Good morning all, I had a good chat with Tim Stillman and Chris Toronyi on the ArseAmerica Podcast yesterday and if you have a few minutes today you should take a listen. In it, one of the things Stillman mentions, and something echoed by Arseblog today, is that with Cazorla out this is a really big chance for Aaron Ramsey to step up and show what he can offer. But even a cursory glance at the stats has left me feeling like this is a big ask for Aaron.
Cazorla dovetails very nicely with Mesut Özil. It’s not just his job to pass the ball to Mesut, he has co-creator responsibilities. It’s a 1-2 punch with Mesut the main man and Cazorla there behind him causing teams to cover multiple options. No one creates as many scoring chances as Mesut Ozil (58 this season) but having Cazorla there (with 37 key passes) makes it more difficult for a defense to just shut down Özil.
Also when it comes to taking corners and free kicks, Cazorla and Özil share responsibilities. In terms of set plays, Cazorla takes about 40% of the corners and about 67% of the free kicks. He’s second on the team in key passes per game from corners, and he leads the team in assists off free kicks. In fact, he has just the one assist from open play this season.
Further back up the field, Cazorla does the difficult job of bringing the ball forward for Arsenal and he does so with precious few mistakes. In fact, he and Coquelin are the league’s most efficient duo.
Caz is a 90% passer this season and is passing at a career high 82 passes per game. The only players passing the ball more accurately than Cazorla are: Affelay, Schneiderlin, Ki, and the top pass% in the League, Coquelin.
Cazorla also leads the League in passes per game with 82. The second most active passer is Cesc Fabregas who is averaging 69.5 passes per game.
This combination of Cazorla and Coquelin in midfield is potent indeed. Cazorla made 85 inaccurate short passes this season, that’s about 6 per game. Francis Coquelin misplaced 37 short passes this season. That means that between these two players, in 26 appearances, they missed just 122 short passes. Again, Cesc Fabregas, the second most prolific passer in the League, has misplaced 120 short passes by himself.
Coquelin also improved his first touch by leaps and bounds this season and it showed in the stats. In 12 matches, Coquelin turned the ball over (miscontrolled) just 4 times. This isn’t entirely attributed just to his physical ability to control a pass but also better positioning on the field, in other words, not receiving the pass in a dangerous area. Cazorla, on the other hand does often receive the ball in tight spaces and his turnover numbers are even more amazing, considering where he gets the ball and how often, he has just 12. The two of them combined for 16 turnovers, while Aaron Ramsey, playing in a more advanced position already has 18 in just 10 games.
The other thing that Cazorla does exceptionally well for Arsenal is dribble in tight spaces. You’ve seen it: he collects the ball deep and then makes a little twinkle-toed move and slips past his marker creating a chasm of space for him and his teammates to work in. Cazorla is 36/45 dribbling this season. That’s an incredible 80% success rate. Coquelin was no slouch in this regard, he was 22/25 an even more impressive 88% dribbling rate.
So, what you have with Coquelin and Cazorla are the two very best possession based midfielders in the League and one of the League’s most creative midfielders. But wait… there’s more.
Coquelin’s pure numbers have dropped since last season but that is to be expected. Last season teams were testing his mettle. He passed those tests and so this season fewer teams are dribbling at him. He’s also gotten better at his positioning. Barring that lunge he made to injure his own ligaments, Coquelin has been out of position less often this season and combined with teams going around/over him that means fewer chances to tackle.
Still, he and Cazorla led the team with 51 attempted tackles each. Coquelin made 75% of his tackles, while Cazorla made about 49%.
And interceptions, Coquelin doesn’t lead Arsenal or the League (Koscielny is Arsenal’s most active pass… rusher?) but he gets a healthy 2.7 per game and Cazorla, as part of the Arsenal press, averages 1.8.
What this all boils down to is the fact that Arsenal have lost their starting midfield duo, a team-within-a-team, which is one of the most effective partnerships in the League. The players being mooted to replace them, Ramsey and Arteta, once formed a little mini-team of their own in 2013/14 and so we have a point of comparison:
Let me first state unequivocally that this is not a perfect comparison. The League seems to shift slightly every year, in terms of tackles per game, interceptions, and even number of passes and shots.
The other factor is that in ’13/14 Arsenal’s midfield was very different than it is now. Cazorla and Özil played wide a lot, Wilshere got 24 apps, and even Tomas Rosicky played 27 times, including 17 starts.
Arsenal’s attack and defense were different as well. Ramsey and Arteta had an excellent passing partnership in midfield which sometimes lacked that ability to get forward and break through enemy lines which Cazorla and Coquelin can do. And on defense, Arteta is not as mobile as many defensive midfielders and has to use his game nous to control space rather than simply tackle players away.
So, what this chart represents isn’t a criticism but rather a riddle. It’s rather simple to say that Ramsey has a chance or that he has to step up. Step up to what? Dribbling more? Playing the passing lanes better? Creating more for his teammates? Being more of an all around midfielder than he has been? Perhaps. But that’s not something a player can simply “decide” to start doing. It’s not like Ramsey’s been holding back on the dribbling for all these years and he’s suddenly going to step up.
For my way of thinking, the problem is that Arsenal, as a team, have been playing a certain way with certain personnel — Cazorla, Coquelin, Özil, and Alexis. Two of those players, Coquelin and Cazorla, have formed a crucial partnership and now both are injured for at least three months. That leaves a giant aporia in Arsenal’s midfield and Wenger has the unenviable task of either fitting two square pegs into giant round holes or the even more unenviable task of retooling how the team plays.