The problem with staying in one place for an extended period of time is that everything one does gets framed through narratives. So when Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal beat Mauricio Pellegrini’s Manchester City, the build up and aftermath of the match were viewed through framed arguments. In the build up to the game, the expectation was that Arsenal would fall short in another game against a fellow challenger away from home. The season before, City put 6 past Arsenal. There’s also the narrative that Arsene Wenger doesn’t do tactics or Plan Bs so he’d constantly found himself undone by not compromising on his ideals in the big games where those little tweaks prove game changers. In the aftermath of the game, the conversation centered around the counter attacking display Arsenal had just put up. To the watching pundits, it gave the impression that Wenger’s approach was not as antiquated as they’d perceived and raised questions as to why Arsenal couldn’t play as they’d just done more often.
That match has now entered Arsenal folklore as being the coming out party for the Cazorla-Coquelin partnership. Cazorla whose Arsenal career had played out in the no. 10 position and as a secondary playmaker playing from the wings was given a new lease of life functioning in a deeper midfield position. Francis Coquelin on the other hand had spent the season before in Germany without standing out. He was probably on his way out of Arsenal via a loan at Charlton when Arsenal went through their annual injury crisis. His loan was cut short and he got a run in the team. The Caz-Coq axis complemented each other. Coquelin’s tough tackling and high energy running allowed the ambidextrous magician Cazorla to receive the ball from defence and dictate the tempo with the utmost ease. It seems Wenger is still wedded to this partnership as he tends to defer to it when he has the benefit of an injury free squad. On the day in question, the midfield consisted of Ramsey’s box to box runs, Cazorla’s technical proficiency and Coquelin’s Duracell bunny tribute act. This was perfect in a game in which Arsenal’s plan was to cede possession, maintain its shape and then hit on the break. City, by virtue of playing at home had the onus on it to assert control on the game and thus fell into a trap. And as games like these tend to be dictated by the team to score first, when the erratic Vincent Kompany committed a foul on Nacho Monreal to concede a penalty, it was a clue as to who was going to get the upper hand.
Going back to the point about narratives, an oft forgotten fact is that Mesut Ozil was a substitute in that game as he was on the comeback trail after a long term injury. In that sense, the conclusions being made after the game were of the conditional variation because when fit, Ozil is probably Wenger’s first pick. Arsenal are that rare club of the European elite who still play with a no 10 who’s permitted a free role. This and the manner in which Ozil had found himself on the scrapheap, chewed and spat out by Real Madrid and Perez’s Galactico philosophy meant that in joining Arsenal, where the atmosphere would be less intense, Wenger and his philosophy soothed the languid German. It explains the mutual respect the player and his manager have for each other as reflected in his declaration that his future is tied to Wenger’s. Wenger grew up in Duttlenheim- a town bordering Germany and France and supported Borussia Monchengladbach as a boy. Their origins and similar outlooks on the game have served as bonding tools. At Arsenal, Student Ozil is Teacher Wenger’s pet.
In recent years, a narrative to have emerged is Wenger’s Arsenal struggling in the big games away from home. This record and Ozil’s status raise the question: Do Arsenal need to stop kowtowing to Ozil and reduce his creative freedom? Ozil is undoubtedly one of the best no 10’s in the world. Alongside Kevin de Bruyne, he is probably the best decision maker in the English game. He excels in manipulating space by receiving the ball in the tightest pockets of space and aiding the building up process. There’s a but though. There is a case to be made that the free role he gets is to the detriment of the team in the big, tight away games where the margins are slimmer and more control and finesse is required. Also, the collective strengths of Arsenal’s midfield cast mean a 3 in midfield will make far more sense.
Using the 3 in midfield template of Carlo Ancelotti’s Real Madrid as a case study in the season following Ozil’s sale to Arsenal. Xabi Alonso, Luka Modric and Angel di Maria were Carlo’s 3 while the injury prone Sami Khedira was in the mix. Looking at Arsenal’s current squad, I’ll argue that Granit Xhaka will be well served playing in the Alonso role. He’ll effectively function as a 3rd centre back receiving the ball from the centre backs and releasing the ball to the flanks. He has the range of passing to excel in such a position by conducting and building the game from that base. Positioning him there will also negate one of his key weaknesses. Xhaka lacks pace and mobility so tends to struggle when players run across him in a 2 man midfield. By placing him closer to the defence, he’ll be well protected by his midfield partners and the defence and thus less susceptible to the rash challenges that have seen him concede two penalties and earn two red cards in his short time in England. Aaron Ramsey is a player who divides opinion amongst Arsenal fans but what is undeniable is that he is one of the most complete players in the squad which explains why Wenger has been so keen to take advantage of his versatility. As Tim Stillman points out in his analysis of Ramsey and his bemusing unpopularity, his star season- the same 2013/14 season when Ozil joined Arsenal was built around a 4-3-3 variation where Santi Cazorla played to the left and Ozil played at no 10, his high energy levels and Theo Walcott’s prolonged absence meant that he made runs to the box, beyond the forwards- almost like a 2nd striker. His exploits for Wales in a similar albeit freer role closer to the tip of the midfield in the Euro’s suggest that the right system could do the world of good for Arsenal and Ramsey. His energy will be key in this system for winning the ball pack and pressing opponents. The glue in all this could be one of Santi Cazorla or Mohammed Elnenny (or Jack Wilshere). How? It’s the Luka Modric role of the player whose job is to basically keep the game ticking and retain possession. Ozil can then be played on the flank where he could drift inside and follow the game thus giving Arsenal more control and the option of overloading their opponents weak points. There’s the obvious issue of his reluctance to track back but that can be alleviated by getting one of the midfielders (Ramsey preferably) to cover for him.
Now, this is no silver bullet to Arsenal’s issues. For one, Arsenal’s team are not as good as Real’s and there’s a lack in the physicality department but there’s an obvious need to deviate from their current model of tactical rigidity. Antonio Conte’s Chelsea and the unassailable lead it has established at the top of the table highlight the power of a system that gets the best out of its cast. Arsenal could change their narrative by tweaking the system a bit and reducing the freedom given to Ozil. The dilemma? Ozil looks likely to stay at Arsenal ‘cos no other club of a similar profile will give him the freedom and security he craves. But when that freedom is holding Arsenal back, what next?