It wasn’t just that Arsenal failed to score on Saturday against Middlesbrough. It was the failure to create any chance of note that gave cause for concern, not least after Arsenal had scored 9 in the previous two home games. One obvious difference was the make-up of Arsenal’s midfield, with Granit Xhaka suspended and Santi Cazorla injured. Mohamed Elneny made his second league start of the season, while Francis Coquelin maintained his bizarre box to box role.
With Coquelin playing a box to box role, and Elneny a more industrious, energetic player than Cazorla, Arsenal did not have a defined deeper player, with both midfielders pushing up. In a sense, this is how Wenger prefers his midfield composition, with the manager theorizing it creates space in the build-up. The problem is that it often requires more penetrating play from the centre backs, requiring them to step up into midfield. When Arsenal were in the ascendancy in the first 15 minutes, this did not happen much: Elneny dropped deeper to knit play, and while his passing isn’t as expansive as Cazorla’s, Arsenal’s quick start enabled the Gunners to play higher up the pitch.
Elneny’s influence waned, though, as Middlesbrough came to grips with Arsenal’s attacking play. In this sense, Arsenal desperately missed Cazorla, Xhaka and Aaron Ramsey: all three have bigger ranges of passing, and where Arsenal missed a midfield runner, like Aaron Ramsey, Francis Coquelin was the one popping up into attacking positions—not Elneny.
Statistically, Coquelin did not have a bad attacking game, completing 81 of his 90 passes, good for a 90% pass ratio—a higher number than Mesut Özil and Alex Iwobi. Yet, repeating that figure doesn’t tell us much, and is why so many of the rate statistics one can find are just noise, especially when it comes to passes. Indeed, one can find that it’s linked more to a team’s style of play, rather than the individual ability of a player:
Once [Rosenfeld] had taken into account things like pass distance, defensive pressure, where on the field the pass was attempted, in what direction (forward or not), and how (in the air, by head, and one touch), a curious result emerged: ‘after adjusting for difficulty, pass completion percentage is nearly equal among all players and teams. Said another way, the skill in executing a pass is almost equal across all players and teams, as pass difficulty and pass completion percentage is nearly completely correlated.’
Intuitively, that makes sense: at the top level of football, one would expect everyone to be a capable passer, able to complete simple passes (which is what they are, after accounting for the things that make them difficult), and this is what Coquelin did on Saturday afternoon. What he didn’t do was play with skill in possession, with Rosenfeld stating
Is Xavi an ‘excellent passer’ because he can place a pass on a dime or is it more his ability to find pockets of space where no defensive pressure exists to receive the ball, with his ball control allowing him to continue to avoid pressure and hit higher value passes for an equal level of difficulty? Many players put themselves in difficult passing situations because they dwell on the ball too long and upon receiving the ball are not able to reposition their bodies in a way that opens up the field.
So what is the goal of possession football? Not just to pass the ball, but, more importantly, to place yourself in good positions to receive the ball; in space, or to have the ability to create space. This is how you break teams down—by enabling your teammates to pass to you in space, between the lines. Arsenal did not do enough of this on Saturday, and some of this is down to Coquelin’s usage.
In the summer, we spoke about the metric called ‘packing’, which measured the number of opponents taken out of a game by passing (or a successful dribble). Granit Xhaka was one of the best when measured by this metric, as was Mesut Özil, and I summised that the missing ingredient to Arsenal’s midfield was the midfield movement of Aaron Ramsey, to give Xhaka and Özil the passing options required. Ramsey, of course, has been out with injury, but his box to box role has been taken by Coquelin. In that sense, it is somewhat encouraging: Wenger recognises that Arsenal need a physical, dynamic presence to complement the passing game. In Coquelin, though, Arsenal don’t get the aspects of the game that they need: good, off the ball movement, putting Coquelin in good positions in between the lines and off the ball. It’s one of the reasons why Coquelin, despite receiving a lot of the ball higher up the pitch, couldn’t move it into penetrating areas.
The idea is that Coquelin is a decoy, causing a team to force markers to cover him as he moves higher up the pitch, and open up space for someone like Santi Cazorla, deeper in midfield. It works in practise, but has a limit when teams realise that Coquelin’s ability to put himself into good positions to play attacking, dangerous passes is limited. Thus, they’ll be happy for Coquelin to receive the ball in these areas with the knowledge that he is not as good a passer as Cazorla or Xhaka or Özil or Elneny or Ramsey, and thus, can mark those guys out of the game. The decoy, then, loses its allure.
The other reason why Wenger has been playing Coquelin higher up the pitch is his ability to win the ball higher up the pitch, as Arsenal have been trying to press higher. Coquelin has been fairly effective, but he can be gotten around, which is why he has been dribbled past by more than any other Arsenal player. With the role that Coquelin has been playing, one expects Aaron Ramsey to replace him once fit, but in certain games, especially those at home against sides that will be very defensive, like Middlesbrough, the better possession quality and counterpressing ability of Mohamed Elneny should be used ahead of Coquelin. Thus far this season, Wenger has preferred his security blanket of Santi Cazorla and Francis Coquelin, a midfield whose qualities he’s known. That midfield combination, though, is not as good at creating and scoring goals at home, especially against teams that defend deeply. While the qualities may be known, the potential of a midfield featuring Mohamed Elneny or Aaron Ramsey instead of Francis Coquelin can lead to a greater reward, not least because both are better possession players. It is the difference between those players that can turn games such as Middlesbrough at home from one point to three and make games against sides like Southampton or Burnley--where Elneny should’ve played—more comfortable. It is these little differences that can turn a side from qualifying comfortably for the Champions League into winning the league. The question, then, for Arsène Wenger, is whether he is a manager who is still able to make the decisions that can lead Arsenal to getting the extra 5-10 points required to win the league.
Anderson, Chris and David Sally. The Numbers Game: Why Everything You Know About Soccer Is Wrong. New York: Penguin, 2013, pp 147-8.