By Tim Todd
Arsenal are three games in to the season: the Gunners lost on opening day to West Ham due to two individual errors combined with poor attacking play; then they beat Crystal Palace with yet another disjointed performance which allowed Palace back into the game; and earned a draw against Liverpool in a “tale of two halves” match which saw a good Arsenal goal disallowed but could have gone either way before and after that. So, a loss because of two errors, a win, and a draw that might not have been a draw if the referee had gotten the call right and people are running around in a Kermit-armed panic trying to figure out how to fix Arsenal’s woes.
And how do they propose to fix Arsenal’s woes? So far, the two dominant theories are: drop Ramsey or drop Coquelin. Both are potential powder keg arguments and both are wrong.
The drop Coquelin idea comes from a Grantland article by Mike Goodman. It is the more explosive of the two ideas so let’s deal with that one alone. His main arguments are that Coquelin can’t play with the ball at feet as well as a world class midfielder can, that he’s a specialist defensive midfielder who operates best in a compact formation, and that Coquelin can’t play in an expansive midfield which grants space to the opposition. So, he surmises, Arsenal need to drop Coquelin and buy a world class center mid.
To the first, I have made the same argument. As it stood last season, Coquelin’s passing range looked fairly average. His long ball percentages were low, he was content to pass the ball sideways to Cazorla, instead of looking for the killer pass, and I worried if teams would simply allow Coquelin to have possession during Arsenal’s attack phase.
But I also argued then and still believe now that Arsene Wenger can get Coquelin up to speed in terms of passing. And so far¹ that has proven to be true. Coquelin, has gone from an 85% passer to 90%, has gone from 60% long ball accuracy on just 2.5 long passes per game to 70% long ball accuracy on 5.7 long passes a game and has one accurate cross (of one attempted) this season, where he only attempted three and failed in all three all last season.
If that Grantland article had been written this summer, when I wrote mine saying virtually the same thing about Coquelin’s lack of attacking threat, I might agree. But the signs are encouraging that Coquelin has worked on this part of his game. He did struggle offensively during the Liverpool match, but Arsenal’s entire starting XI struggled offensively and defensively in that first 45 minutes.
The other arguments are basically two parts of the same coin. Let’s just put this plainly: there is no defensive midfielder in the world who doesn’t prefer a compact system. A compact system plays to the strengths of a defensive midfielder and allows him an almost free role to roam a small space in midfield wreaking havoc on opposition attackers. Like a destructive #10.
The problem is that the compact system is difficult to pull off and win consistently. Atletico Madrid does it with the fastest counter attacks I’ve ever seen which get the ball into crazy good positions for a predatory forward. They are a specialist team, however, and their manager’s philosophy will one day be found out, probably when a team like Chelsea comes to town and gives Atletico possession.
Arsenal’s system is the most common system, then, for teams who want to win consistently. Bayern play an attacking system, Real Madrid, Barcelona, Manchester City, all the best teams in the world play an attacking system. Even Chelsea play open, attacking football against teams that they aren’t afraid of. And Mike Goodman is right, these systems grant space to the opposition which is difficult for any defensive midfielder to cover.
Matic struggles mightily to cover both those spaces and for his teammate, Cesc Fabregas. They are the two most dribbled players in the Premier League at the moment. So, I agree, covering space, when you have a poor defender next to you, like Fabregas, is difficult for a defensive midfielder.
But you counter that with pressing and Goodman mentions that at the end of the article but fails to mention that Arsenal played a pressing team defense last season and that they are not doing that as well this.
This is the main difference between last year and this year. Arsenal’s pressing last year was fantastic, think back to the destruction of Liverpool. Arsenal pressed high up the pitch forcing Kolo Toure and the entire Liverpool back line into countless mistakes. Here’s a screen grab which illustrates exactly what I’m talking about:
That’s Coquelin all alone in midfield, there are four Arsenal players pressing two defenders and Toure has just one outlet pass he can make to break pressure. He tries to make the pass but Giroud wins the ball from him.
Arsenal conceded space in midfield in that game, Arsenal played high up the pitch, Coquelin was forced to cover vast amounts of space, but Arsenal pressed Liverpool and the Gunners won that match 4-1.
This season, Arsenal’s press has gone off the boil. Here’s another screen grab which illustrates how Arsenal are slow to the press:
Puncheon receives the ball in acres of space (top of the screen) and Ramsey rushes out to close him down. Puncheon easily dribbles past Ramsey and plays the ball in to Bolasie (bottom right). Meanwhile Ward, the Palace right back, notices that everyone is ball watching and traipses up the pitch into the space left behind Ozil (bottom left) and scores from an open shot.
If Ramsey had been in a better position, closer to his man, they don’t get the cross off, if Ozil is switched on to the threat from right back, they don’t get the shot off, and if Alexis (not pictured) follows Ward up the pitch, they probably don’t get the shot off.
And note that this is Arsenal playing compact: the system which is supposed to best suit Coquelin. But Palace bypassed Coquelin in this possession, something they did time and again in that match, by playing long diagonals into spaces which weren’t being properly controlled by Coquelin’s teammates.
Against Liverpool, it was a different story. Both teams played an amazing open match and ran at each other for 45 minutes. Offensively, Arsenal looked great at times but when they lost the ball in the Liverpool half, they didn’t work hard to try to win the ball back and left the Liverpool back four to themselves, granting them time to pick out a man with a long ball.
Despite Arsenal granting Liverpool time on the ball and huge swathes of space behind Arsenal’s attacking line, Coquelin was absolutely masterful cleaning up the Arsenal messes in that match and finished the game leading all players in ball recoveries, tackles, and interceptions. Coquelin did struggle at times in attack, but so did the whole Arsenal team, especially in the first 45 minutes when Liverpool put them under tremendous pressure: pressing as a unit, like Arsenal did last season!
It’s strange to me that people look for one player who is to blame for all of the ills on a team. Whether that player is Ramsey on the right or Coquelin in the middle, critics tend to point the blame at one guy. There are times when one guy’s mistake can make the difference in a game and if he does that consistently, you do have to eventually drop that guy. But football is a team sport. If the eleven players on the pitch aren’t controlling spaces effectively in either the offensive or defensive phase, the team is going to struggle.
But I’m not even sure how much Arsenal are really struggling! Two individual errors against West Ham granted them the win and a blown offside call grated Liverpool a draw. Meanwhile, if Coquelin is holding back Arsenal’s attack, you wouldn’t know it: the Gunners have created more shots than any team in the League and are getting those shots in dangerous areas but are just failing to convert.
Perhaps we should all just calm down a bit and let the team have some more room to breathe. And stop pointing fingers at individuals when it’s the team which is struggling to find its form.