Coq-less Crew

The modern obsession with transfers and the publications produce streams of transfer pornography mean that new signings are a topic never entirely removed from the conversational menu. But it feels as though Arsenal palates are being whetted by hors d’oeuvres from a different delicatessen of late. The issue of how on earth Arsene Wenger limits his team selection to just eleven players has ensured that conversation between Arsenal fans has remained piping hot throughout. It feels as though most of Arsenal’s problems would be solved if the rules were changed and professional football became a 12-a-side sport.

The debate centres around who misses out between Ramsey, Cazorla and Chamberlain and where those pawns sit on the board once selected. It is like a game of whack-a-mole, with the removal or re-positioning of one player setting off a chain reaction in the team’s chemistry. Wenger will need a plentiful supply of tippex to hand as he inks his final starting line-up on any given match day. If football is not prepared to allay Arsene’s headaches with the revolutionary 12 a side rule change, perhaps the folk in lab coats could come to his aid with a breakthrough in gene splicing.

Arsenal’s squad would be completed, not via the transfer market, but the laboratory. Behold, Coqteta, the defensive midfielder possessed of great energy and tenacity, but with perfect ball retention and (and hair). Then there’s the world beating wide forward Walbeck. Strong, fast, defensively conscientious, tactically intelligent with a constant supply of goals and assists. Ramshere would have been the most complete British midfield player of all time, were it not for the fact that Wilshere accidentally got stuck in the splicing pod with a daddy long legs. On the upside, Jack’s limbs are now notably less brittle as a result……

There are many different permutations for the mechanics of Arsenal’s midfield and I think it’s fair to say that Wenger has not found the perfect equation just yet. In teaming Coquelin and Cazorla at the base of Arsenal’s midfield and giving Ramsey a free role from the right (it’s rarely correct to ever describe Wenger’s wide players as playing “on” the wing, “from” the wing is a much more apposite expression), he has found something that works, at least on a short term basis. But I don’t think that he, or Aaron Ramsey for that matter, wants to settle on that permanently.

Personally, I don’t think Ramsey should worry too much about playing from the right. In Arsenal’s system, he is afforded freedom to get involved in the final third and play to his strengths, driving behind opposing defences and trying to benefit from Mesut Özil’s endless supply line. The Welshman explained that the manager had given him something of a free role at Selhurst Park on Sunday. Arsene arrived at a similar compromise with Theo Walcott, when his contract was up for renewal in 2013 and Theo wanted his ego to be tickled with the promise of a central role. Walcott’s freedom was safeguarded by the defensive sturdiness of Bacary Sagna, whilst Ramsey’s depends on the penetration provided by Hector Bellerin from right back.

Wenger continued to station Walcott from the right, but gave him greater license to move inside and join Olivier Giroud in a more central forward position. Even when afforded great liberty to move into the centre, it’s a tad frustrating that so many players continue to agitate to play in the centre, which seems to me to be largely for reasons of prestige and ego. Robert Pires and Freddie Ljungberg did not see being stationed from the flanks as an impediment to influencing the game centrally or as an affront to their status. That said, it seems that Arsene Wenger is keen to find a solution whereby Aaron Ramsey is at the heart of the midfield and there is a midfield configuration that the manager seems curious about.

In the pre-season friendly against Everton, Wenger opted for a Ramsey Cazorla pivot at the base of his midfield, with Coquelin omitted. In the 0-0 draw at home to Sunderland back in May, Wenger also omitted Coquelin, opting for a Ramsey – Wilshere pivot. When the Gunners are chasing goals, especially at home, Le Coq is often the first player sacrificed. It was interesting that, on Sunday, with Coquelin substituted for fear of a second yellow card, Chamberlain was summoned to replace him as opposed to Mikel Arteta (who did come on some minutes later).

In an attacking sense, a midfield trio of Cazorla, Ramsey and Özil with Chamberlain on the right solves Arsene’s selection dilemma. Cazorla, who increasingly seems to be morphing into a kind of Andrea Pirlo figure in the deep lying playmaker role, can distribute the ball and set the tempo of Arsenal’s passing, which his compatriot Mikel Arteta has done so well for so long. Ramsey can play from his preferred central role without creating this kind of distributive dysfunction, as neither he nor Coquelin build the rhythm of Arsenal’s play with incisive passing.

It also frees up the right flank for Chamberlain, who is such a valuable player because his skillset is unique in the Arsenal squad. He is powerful and direct, he commits defenders and makes solid, well manned defences more malleable. Whether or not a Cazorla and Ramsey base provides a stiff enough defensive shield for Arsenal’s defence is the question. This is a combination that could only be contemplated for home games against the Premier League’s lesser lights. In truth, it could probably only be entertained by teams that carry little or no counter attacking threat, which could only really be said of the league’s bottom 5 or 6 clubs.

The influx of television money means that mid table clubs are now stocked with players such as Shaqiri, Cabaye, Payet and Montero, who can link play quickly between defence and attack. Playing Sunderland Coq-less in May was fine because Sunderland don’t really have a player like this and because they only needed a point to confirm their survival, which reduced their appetite for the counter attack. Logically, a Cazorla and Ramsey base would see the Spaniard as the deepest midfielder. Santi is actually quite good in the tackle, because he has good timing and a nice appreciation of space. He knows how to stick a leg out at the last second.

But over a larger area, I would be concerned about his defensive instincts. His lack of pace isn’t so much the issue here. Gilberto Silva, Didier Deschamps, Claude Makelele and Dunga are four of the slowest players in football history but four of the finest defensive midfielders too. Cazorla is a good defensive weapon on the ball because he can dribble Arsenal out of pressure, as he showed brilliantly at the Etihad Stadium in January and at Anfield last December. But that was in the confines of a very tight unit with Coquelin doing the dirty work. I don’t think Cazorla naturally has that nurturing, protective defensive instinct that Wenger identified in Mikel Arteta, who had spent several years in a disciplined David Moyes side, when he moved Mikel back.

Arsene has toyed with the idea enough to show that he is entertaining it for certain situations. You would imagine that it is something that he has worked on at London Colney. He was convinced enough to use it away from home against Crystal Palace with the Gunners leading by a goal, which suggests he has some conviction that it could yet work and he may well be right. I think there are probably only 5-6 games a season whereby Arsenal can seriously entertain starting a game without a specialist defensive midfielder, but I think we will see it adopted as a Plan B when the team needs a goal as the season progresses.

Follow me on Twitter @Stillberto

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