“[Zinedine] Zidane went to Real Madrid, he played on the left. There was never a debate and he had to play there. It is a debate as old as the world. Since we played football. When you look at the Brazil team in 1970 they had Tostão, Rivelino, Pele, Jairzinho and Gerson. They all played number ten in their club. They didn’t know what to do. They put them all together and they won the World Cup in a convincing way. The main man is the one with the ball. The others have to give him solutions to play. Every team finds a way to go through its strong point.”
Thus spoke Arsene Wenger last September when quizzed over his decision to deploy Mesut Özil from the flank. He is faced with a similar head scratcher 11 months on and after Sunday’s defeat to West Ham, familiar questions are beginning to emerge. How does Arsene Wenger balance the midfield when everyone wants to play in the centre? Last season, Aaron Ramsey performed a shift on the right side of midfield and to good effect. Against Chelsea and West Ham, Ramsey reassumed his preferred central berth and Santi Cazorla was shunted to a slightly wider position.
The crux of the debate during pre season has revolved around whether it is Cazorla or Ramsey that moves out of the centre, on the assumption that both are competing for the same spot. Ramsey has been quite outspoken about dislike for playing on the right of midfield. In the same interview, he dropped a hint about moving to Spain in the future. Whether the two points are interconnected or whether he was just honestly answering a question is open to conjecture. But it seems conversations have taken place between Ramsey and Wenger and the manager has resolved to seat him on his central midfield throne at the expense of Cazorla.
Last season, it was Özil who reluctantly took the baton and played from the left for a period of games. It seems as though the German has also engaged in conversation with the manager and assurances have been made that he will play in his favoured number 10 role. On the 7th July, three different British newspapers produced identically headlined stories about Arsene Wenger “permanently handing Mesut Özil the number 10 role”, even though he’d played exclusively in that position for the last three months of the season. It doesn’t take Philip Marlowe to decipher that these stories were planted by “Team Özil.”
In response, Arsene Wenger let off his own PR pyro a fortnight ago, when he publicly challenged Özil to contest the Player of the Year award and, more crucially, add more goals to his game. “I want more goals from him because he plays in that position and he is a good finisher.” This suggested that Özil had won the spin war, but the manager would only cede to his demand based on caveats and conditions. The German is going to have to adhere to the small print. Reconciling players’ egos with the overarching needs of the team is one of the biggest challenges for a top level football manager.
There are inherent ironies at play with Wenger’s current conundrum. Players that demand to play in their preferred cubby hole can upset the balance of the team and, when that is the case, it hardly reflects well on their skills in any case. I doubt Mesut Özil will glance scornfully at his World Cup winners medal in his old age because he won it playing from the left flank. Alex Oxlade Chamberlain’s situation provides further ironies; he has made himself such an attractive prospect selection wise because he is the only person that really does want to play on the wing. (Wenger has previously suggested that his future could be in the centre, to further the paradox). The likes of Ramsey and Walcott have talked themselves out of competing for his spot.
One wonders if Danny Welbeck’s “centre lust” will eventually remove all of Chamberlain’s competition for a starting spot! The unfortunate irony is that the likes of Mikel Arteta and Santi Cazorla, who have shown a long term willingness to move backwards and sideways in service of the team, have had to forfeit their individual preferences, which, on a moral level, doesn’t seem particularly fair on them. There is a good argument that Arsenal really need to have one of their Spanish stylists present in the centre at any one time. Here, @michaelkeshani argues that Coquelin is the cog that is actually unbalancing Arsenal’s midfield.
After a bad result, it’s tempting to throw the baby out with the bathwater and write combinations and partnerships off in perpetuity. I have written before about my suspicion that Coquelin and Ramsey as a central pairing doesn’t offer enough precision in possession. That said, Chamberlain’s goal against Chelsea at Wembley came as a direct result of some Santi trickery on the left and a beautiful decoy run by Aaron Ramsey from the centre. Adrian Clarke’s Community Shield Breakdown also illustrated that the combination of Ramsey and Coquelin (Ramelin?) gave Arsenal a needed base of power against a physical Chelsea midfield. So it’s not a partnership eternally doomed to dysfunction.
Coqzorla looks a better central partnership, but that took time to foment over the course of last winter and felt a little more like a short term solution. It didn’t function instantly. But to continue to justify their preferred central roles, Ramsey and Özil are going to have to meet the manager half way. Both need to doctor their game slightly to make the collective function. For Ramsey, this means becoming more pointed in possession. Arteta gives us precision and tempo with his passing from the back, Cazorla gives us imagination and range. Ramsey is going to have to show that he can expound on one or both of those qualities when he receives the ball from his centre halves.
Arsenal’s build up play was notably laboured against West Ham, one of Ramsey’s weaknesses is that he often takes too many touches and that is a crease that will need ironing if he wants to play ahead of Cazorla in the centre. Likewise, Mesut Özil is going to have to consider goalscoring as more of a personal responsibility. Nobody is asking him to become Gerd Muller overnight, but, as @jcav90 pointed out, too often it looks as though scoring is just not something he is interested in.
There was a perfect illustration of this on Sunday, with Olivier Giroud out on the left. As Giroud prepared to whip a cross in, Özil stayed on the lip of the penalty area, despite the fact that Arsenal had no other presence in the box. He didn’t offer himself as a target. Giroud’s cross was fumbled by Adrian but Mesut was too far away to capitalise. A positive run into the area much earlier would have given him a good chance of a tap in. Wenger is correct to say that when you play so close to a lone striker, you need to support him just as much as you need to provide for him.
It’s good to supply bullets to your marksman, but it’s also good to have a snubnose handy just in case he needs some help shooting at the bad guys. Upon his return from injury in the New Year, Özil again played from the left and he scored in consecutive games from this position against Tottenham and Aston Villa. He moved back into the centre thereafter and he hasn’t scored from open play since. If he doesn’t start to move the mountain back towards Mohamed and repay Wenger’s faith, he could unwittingly talk himself back into a wide role. It’s a bit like making somebody a cup of tea at the office, if you do it well, you are sure to be asked to do it repeatedly.
Ramsey and Özil seem to have bargained their way into the central positions that they prefer, for now. I am not at all suggesting that they are unwilling or unable to do so based on one match, but they’re both going to have to doctor their offerings slightly (as Cazorla has) to keep those bargaining chips in their clutches.
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