For the first time this season, Arsenal’s midfield worked and the team had genuine moments of attacking fluency and verve as they scored three times in the first half to beat Watford. It could’ve been so different, though, if pre-match rumours of Francis Coquelin making the starting XI and Granit Xhaka being on the bench turned out to be correct. In the end, Coquelin missed out, and Xhaka starred as he played with Mesut Özil for the first time. The other part of Arsenal’s midfield was Santi Cazorla, and his role was key as Arsenal’s second playmaker, for it allowed Mesut Özil, who was not completely fit, to play a different role, looking to go in behind Watford’s back three and combine with Alexis Sánchez, who drifted from his nominal centre forward position to the left wing.
I have written at length about Arsenal’s structural issues, and there are excellent clips done on the issue in matches against Liverpool and Leicester.
I analysed how Arsenal's disconnected possession structure caused them issues against Liverpool's press. pic.twitter.com/fCHvOvCJNu— Tom Payne (@TomPayneftbl) September 1, 2016
Another analysis of Arsenal's spacing issues - which are still prevalent in the final third, as shown against LCFC. pic.twitter.com/0bmFLZzoxQ— Tom Payne (@TomPayneftbl) September 2, 2016
What Worked Well
There were several elements of Arsenal’s performance that worked very well against Watford. Playing Santi Cazorla alongside Granit Xhaka instead of Francis Coquelin was beneficial for three reasons: Xhaka’s role was defined, and he was able to play a much more controlling #6 role, which improved Arsenal’s structural play in places. Furthermore, Cazorla enabled better passing and more control as opposed to Coquelin, and Arsenal’s passing in the middle third was very good. Finally, with two passers in deep midfield, Mesut Özil needed to provide less control, and was able to focus more on finding pockets of space in the final third and combining with Alexis Sánchez.
What is intriguing about Cazorla’s presence in the side, though, was his lack of influence in the build-up to Arsenal’s counter-attacking play, as best evidenced by the second goal, where a swift interchange of passes from Xhaka, Alexis and Özil set Arsenal on their way. What we can see here is how Xhaka wants to play: quickly moving the ball to more attacking players, who have the pace to lead counter attacks, which Cazorla does not have. Furthermore, Cazorla also doesn’t have dynamic forward movement, which is vital not only because of a goal threat, but to vary possession play and offer options for combination play.
This is the build-up to the penalty won by Alexis Sánchez. Mesut Özil has good options; he can play into Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain or try a difficult chipped ball to Theo Walcott, try to play to Alexis, as he does, or recycle possession with Granit Xhaka or Héctor Bellerín. What he doesn’t have, though, is someone arriving from deep: the crucial late midfield run. That run would be made by Aaron Ramsey, but is not made by Santi Cazorla, with the vacant space highlighted. If Arsenal lose the ball, they’re in an alright shape to press with the forward line with Xhaka able to close down in midfield, and the two centre backs, plus Nacho Monreal on the cover to handle longer passes out of defence. Arsenal end up winning a penalty and scoring, because Mesut Özil is very good, but it’s a consistent theme when Aaron Ramsey is not in the team as a central midfielder: the lack of a late, dynamic run into space.
What Didn’t Work Well
By playing a midfield of Cazorla and Xhaka, Arsène Wenger went for extra creativity and passing control at the expense of some defensive solidity. While Watford’s forays forward in the first half were infrequent, a better side could’ve taken advantage of open midfield space, and Watford eventually did in the second half, with Petr Cech keeping the score down. Cazorla, at 31 and coming off a bad knee injury, is not the quickest of players, and at times it was too easy for Watford to play around him in midfield. Indeed, all of Cazorla’s defensive actions came in the wider areas and not in the middle of the park.
As ever, Arsenal’s structure was sub-par. While individuals such as Özil, Cazorla, Xhaka and Alexis masked poor spacing and positional play, it was still ever-present—even when Arsenal created chances.
Santi Cazorla is in possession, after exchanging passes with Granit Xhaka as Arsenal have a period of keep-ball. Cazorla has Xhaka, and also has three longer options, with no one dropping into a pocket of space in the middle of the pitch, not only to provide an easier outlet, but also to change the direction of Arsenal’s attack from the middle, rather than going out wide. In the end, Cazorla plays the ball wide to Monreal, because Cazorla is a very good passer, and Monreal is able to play to Alexis who looks to slip in Mesut Özil. The move ends because of an offside move, and isn’t a bad move, but only happens because the ability of Arsenal’s players covers for the fact that they don’t take up good positions.
It is similar here. This passage of play ends with Theo Walcott’s shot being saved by Gomes, after Walcott was found by a pinpoint Xhaka long ball. But Xhaka has to play the long ball; he only has one square option, Nacho Monreal, or he could turn and go back to either of his centre backs. The space in front of Xhaka should be taken by the other midfielders—either Mesut Özil or Santi Cazorla. At this stage, Özil was playing higher up, trying to stretch Watford’s back line, and thus the onus is particularly on Cazorla, who, as the #8, should be the second-function midfielder who fills these spaces to build play. But Cazorla’s reading of the game is not really as a #8, for it is not his natural position, and he hasn’t been coached to play there. That is another reason why it would make more sense to play Elneny or Ramsey as the #8, for the role is more natural to them, and they will play in that space, even without coaching.
In the end, Arsenal almost score, because Granit Xhaka’s long passing is of high quality. But if Xhaka is not playing, such a chance might not happen. Mohamed Elneny, one potential deputy, is not as adept as a long-range passer, while Francis Coquelin is not adept. But it is important to highlight that Arsenal’s spacing issues go beyond individual players; they exist even when lesser players like Coquelin are removed from the line-up. Having good players certainly alleviates some of the issues, but the issues remain because of two reasons: Wenger’s inability to build a better structure, and his lineup choices.
As we saw last season, there is only so much Mesut Özil can do. Without some luck, and a change in certain deployment decisions, Arsenal could be heading for more of the same.