forced his way to his bitter-sweet Catalan home-coming. His work-rate, two-footedness and skill levels ensure that he still contributes significantly in that role, but it does add to the already habitually congested area behind the striker.
Tactically, at least in a traditional sense, it makes more sense to play Walcott or Oxlade-Chamberlain on the right of midfield, as in different ways they stretch the opposition defence and create more space centrally, as well as offering a crucial element of raw pace otherwise lacking in the attacking third.
Unfortunately, it isn’t quite that simple. Ramsey’s all round game, and his understanding with Giroud and Özil is just better and more well developed than Theo or The Ox, and he allows us to play with a greater degree of control. On the flip side, they are the only ones bar our full backs that consistently offer genuine width. When our full-backs can get forward and provide good service, as was the case at times on Sunday, the absence of either isn’t too problematic, but at other times, as evidenced against West Ham, and last season against Monaco and Swansea among others, a greater threat down the flanks is vital.
Short of the unlikely acquisition of a world class wide-man who can both stretch defences and play a consistent possession game, this tactical and selection quandary isn’t going away any time soon. As with so many of the questions surrounding the team at present it isn’t all gloom, as it allows us to play horses for courses somewhat, but it does suggest the manager is still slightly unsure about how to balance his team and squad.
The Left Flank: No Sanchez, no party?
Sunday was a clear reminder that an unfit and slightly off colour Alexis is still a lot better as an option than no Alexis. Despite wasteful finishing and variable decision making early on, his sheer work-rate, determination and eye for counter-attacking possibilities instantly made the team a more threatening proposition. His willingness to run directly at the opposition back line, allied with his pace and close control, keeps them off balance both tactically as a team and as individuals, and he never lets up on them. Ultimately, it was his athleticism and desire that turned one point into three, allowing us to look down on Chelsea for a week at least.
For the most part this is something to be celebrated, but it did serve to further highlight an issue that was all too clear in pre-season and against West Ham. We really do have no-one in the squad who can even attempt to fulfil the same role on that flank, and should he pick up an injury or require a rest, it really isn’t clear who could step into the breach without a significant damage to the balance of the side. Cazorla there doesn’t work, and the manager now recognises it. A fit Welbeck offers much effort but limited subtlety, Walcott an off the ball goal threat, and The Ox a willingness to run with the ball. The difference is, Alexis offers all three, even when half-fit.
Right-back: Bellerin’s pace and attacking thrust vs Debuchy’s experience and defensive solidity.
It appears that young Héctor is the club’s number one in the number two position, at least against opposition with pace on the flanks. On Sunday we saw both the good and the bad of the young swashbuckling Spaniard. In the plus column, he provided the cross for the second goal and nullified the pace of Zaha to the effect that the Palace man was re-located to try his luck against Nacho Monreal. In the minus column, he occasionally gave the ball away cheaply in dangerous areas, and didn’t cover across quickly enough when Wickham hit the post from Zaha’s cross (though his pressure probably made it harder for the Palace man).
Debuchy isn’t as quick, but is stronger, taller and more positionally aware when the ball is on the other flank. This is quite a good problem to have, as both have different excellent qualities that can be utilised against different opposition. That said, history has taught us that a settled back four is better and keeping goals out than one that rotates too much, and I hope that young Héctor can sharpen up his defensive game and make himself undisputed first choice.
The Nearly-Assist King: How do we maximise the impact of Özil’s vision?
Most non Sky-sports observers had Magical Mesut as our man of the match against Crystal Palace, and Le Boss was suitably impressed in the post-match press conference:
“It’s a pleasure to watch the quality and intelligence of his passing, he was absolutely magnificent,” enthused Wenger. “He works harder than a lot of people thinks he does, he’s not spectacular in his defending but he wants to do the job and help the team.
“What I liked today was he made many runs behind without the ball, that’s new. He mixed up his game because usually he comes for the ball.”
The variations in his game have been clear over pre-season, and were again on display at Selhurst Park, but he still, on the whole, doesn’t get the wider recognition he deserves. And this is in part due to his efforts not being maximised by his teammates.
Despite Olivier Giroud’s excellent improvised finish from a driven Özil cross, Arsenal were still wasteful when it came to making the most of the opportunities crafted by the German. In addition to a stupendous 98% pass accuracy, Özil created four goal scoring chances that weren’t taken, a ratio that is all too familiar to Arsenal fans. Since joining the club he has now created 155 chances for teammates with only 15 converted into goals.
Now before this descends into an attack on our strike force, it’s worth remembering that these aren’t all clear cut one-on-ones and chances created are also partially dependent on the recipient’s movement. But this lack of clinical finishing has haunted the team for a while with Arsenal frequently having the lowest chance conversion ratio of the top four over recent seasons. It would be interesting to see who those chances were created for, and try to ascertain who Özil finds it easiest to set up before making any specific conclusions. But one thing is clear – this team needs to be better in front of goal.
Holding Midfield: How can we take the pressure of Le Coq?
An ongoing consequence of playing either the diminutive Cazorla or the roaming Ramsey alongside our French ball-winner is that neither is really going to take an equal share of the tackling responsibilities, which can leave Coquelin exposed.
As we saw on Sunday, Coquelin is still comparatively inexperienced at balancing the demands of being the only overtly defensive midfielder in the high-pressure pitched battles of the upper reaches of the Premier League. He was lucky to have a ref not so keen to give a second booking as he was his first, and with a less understanding match official could have cost Arsenal the match with his combination of over-enthusiastic challenges and petulant reactions.
In days of yore, I’d like to think his teammates would have done more to calm him down AND to drop in and provide a little more support when he was giving away a couple of free-kicks in quick succession. Indeed both his booking and one of the disciplinary tight-rope walking challenges he made later were the result of Cazorla’s unwillingness to make a proper challenge or take a booking for the team. As well as game-management and individual situational awareness, there is also the issue of bearing the weight of such a vital role in the team for a whole season. It’s pretty clear that Arteta is the defensive solidity super-sub these days with the limitations of his leg speed, and Flamini is only really viewed as a last resort option at this stage.
Do we need another defensive midfielder to shore up the squad? While the obvious answer for the football manager generation is yes, we still need to consider what type. Would the manager be best served looking for another quick, aggressive energetic presser and tackler like Coquelin, or a more disciplined screening Gilberto-esque alternative? Or a tempo setter from deep like the Arteta of 3 years ago? Which (and indeed who!) would give us the best combination of tactical flexibility and high-quality cover?