Wednesday, November 29, 2023

Bizarre Love Triangle

A little over a decade ago, Arsene Wenger had to make one of his most difficult tactical choices during his stewardship. The impudent young Cesc Fabregas rose through the ranks like a phoenix and Arsene, understandably, found his talent irresistible. The problem, as Barcelona and Chelsea have subsequently found, is that Fabregas’ qualities are not easily accommodated.

He isn’t an accessory, you have to give him the keys to the whole damn house. So Wenger decided to shift some significant furniture. He quickly realised that Fabregas and Vieira could not co-exist and Arsenal accepted a bid from Juventus for their captain. Two years later, as it became clear that Fabregas needed a more secure midfield unit around him to thrive, Arsenal let Thierry Henry go too.

Henry preferred to have a strike partner, but the Gunners needed to groove to a different beat with Cesc. Patrick Vieira’s transfer to Juventus was completed on July 15th, 2005. Henry’s to Barcelona went through on 25th June, 2007. No club allows a sizeable transfer to go through that early in the transfer window unless they are happy for it to do so. Arsenal accepted bids very early on in each summer; they were clearing the condo and signing the deeds over to Fabregas.

Whether or not that was the right thing for Arsene Wenger to do, is open to debate of course. But what cannot be doubted is his conviction. He realised that Henry was not at his best in a 4-5-1- a more traditional forward like Emmanuel Adebayor was much better aligned to Fabregas’ penchant for laser guided passes from range. Whilst Vieira’s most imperious Gunners form came alongside repurposed centre halves like Manu Petit, Gilberto Silva and Gilles Grimandi.

Doubtless, there were political aspects behind the decision to sell both too. Henry was a prickly character by all accounts and the spectre of Fabregas taking his Arsenal throne would likely have been difficult for him. Vieira too had spent so many summers smudging Wenger’s pre-season script that Arsene probably got a little jaded by it all and submitted to his captain’s caprice. This was Arsene at his most ruthless.

Nowadays, it feels as though Wenger is far less inclined to make this sort of call. See his painful attempts at shoehorning Bellerin and Chamberlain into the same team as opposing wing backs (which, incidentally, will be the topic of next week’s column), a move surely designed to protect the manager from the decision of choosing a horse and backing it, as opposed to any complex tactical consideration.

Arsene may be staring at another ‘this town ain’t big enough for the both of us’ scenario in his engine room. The question of whether Aaron Ramsey and Mesut Özil can co-exist has percolated around the Arsenal fanbase for some time. Ramsey and Özil are players whose attacking qualities are far more celebrated than their defensive attributes and that can lead to a defensive imbalance.

We saw it played it out in technicolour at Stoke on Saturday. Ramsey wins a header in midfield and the ball drops to Granit Xhaka, as it does, the Welshman makes a run forwards. Özil is backfilling for him in the centre of the park. Structurally, there is little wrong with that, one player covering for another. The problem arrives when Xhaka loses the ball.

As Berahino bore down on the Arsenal defence, the Stoke man exposed the fact that, even when in half way acceptable defensive starting positions, Granit Xhaka and Mesut Özil are not the guys you want steeple chasing their way back towards their own goal. Ramsey is variously accused of stupidity and selfishness with his forward runs, but that rather ignores the undercurrent of instruction at play.

Over the last year or so, Ramsey has tailored his outlook according to the clock. In the first half of matches, he is very restrained and pretty much holds his position, before breaking loose in the second half. His first goal of last season came a minute after half time, in an FA Cup tie at Preston North End. After lashing the ball into the net from the edge of the area, he turns and points to Arsene Wenger on the bench.

You don’t have to be Inspector Clouseau to work out that a conversation took place during the interval in which the Welshman was expressly told to push on. Look at the time stamps of his Arsenal goals since that evening- 75, 90, 79, 83. Ramsey plays conservatively in the first half and then more adventurously in the second and that doesn’t happen by accident, it’s by design.

While Ramsey’s game is built on powering forwards into space, Özil avails of nooks and crannies all over the final third. He is a tricky player to accommodate for the same reason that he is difficult to nullify. His job is essentially to run away from the ball and find space. The German needs freedom and, as such, a more structured, disciplined double pivot is needed behind him to keep the back door shut nice and tightly.

Özil is at his best as a ghost in a well-oiled machine. The problem is that Arsenal’s structure is chaotic. That said, as I wrote a few weeks ago, it’s telling that none of Europe’s big clubs seem tempted enough to try and make room for him. Bayern have nabbed James Rodriguez and Barcelona are courting Philippe Coutinho, so the creative player is not strictly out of fashion.

Many of Europe’s bigger clubs now favour more tightly structured midfield trios. Real’s holy trinity of Casemiro, Modric and Kroos is the best on the planet, as Barca’s trifecta of Busquets, Xavi and Iniesta once was. Strictly speaking, a good midfield three has one player that can move the ball great distances (like Xhaka), one that can move himself over long distances (Ramsey) and another that can carry the ball long distances (RIP Jack and Santi).

Özil is a better footballer than Ramsey, his talents are in excess of the Welshman’s. However, Arsene might decide that Ramsey could serve team balance a little better. He still made 8 tackles against Stoke on Saturday. The Welshman’s greatest quality is breaking forward with the ball in transition, as he does for Wales. Think of how Frank Lampard operated with Makelele and Essien beside him as an example.

Of course, Özil and Ramsey did co-exist easily enough during the German’s maiden season in 2013-14, when Ramsey hit 16 Premier League goals. However, Arsenal had the presence of Santi Cazorla on the left hand side, who slotted back into central midfield when Ramsey broke forward, providing the Gunners with technical security.

Every possible permutation of this Arsenal team seems to have a Santi shaped hole in it, which is why replacing him ought to be the manager’s biggest priority in the coming days. Likewise, Arteta has been a big technical loss. There is simply no way he turns the ball over in the manner Xhaka has done against Leicester and Stoke this season.

If Arsene decides to beef up his midfield, he is going to need to decide who he wants to cater for. If Wenger is backing Özil, then he probably requires more of a solid and unfussy presence adept at breaking up play. If he sees Ramsey as the future in the most advanced midfield spot, a connecting player between Aaron and Granit Xhaka ought to be the priority.

Contractual politics will play a part here too, of course. Mesut has less than a year to run on his deal, while Ramsey has two. Whoever is the most willing to commit to the project might just get the nod. Indeed, Arsene may be inclined to dangle that carrot in negotiations.

There again, Ramsey is far more injury prone than Özil and it’s not difficult to see why. He made 26 sprints in his 23 minute cameo against Leicester City. At Stoke, Ramsey broke into a sprint more than any other player on the pitch. His energy levels are at once his most precious attribute and his achilles heel- literally at times.

Increasingly, it feels as though Arsene is going to have to make a tough choice and make one of his most cherished shipmates walk the plank, so that the other can captain the vessel. We will all have our opinions as to who he ought to hand the tiller to, but the important thing is that Arsene shows some conviction in the interests of balancing his team. Otherwise, the balance will continue to capsize.

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