It was all going so well, until it wasn't. And even then, when Aaron Ramsey's hamstring failed him, Arsenal found a way to win their next two league fixtures, beating Everton and Swansea, before the paucity of options was really felt by Arsenal in three consecutive games against Bayern Munich, Tottenham Hotspur and West Bromwich Albion. The writing had been on the wall, though, before Arsenal's run of bad results, a run that was slightly arrested by a straightforward 3-0 win against Dinamo Zagreb, and watching Arsenal over the past few weeks, it is hard not to think that after Mesut Özil, the most important member of Arsenal's midfield is not the now-absent Francis Coquelin but Aaron Ramsey, who enabled the unconventional midfield pairing of Cazorla and Coquelin to win matches without Arsenal being entirely convincing or dominant.
Coquelin is now injured, and will miss at least the next twelve weeks, which makes the spirit of this article slightly different. However, the crux of Arsenal's midfield issue remains, and is nicely summed up here by Lewis Ambrose:
When Arsenal are pressed in the middle against a team managing the space around them, it doesn't tend to end very well. The thing is, Arsenal don't control games with the ball anymore. Recent wins against Manchester United, Watford, Everton and Swansea City saw goals come in quick flurries from intense attacking moves or set pieces rather than a considered approach from deep.
With Arsenal just two points off the top, one could be forgiven for asking, "well, so what if Arsenal don't control matches, they're still winning?", and I must admit, wanting to see Arsenal control matches is a personal preference. But in order to win games against teams that press Arsenal's midfield, Arsenal either have to control matches, or Arsenal have to be a good pressing side, which they are not. When Arsenal press well, it tends to be in the same twenty minute bursts where they also score a majority of their goals. There is, again, a benefit to scoring goals in bunches, but it has to be matched by being able to absorb pressure so that these goal-scoring bursts can win the game, and it is here where Arsenal have failed in recent weeks: they were lucky not to concede against Swansea, and then they did concede against Bayern, Tottenham and West Brom.
Arsenal's failure to control or press lies with the composition of the central midfield. As I have written about previously, Arsenal lack a controller in the mould of the dearly departed Mikel Arteta, with the acquisition of such a player a difficult enterprise. Perhaps Arsenal tried to convert Cazorla into a controller, but he remains at heart an attacking midfield player, which means more often than not, he isn't setting the tempo of Arsenal's play. Thus, Cazorla's influence tends to be limited to the twenty-minute bursts of high-tempo play or when Arsenal are ahead. Nor is Coquelin a controller, but in a pressing system, he would be excellent at winning the ball back in high positions and quickly shifting the ball to Özil et al as Arsenal countered, much like the first goal against Manchester United (and the eagle-eyed among us will note Cazorla had no influence in the move for the first goal before coming into play for Arsenal's second). But Arsenal don't press well as a unit for entire matches, and without systematic chances, it is hard to see Arsenal counter-pressing in the way Klopp's Dortmund did so successfully.
However, if Arsenal were to begin to press better as a unit, there would have to be a change in midfield as Cazorla is not suited to a pressing game. Again, this has to do with the nature of his game: he is an attacking midfield player, without the inherent defensive nous of a central midfielder, and he is not the most energetic or physical player and would struggle to cover the amount of ground a pressing central midfielder has. This leaves Arsenal in a mix between control and counter, and while they have done well enough in the Premier League, this imbalance has been ruthlessly exposed in Europe four times over the past nine months: at home against Monaco, away against Dinamo Zagreb, at home against Olympiacos and away against Bayern Munich. Aside from Bayern, those are all matches Arsenal should have easily won, and yet, Arsenal encountered the same problem in all three: caught between trying to control and trying to counter, Arsenal did neither, and the weakness of the midfield was exposed, with Coquelin left to do too much defensive work, and Arsenal unable to build attacks once behind against a side that pressed the midfield well, necessitating pushing men forward and leaving open gaps for the opposition to counter.
The same happened against Bayern Munich. Everyone struggles against Bayern, but having said that, Cazorla's lack of aptitude to the position against top-class opponents was ruthlessly exposed, particularly by David Alaba for the Bayern third, who casually robbed Cazorla of possession 25 yards from goal, where he had all the time in the world to shoot from range, as Coquelin had pushed forward to create a decoy. Coquelin makes that movement so that Arsenal don't have to use him in build-up play, but that movement tends to not work against sides that press well.
Against Swansea, the same happened again. Arsenal were pressed out of the first half, with Coquelin and Cazorla having a minuscule influence on proceedings on both sides of the ball:
In the second half, Arsenal scored from two set pieces, which enabled Arsenal to control proceedings, as the nature of Swansea's game changed. With Cazorla badly out of form, though, once Arsenal fell behind in recent reversals, the midfield was exposed.
It had only been exposed in recent weeks, though, because of Ramsey's absence. When Ramsey plays on the right, he tends to come inside and play effectively as a third midfielder, which provides the midfield with another passing option, and another player who can link play between the deeper midfielders and Mesut Özil and Alexis Sánchez, while also giving Giroud an option for combination play and a runner in behind, a threat that Cazorla does not provide. With Héctor Bellerín pushing forward on the right in space left by Ramsey, this gives Arsenal an option for playing out of pressure. The fine-tuning of the system, though, means that the absence of any of Ramsey, Bellerín or Özil essentially renders the system ineffective, with Arsenal's record without one of those three very poor, with the attack becoming more reliant on set pieces which is problematic as scoring from set pieces not a consistent source of goals.
To reduce the dependence on all three of the above players being all fit and in form, one solution is to move Ramsey central. This is how Arsenal prepared for the season, with Ramsey partnering Francis Coquelin against Lyon and against Chelsea. It is also how Arsenal started the season, but Arsène Wenger abandoned the Ramsey-Coquelin partnership after 45 poor minutes, which seems unfair, given that Coquelin and Cazorla have too had bad spells of 45 minutes, if not longer. Yet it also highlights Wenger's innate conservatism, and it is a conservatism that could cost Arsenal a chance of winning the league. I had hoped that Ramsey might play with Coquelin in central midfield again, but with Coquelin now injured, it seems time to move Ramsey central and play him with Flamini. While Flamini is no controller, he, like Coquelin had shown in recent weeks, has an aptitude for knowing his limitations, and with Ramsey in central midfield to provide the box to box build up play, energy, physical thrust, link play and goal threat, it seems more likely to work against Premier League opposition than a midfield of Flamini and Cazorla, which has the limitations of the Coquelin/Cazorla partnership coupled with the loss in energy brought about by replacing Flamini with Coquelin.
The experiment of having Cazorla in central midfield worked for a time, but it has passed its sell by date. With Cazorla in central midfield, Arsenal do not have the option of pressing, and they don't control matches anyway, which means they end up succumbing to sides that press, negating the use of Cazorla's excellent close control and ability to evade pressure. Nor does Cazorla provide a goal threat, or movement, which is another way to evade pressure. When Arsenal are under pressure, Cazorla too often goes missing, with teams able to either suffocate his passing options, or, as Bayern Munich did, expose his own physical weakness in midfield. This is not Cazorla's fault; he is simply an attacking midfield player in poor form playing out of position. With Ramsey now back from injury, he should return to his favoured central position; whether Wenger shakes off is deference to senior players will decide whether Arsenal stick or twist.