Sunday, June 16, 2024

Tactics column: understanding Coquelin/Cazorla partnership v Crystal Palace

As a player, Pep Guardiola had a deep-seated fear of being attacked which he has carried with him as manager. On the touchline, he can be seen gesticulating wildly, at times scratching his head furiously whenever the opponent has the ball. As a player it was his job to stop those attacks, but playing just in front of the defence, he was, as Marti Perarnau writes in Pep Confidential, “physically fragile and lacked athleticism – rather on the puny side.” He was scared that if he missed a tackle, or lost the ball in that area, it will not only expose him, but the whole team.

To overcome this fear, Guardiola learned to play with a “touch of audacity”, to anticipate where the ball was going before it got there and then, with possession at his feet, surprise opponents with midfield-splitting passes. That’s why as coach, Guardiola has developed ingenious ways to attack opponents, to attune the game such that most of the play is the opposition’s half.

Arsene Wenger is much the same. On the bench, he’s fidgety and tense, often playing with his zipper to help ease his mind or strangling the life out of his poor water bottle. His approach to football is unlike anyone else’s, and he too prefers to keep the ball away from his goal as much as possible. In recent times, he’s adopted a novel approach to achieve this: push his midfielders up the pitch so that it forces the opponents back into their own half.

Actually, Wenger admits this tactic is a bit of a risk. I’ve talked about it extensively in my previous columns but to refresh your minds, he does this by having the deepest midfielder almost acting as a decoy, moving left and right, up and down the pitch – in this case, Francis Coquelin – so that he drags the opposition midfielders with him, thus opening space for the more creative players to get on the ball. Wenger says he’s “… comfortable with the fact that it sometimes leaves us open in the middle of the park. We want to play in the other half of the pitch and, therefore, we have to push our opponents back. But my philosophy is not to be in trouble, but to fool the opponent into trouble.”

We saw this ploy straight away in the 2-1 win over Crystal Palace in the weekend – as early as 30 seconds – when Coquelin draws three midfielders to him to allow Santi Cazorla to thread the ball to Aaron Ramsey. It didn’t directly lead to a chance as Ramsey ceded possession almost straight away, but as the ball broke loose, Coquelin was high enough up the pitch to win the ball back and continue the momentum – the other benefit of the tactic.

There’s another example that I choose to use for this piece, on eight minutes, when Coquelin draws firstly, James McArthur to him to close him down, then, with the ball laid on to Cazorla, attracts both Yohan Cabaye and James Puncheon towards him. With both players now distracted, Ramsey is free to pick up the ball between the lines and the move eventually ends with him having a shot.

You will notice that there are a couple of themes that run through in both instances. The first is that Cazorla is the one picking up the ball from deep, and as Wenger explains after the game, he chose the Spaniard there because he suits the tactic perfectly. “Cazorla is important at the start of the game, when the ball comes from our defenders,” he says, “because he can pass from deep midfield to high midfield better than everybody and get out of pressure. That’s why I positioned him more central. He is not any more a player on the flanks who can overlap and cross the ball.”

The final point is an important one because playing Cazorla or Ramsey in the centre has been a massive bone of contention amongst Arsenal fans this season ,and the last, and the debate seems unlikely to end anytime soon. What Wenger suggests at the moment, however, is that Cazorla offers more of a play-making trait to Arsenal, while Ramsey’s powerful running is suited better on the flanks than Cazorla.

In any case, Ramsey’s role is not limited to the touchline; instead, he’s detailed to come off the flanks and try and get in between-the-lines as often as possible. The aim is to have another midfielder who can aid Arsenal’s approach play – for Cazorla to find – but Ramsey is also an excellent option there because he can perform a number of functions at the same time: to act as an extra midfielder whenever Ozil drops deep thus still having the same number of players between-the-lines, or to try and beat the offside trap with his clever running.

Indeed, good movement was a key feature in the win over Crystal Palace, with different players making different types of runs. Ramsey usually looked to be the one who played off Olivier Giroud, often darting infield across the backline and taking the full-back with him. It was this type of run that helped create the space for Hector Bellerin to cross for the second goal, moving inside early in the build-up and then, when the ball came to Ramsey, lay it off wide. When the cross came in, Alexis showed the kind of aggression in the box that was missing in the first game of the season against West Ham, leaping above Joel Ward to force an own goal.

The final, more underrated bit of off-the-ball movement was from Mesut Ozil, who showed greater willingness in this game to make the “second striker” runs behind the defence that his been lacking at his time at Arsenal. Giroud of course, was also superb; always an outlet for the long passes and crosses that invariably came his way, and finishing superbly with a scissor-kick for the opening goal.

But to go back to Coquelin; Guardiola would consider it blasphemous that the pivote doesn’t have most of the ball – a luxury that might have saved him some of his hair. Perhaps there’s a certain fear from Wenger about Coquelin, that he’s not good enough. When Guardiola was the number 4 for Barcelona, he prided himself on his ability to move opponents about, and then surprise them with a cutting, inside pass to the forwards. For Wenger, using Coquelin as a decoy is a vehicle to help achieve this and to get his best players on the ball.

At the same time, Coquelin is not a bad passer and each day grows more confidence in his positioning to receive the pass. In his youth, Coquelin was known for his ability to carrt the ball long distances, similar to someone like Matic, and though he got into trouble in one instance against Palace trying to dribbling between two players – the one time the Palace trap worked – perhaps it indicates more responsibility in the future.

Certainly, whether Coquelin is worthy of his place in Arsenal’s midfield is another debate among the Gunners’ fan base. If Mikel Arteta continues as he did when he came on in the second-half against Palace – 4/4 tackles in 15 minutes on the pitch at a time when Arsenal were under considerable pressure – then we may have just the answer.

It may even allow Ramsey to move back into the middle. In any case, hopefully the win over Palace should help click Arsenal’s season into place.

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