Wednesday, May 22, 2024

CazCoq and a RamJac

Arsenal are a relatively settled team at this moment in time. In 2012, Wenger was forced to rebuild with the departures of starting XI players Robin van Persie and Alex Song, with Lukas Podolski, Olivier Giroud and Santi Cazorla all arriving. That turnover represented a great deal of transition and since that revolutionary summer, Arsene Wenger has been able to slowly decorate his side rather than rebuild it, donning a pencil rather than a hard hat. Bacary Sagna is the only truly unwanted departure in this time period and he was already north of 30 and winding his contract down, so his exit did not cause as much of a tremor as his predecessors.

Wenger was able to bring in an experienced hand in Debuchy while he waits for his internal solutions, Bellerin and Jenkinson, to blossom. Mesut Özil, Danny Welbeck, Alexis Sanchez, Calum Chambers, Nacho Monreal, Gabriel and now Petr Cech have all been added to the mix, whilst Aaron Ramsey and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain have matured into bona fide starting XI players. Three years into the team building cycle, the manager’s energy will be focused on continuing to foster understanding and chemistry in the team.

Without wishing to offer a direct comparison between the teams, Wenger is probably at a similar stage in the team building cycle as he was in 2003, when he added only Jens Lehmann to his starting XI. In the previous summer, Gilberto Silva had been the only significant addition to his starting line-up. I think the defence and the goalkeeping positions are quite settled. With six months acclimatisation behind him, Gabriel can start to compete with Koscielny and Mertesacker in earnest, while Calum Chambers will continue to be groomed for the future.

I think Wenger is reasonably happy with his attack, but I am sure he will add that 5 star striker or attacking wide player if the opportunity arises to do so. Last week I addressed how Arsenal can increase their firepower via existing options. However, one area that I don’t believe to be entirely resolved is the engine room. This time last year, Arsene tried to reanimate his midfield via a kind of 4-1-4-1 formation. This idea had a dual purpose, firstly because he wanted Arsenal to control games through possession. In 2013-14, Arsenal employed a more “stand offish” approach, which relied a little too heavily on the goals of Aaron Ramsey.

Wenger moved to the 4-1-4-1 to help Arsenal dominate the ball and seize the tactical initiative. He also reshaped the team in this way to accommodate his many midfield talents in the same line up. With Arsenal only the 7th most creative side in terms of chances created in 2013-14, the manager wanted to shoehorn one more ballplayer into his midfield. The 4-1-4-1 was a way of cramming at least three of Ramsey, Wilshere, Cazorla and Özil into the same team. In Arsenal’s first away match of last season at Goodison Park, Wenger started with Cazorla and Giroud on the bench, with Wilshere and Ramsey paired together in the midfield and Alexis Sanchez as a false 9.

Chamberlain provided the width from the right, whilst Özil was given license to drift in from the left. I may well be reading too much into that one match, but I think it tells you a lot about how Wenger wanted to shape his team, with Cazorla’s midfield torch handed to Jack Wilshere and Olivier Giroud being utilised as a ‘break glass in case of emergency’ option from the bench.

Santi and Giroud came off the bench and played a big part in the Gunners rescuing a late point. Cazorla provided an assist for Ramsey and Giroud headed home a last gasp equaliser (before injuring himself). Their contribution, I believe, caused Wenger to rethink the relative phasing out of both players as genuine starters. As I wrote back in February, they have responded to the rising watermark of the Arsenal squad.

The manager was eventually forced to put the 4-1-4-1 onto the back-burner. The World Cup abbreviated the time that he had to implement the plan in pre-season, which led to some dysfunction. But by November, Mikel Arteta, Jack Wilshere and Mesut Özil had all succumbed to long term injuries and Aaron Ramsey was struggling with a persistent thigh problem. Wenger stumbled upon one of the unlikelier midfield partnerships of his tenure. A rejuvenated Francis Coquelin came into the team and forced himself into long term contention. Without Arteta, the Gunners’ midfield lacked a distributor, so Santi Cazorla reinvented himself in a deeper role.

His mesmeric close control and laser guided passing range made him a key, if unconventional, defensive weapon. Cazorla’s performance at Anfield in December, in which Arsenal were forced backwards by Liverpool’s relentless pressing, was the only bright spot in an underwhelming team display. It proved to be a lightbulb moment for the manager too. Özil returned to make the number 10 role his own and Coqzorla had become such a formidable duo, that Ramsey was re-assimilated as a right sided midfielder.

That’s how Arsenal finished last season, but some of the questions the manager tried to tackle twelve months ago remain. Wenger often minds a flame for his developing talents, but in Ramsey and Wilshere, he harbours a robust belief. At some point, he is going to have to manage the transition from Cazorla to Ramsey and / or Wilshere as the brains of the Arsenal midfield. It could reinvite the question as to whether Aaron and Jack can co-exist in the same midfield. Last October I wrote a piece suggesting it is too early to write their partnership off in perpetuity.

Whilst I think too many obsess over precise starting XIs in the age of the squad, there is a fundamental equation here. If we are to assume that Özil is comfy in his number ten throne, how to fit Ramsey and Wilshere in, never mind make them work together, is a question that remains. Interestingly, over the summer months, Wenger has begun to talk up the prospect of Wilshere playing from the flank, as he did in his youth. When justifying his lack of interest in Raheem Sterling, the manager listed Wilshere as a wide option, but did not mention Ramsey or Özil.

In the aftermath of Arsenal’s friendly game with a Singapore XI, Arsene again suggested that Wilshere could play wide. With his ability to dribble and move inside with the ball, Wenger may consider Jack as a viable creative option for a front 3 that occasionally looked functional against well organised defences last season. Jack possesses many of the attributes that make Chamberlain such an attractive option from that position.

Even if Jack is re-accommodated as a wide player, (where he would probably be behind Chamberlain and possibly Walcott in the pecking order anyway), there is still potential dysfunction in the heart of the midfield. Ramsey and Coquelin is not a symbiotic midfield partnership. They possess a lot of similar attributes and both need to operate alongside more of a “distributor.” (That’s not to say either of them are bad passers, but it is neither player’s specialty). Coquelin and Cazorla works, Arteta and Ramsey works.

Coquelin and Ramsey played alongside one another at White Hart Lane in February and the end result was a huge amount of turnovers in the middle of the pitch as Spurs pressed Arsenal into possession-based errors. Without Cazorla and Arteta, Arsenal don’t transition from attack to defence quite as well, as @njm1211 explains excellently in this piece. That said, I think Ramsey has worked hard on his passing, especially his long passing, which started to become evident at the end of last season.

As @njm1211 suggests, Arsenal could reduce their need for a ‘distributor’ by becoming a pressing team, which would play more squarely to the qualities of Ramsey and Wilshere. It will be fascinating to see how Wenger moulds his midfield for the 2015-16 season. I suspect it will provide the main debating point of next season as Arsene reimagines the future of his midfield. It may cause a ripple of instability too, as it did at the beginning of last season as the creases are ironed out. For my part, I have absolutely no idea what the midfield will look like or how it will function come May 2016, which is exciting and unnerving in equal measure.

Follow me on Twitter @Stillberto

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