If one were to parcel Arsenal’s season into neatly divided chapters, the November losses of Francis Coquelin, Santi Cazorla and Alexis Sanchez in quick succession would be the most prominent bookmark. A “turning point” in digestible punditry parlance. That’s not to say that the preceding chapters showed smooth, linear progress for Arsenal. Far from it. Shambolic defeats to West Ham, West Brom, Sheffield Wednesday and Arsenal’s slapstick start to their Champions League group phase were all penned in advance of this miniature cull of lead characters.
Aside from impressive wins over Olympiacos and Manchester City, I think it’s fair to say that the Gunners have not been the same since. Most clubs would struggle with their best forward and their first choice centre midfield pairing simultaneously dislocated. For Arsenal, these losses were exacerbated by a lack of symmetry in their understudies.
The chalk and cheese midfield duo of Ramsey and Flamini, Theo Walcott wearing a cloak of invisibility in an unsuitable left wing position and a lack of ball playing paint brushes amidst the midfield jackhammers led to a team haunted by dysfunction. It has been obvious since Christmas that the starting line up was in dire need of refreshment, but the manager didn’t have enough limbs to graft onto his increasingly disfigured Frankenstein creation.
Over the last week, Arsene Wenger might reason that he has found new blood to perform the tactical blood spinning the team has so desperately needed. The return of Danny Welbeck has blown fresh air through a stale forward environment. The manner in which he works the channels brings greater flexibility to the forward line and offers the chance for others to orbit around him, lending fluidity and variety to Arsenal’s attack.
This season, Olivier Giroud has spent a lot more time in the gulley between full back and centre half. His game became predictable at the tail end of the 2014-15 season. Defences cottoned onto his predilection for standing on the lip of the penalty area to provide combinations with onrushing attackers. Opposing teams just began to crowd him out in these spaces, so he has looked to move into wider positions, where it is more difficult for centre halves to blanket him in numbers.
It’s a sound idea in principle, the problem is that Giroud is still quite static when he is in these areas. Premium strikers such as Luis Suarez and formerly Thierry Henry saw the channels as a side door to the goal. But Giroud’s game is based on combinations, so when he moves to this corridor of opportunity, he stands fairly still and looks to bump off passes. His guided flicks are just not as dangerous in this zone.
Walcott’s pace offers threat in behind when he plays through the middle. The issue is that Theo has something of a one track mind, which partially explains his fitful involvement in games. He is only really interested in being put through on goal. His performance against Manchester United in October- comfortably his best of the season- was remarkable due to the altruism in his running. Unfortunately that display has proved something of an outlier, but it’s exactly what Welbeck provides on a consistent basis.
His running is thoughtful for reasons beyond glimpsing the whites of a keeper’s eyes. In many ways, Welbeck is the anti-Theo, because he could certainly use a small dose of Walcott’s thirst for goals. Welbeck is involved in every aspect of the game but does not score enough; Walcott is diametrically opposed in that respect. Walcott’s pace is a massive asset off the ball and Welbeck, though swift, can’t quite match that. However, he has the ability to spin defenders with his back to goal.
In possession, Theo’s pace is rarely useful in this way. He will win a foot race, but he doesn’t move particularly quickly with ball at feet. The ex-United forward works the channels and works centre halves well, as we saw in the North London derby. If he could give goalkeepers conniptions on a more regular basis, he would be a top class centre forward. However, this is at least slightly offset by the fact that he helps others to attack more effectively.
Alexis’ best form in an Arsenal shirt came with Welbeck as the de facto striker at the beginning of last season. I don’t think it’s a huge coincidence that Ramsey and Alexis were able to break their goalscoring ducks at White Hart Lane with Welbz leading the line. His pace in behind aids Arsenal against teams that like to press high and squeeze the pitch, a tactic that the team regularly struggles with. He can also initiate a counter press in a way that Giroud and Walcott do not manage quite as well, as @poznaninmypants explores here.
Whilst Welbeck is veering dangerously close to Like A New Signing (LANS) territory, Mohammed Elnenny has been A Substantive Signing (ASS). It’s too early to proclaim him the panacea for all of Arsenal’s midfield ills. Supporters are naturally inclined to view new signings positively in their early forays (for evidence, browse the winners of the arsenal.com player of the month award for August for each of the last ten seasons). But Elnenny does look as though he can provide several useful functions in the midfield.
The Flamsey axis not only lacked chemistry, but it was overworked in a defensive sense. The freedom granted to Mesut Özil and the lack of a load bearer on either flank moving in to create a three, as Ramsey did for Cazorla and Coquelin, left the midfield cupboard too bare. In his early matches, Elnenny has provided an assuring dollop of polyfilla. He diligently fills gaps left by others, which is important for a team that aspires to fluidity as Arsenal do.
That makes him quite versatile and potentially able to plug into various tactical iterations. He moves the ball quickly too, meeting it and recirculating with as few touches as possible. The Gunners’ build up play had become stodgy, with the likes of Ramsey, Flamini and Coquelin preferring to take several touches before redistributing. Effectively, Elnenny replaces a little of what Arsenal have lost in the absences of Cazorla and Arteta.
Elnenny covers plenty of ground too. In a recent interview, he explained how a childhood of playing football for up to 10 hours in the stifling Egyptian heat had conditioned him for great durability. It will be interesting to see how Wenger views his role going forward, whether he can play as a sole holding midfielder, or whether he will be required to provide some velvet alongside the iron of Coquelin.
There are encouraging signs that he provides welcome handbrake fluid for the midfield, as Welbeck has for the forward line. It would be premature to anoint Welbeck and Elnenny the saviours of Arsenal’s season- which may even be beyond rescue at this point. But if the Gunners are to finish the season strongly and maybe even lift more silverware, I would venture that both players will be key in the team’s resuscitation.
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