As it has so often during late era Arsene Wenger, the solution arrived because of injury and the lack of any alternative. While Arsenal were losing 2-0 to Bournemouth, Francis Coquelin hurt his hamstring, and Wenger finally, out of options, turned to a midfield of Granit Xhaka and Aaron Ramsey. While Arsenal gave up a third goal in the second half, the team eventually stabilized, with the midfield providing the platform for Arsenal to play more directly and come back in the last twenty minutes. Last Saturday, the duo started their first league game together, and Arsenal won away from home for the first time in five matches in the league, albeit against the worst side.
The performance on Saturday wasn’t great, but then again, few have been away from home, especially against any side vaguely competent enough to press. This follows a trend in away games. On 18 January 2015, Arsenal went away to the Etihad Stadium, and with Francis Coquelin playing in a three-man midfield and Santi Cazorla excelling in a central midfield role, Arsenal soaked up pressure and hit City on the break, winning 2-0. Pundits hailed a new, ‘pragmatic’ Arsene Wenger, who after three thrashings the year before, had finally ‘learned’ how to play in the big games away from home. Since that game, Arsenal have played nine away games against the traditional top six teams in the league. They have drawn five and lost four. Add in defeats to Everton this campaign and Southampton last season, and the results look even more dire.
Performances are hardly better. Arsenal do not soak up pressure in those games; they have conceded 18 goals in those nine games, and 24 in eleven if you include Southampton and Everton. They do not control possession either, nor create chances, nor score goals: 13 in the 9 Big Games, 14 in the 11 against well-coached sides (and perhaps Ronald Koeman, who has defeated Wenger in 3 away games, deserves to be included here). There have been several different midfield combinations, but there’s been one constant: Francis Coquelin in a midfield pivot.
It’s at this point where it must be noted that the defeat of City came with Arsenal playing a three man midfield, which gave the team more solidity and also allowed Cazorla and Aaron Ramsey to mitigate Coquelin’s weakness with the ball. The same midfield played, and failed, away at Tottenham the next month, but in fairness to all three, Arsenal’s problems with pressing are deep-rooted, structural and almost independent of personnel, and point to a deeper coaching issue. And in fairness to Coquelin, he’s a player whose weaknesses—movement of the ball and showing for the ball—would be mitigated in a three man midfield, much like Real Madrid’s Casemiro is mitigated by playing in a midfield with Toni Kroos and Luka Modric, and his strengths would likely be accentuated. But Arsenal have Mesut Özil, and playing Özil out wide has never really worked, and Arsenal can’t really afford to leave Özil out of the side in big games, and so short of a radical solution, such as perhaps trying Özil as a false nine or a change of formation, Arsenal must have a double pivot.
The common preconception has been that Coquelin is vital in big games, because of his defensive statistics, which aid Arsenal in transitioning from defence to attack quickly. Yet his role has changed this season. Coquelin has played as a box to box player, pressing higher up, looking to win the ball back enabling Arsenal to play on the counter attack. There are valid critiques of this role against lesser sides, which I’ve addressed at times, but it’s been broadly successful. Yet away from home, Arsenal have not pressed high up the pitch.
Against both Everton and City, Arsenal took the lead and then sat back. It happened at United, though Arsenal never took the lead, and offered passive resistance to a United side that really should’ve taken more than a point. Against Bournemouth, Arsenal too, in the face of pressure from Bournemouth, wilted. In home games, Arsenal have also sat back after going ahead. It may be tactical, it may be psychological, but renders Coquelin’s strengths unused, and highlights not only his weakness, that is, passing under pressure, but the systematic issue Arsenal have of passing under pressure.
It started again at Swansea. The midfield duo of Granit Xhaka and Aaron Ramsey initially tried to share duties, but this took away the threat of Aaron Ramsey’s runs, which allow for Arsenal to play the ball between the lines. Eventually, Xhaka took on the deeper role and Ramsey pushed forward. Ramsey reestablished his excellent link up play with Özil, with the two exchanging 27 passes, which enabled Özil to drop deep and Arsenal to retain a presence higher up the pitch, as Ramsey would move forward. It gave Arsenal’s midfield more fluidity, allowing them to better play out of pressure. Ramsey also kept Arsenal on the front foot, winning the ball high up the pitch—as did Granit Xhaka and Nacho Monreal, who counterpressed superbly, and gave Arsenal their most convincing away performance and win in a month. The opposition may only be Swansea, but the tactics for an away game suited the personnel, which has not often been the case for Arsenal this season.
Brief look and comment on Xhaka, Ramsey and Özil against Swansea, looking at the midfield rotations and their individual roles in possession pic.twitter.com/op4tjWWkkT— Oscar (@Reunewal) January 16, 2017
If Arsene Wenger is to reverse the trend of Arsenal’s away performances, then sticking with the central duo of Ramsey and Xhaka could be crucial. Rather than crumbling, as Arsenal midfields have been wont to do in the past two years, the Ramsey-Xhaka midfield could give Arsenal the structure to play away from home, much like a pairing of Mikel Arteta and Aaron Ramsey once did, in the heady days of 2013 and victories at Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund. It may, in the end, not work; but rather than going with what has failed, Wenger must try a new solution.