Arsenal put in a much improved display at the Champions Manchester City on Sunday to get their first win in the city for over four years and their first league win against a Champions League side since beating City 1-0 at home in 2012. The midfield was far tighter than in previous away games against the “big sides”, being happy enough to sit off the City centre backs and the defensive midfield paring of Fernando and Fernandinho, looking instead to close the space in front of the back four where David Silva is usually so dangerous. The central midfield three featured two aggressive ball winners in Coquelin and Ramsey and one fighting technician in the form of Cazorla. In a first half where City had almost 65% possession Silva made just 27 passes, few of which posed any real threat.
For many people it was the midfield balance Arsenal has been crying out for, finally being able to fight successfully for 50-50 challenges and not rolling over at the sight of opposition pressure and intensity. In truth though the performance was far from perfect. There are still debates about the best potential balance for the midfield and attack, and there is the case of trying to fit all the necessary components in to try and achieve that balance.
Arsene Wenger has often spoke about trying to get the balance right between attack and defence with the narrative usually being that he has swung too far in favour of the former over the latter and has been over reliant on technical players. In truth, this game was probably the opposite. While the added physicality and counter attacking approach suited this match, Arsenal didn’t actually create much, instead relying on opposition error and being clinical with their half chances to score twice. In games where there is more emphasis for Arsenal to win they’ll need to be better with their ball retention in the final third. Secondly, in the early stages of the second half the game became far too open from Arsenal’s perspective and the City midfielders were able to carry the ball at a far greater tempo with more purpose. None of this is to say Arsenal’s midfield were poor on Sunday, far from it, just that there are still improvements to be made and potential questions.
At defensive midfield Francis Coquelin has somewhat come out of nowhere to make the position his own with Arteta out for a prolonged period. He’s read the game well, shown good strength in tackles and has distributed possession at a decent standard. It would probably be naive to use his performances to justify inactivity in the transfer market when it comes to midfield additions, but he has shown he can do a good job, both as a box-to-box ball winner and the deepest midfielder. In the current squad, halfway through the January window, he is currently the standout choice for the base of the midfield for now.
In central midfield another lock is Santi Cazorla, who since moving to a more central, slightly deeper role, in Arsenal’s new 4-3-3, has risen to new heights and has arguably been Arsenal’s standout performer. On Sunday he was the best player on the pitch, showing aggression when without the ball and immense control with it, weaving in and out of players in deep positions without ever playing himself into danger and distributing it cleanly with both feet. He orchestrated things from deep and was the pinnacle reason Arsenal were able to form some kind of stranglehold on the game and get up field which was crucial as he was the only pure technical player in Arsenal’s midfield five.
Aaron Ramsey is the most obvious candidate to fill the 3rd central role. At his best he performers all the duties you want a central midfielder to. Defensively he adds help for a holding midfielder and is perhaps Arsenal’s best ball winner. On the ball he can add control from deep, incisive passing and regular goals plus an immense engine which sees him cover huge amounts of ground. He’s had a tendency to be slightly sluggish technically when coming back from injuries but he’s a player who can get on a role, and was doing just that before he frustratingly strained his hamstring in Istanbul a month ago.
In the front three Arsenal have recently favoured power and pace in the wide areas and a focal point in Giroud centrally to hold the ball up and act as someone to bounce the play off. This has bucked the trend of recent years, were wide playmakers in the form of Cazorla, Wilshere, Ramsey, Rosicky and Özil have regularly been deployed on at least one flank, usually with a more direct player on the opposite one. This has brought obvious benefits and obvious downsides. Arsenal are now a very fast side and dangerous on the counter, but they often lack the ability to retain possession as effectively in advanced areas. Regularly at the Eithad dangerous breaks broke down due to sloppiness in possession and Arsenal were left on the back foot again.
I think the potential addition of Mesut Özil to the front three could greatly help in that regard. Özil has received wide criticism for his performances wide in the last year, but he does a good job there and was improving with every game until he sustained his knee injury. He can help Arsenal assert more control and dominance on games. He is admittedly not as prolific as in his preferred number 10 role, but with the move away from 4-2-3-1 he doesn’t suit a role in the midfield three over any of the aforementioned players.
However, I think there is a slightly weird situation brewing because I don’t think Ramsey is actually as well suited to his role in this system as he could be. All of Ramsey’s best performances in an Arsenal shirt have come alongside a holding midfielder – primarily Mikel Arteta and occasionally Mathieu Flamini – but also with a number 10 ahead of him. With no number 10 Ramsey is often drawn to the great space in front of him which isn’t filled by a teammate, and while his forward runs can be of great benefit it can lead to him leaving sufficient space for opposition to get in behind. This was seen in the early parts of the second half when the game became more stretched and Ramsey was often seen filling the number 10 space despite being needed deeper. It is similar problem Pep Guardiola found with Thomas Müller in his 4-3-3/4-1-4-1 system, where again a player of immense work rate was causing havoc tactically due to his attacking instincts and Guardiola was forced to abandon the idea of using Müller in an interior midfield role.
A number 10 filling the space in front of him could help Ramsey stay more disciplined and improve team structure without the ball even further after the improvements seen on Sunday. Ramsey can still make the lung busting forward runs with a true 10 in front of him; they’ll just be less regular and potentially more effective. Instead of surging forward every attack, he can arrive later when Özil has dragged the opposition defensive midfielders out of position. This is something we saw a lot last year, one example being in the home victory against Liverpool in the league, as shown by @DezilDez in this video. A compact Liverpool midfield is covering the space in front of the box, only for Özil to drag them wide, Ramsey to run into the space and score brilliantly.
I believe returning to a number 10 in front of Ramsey could create duel benefits of Ramsey keeping shape more regularly, and potentially scoring from his ventures forward at a better rate. When you add in that Özil is far more comfortable in a free central role than a wide one, where his passing options are more limited and his responsibilities without the ball are greater, it seems something that Arsenal should be trying to get working. The issue is a return to 4-2-3-1 would see Cazorla shifted wide, where he’d struggled in large chunks last year and in the early stages of this season.
Ever since the early parts of the season where Özil being played in wide areas caused much frustration I’ve thought about the potential use of a diamond midfield. The midfield three from Sunday would remain with Özil ahead of them behind two strikers or wide forwards.
Alexis Sanchez and Olivier Giroud would be the obvious strike paring, offering diversity in their partnership. Alexis could help push the defensive line back while Giroud can also act as a focal point to the attack. The fullbacks can compensate for the lack of width, particularly Hector Bellerin, who after impressing in recent weeks will get a run in the side with Debuchy’s injury. The former Barca winger is a particularly attack minded fullback, not afraid to try and break beyond and behind a defensive line with his electrifying pace. It could effectively look something like this.
My guess is that Özil will return in the current 4-3-3 in one of the wide areas, perhaps with additional license to roam, which realistically, isn’t particularly different to a diamond formation. In both situations Özil will likely present another horizontal line between the central midfielders and other forwards, regardless of where he is positioned vertically, with the aim of trying to meet an adequate balance between directness and ball retention. Moving to an untested diamond structure would represent a risk for a side who have won 10 out of their last 13 in all competitions, but I do think it’s a system to bear in mind, both for the immediate present and the long term as it may be able to get the best out of Arsenal’s most influential players.
How do you think Arsenal should setup? Feel free to comment or tweet me with your thoughts.