Francis Coquelin and Santi Cazorla are irreplaceable, but their injuries could open the door for the likes of Aaron Ramsey in a new system.
After the best part of a year with little disruption to Arsenal’s central midfield, two serious knee injuries have come in the space of eight days, meaning Arsenal will likely spend most of the remainder of the season without both Francis Coquelin and Santi Cazorla. Arsenal fans have had a curious relationship with the duo, with certain sections of the fanbase frustrated with some of their limitations and the absence of certain figures in the middle. But the two have been important cogs in a team that had accumulated more points than anyone else in the calendar year and showed notable signs of improvement in big matches, at least on the domestic front.
But in a way, their indefinite absence isn’t so much a qualitative issue, as much a stylistic one. Both Coquelin and Cazorla have very unique skill sets that no one else in the Arsenal squad really shares. Coquelin in particular has a very interesting style for a modern holding midfielder. He’s not huge in a physical sense, but is very quick off the mark and uses that to sweep up the space in front of the back four, in a way not too dissimilar to Laurent Koscielny behind him. On the ball his main strength is his dribbling, again making use of his explosive acceleration and deceptive close control. Cazorla with his fantastic technical skills and two strong feet is particularly good in tight areas but also has a better eye for a pass than Coquelin, and the two complemented each other nicely.
Their build up strategy of Coquelin making decoy movements ahead of Cazorla, who would pick up the ball off the centre backs was a contrast to the traditional method Arsenal employed, where the deepest midfielder without the ball would be the first passing option from the centre backs as well. This is is presumably what Arsenal will go back to now, in a likely midfield of Mathieu Flamini and Aaron Ramsey.
But it is perhaps the different dribbling abilities in the respective midfield pairings where Arsenal will now have to adjust most. Neither Flamini or Ramsey would be considered strong dribblers, while Cazorla and Coquelin are both top three for most completed dribbles per game for Arsenal in the league (along with Alexis Sanchez). This season Cazorla has attempted 3.4 dribbles per 90 minutes, at a success rate of 80%, while Coquelin has averaged 2.5 per 90 completed at an outstanding 88%. Looking back at last season, the last time either of Ramsey or Flamini played regularly in the positions they’d be expected to now, their stats pale in comparison. Ramsey attempted a similar 2.8 dribbles per 90, but succeeded with just 42% of them. Flamini only failed with one dribble all of last season in the league, but only attempted three in over 1,500 minutes! When it comes to losing the ball at their feet in other ways, Flamini and Ramsey are at 0.87 per 90 and 3.54 respectively, while Coquelin and Cazorla are going at 1.51 and 2.39, so not a huge difference there. Flamini how shown to be tidy enough in possession, but simply doesn’t have the ability to dribble out of pressure like Coquelin does, and this means Arsenal will be less likely to hurt opposition teams who press them badly, while Ramsey will simply lose the ball at his feet more frequently than Cazorla
Of course they have strengths that Cazorla and Coquelin don’t have, particularly in the case of Ramsey and Cazorla. You’d expect Flamini to be a more natural receiver from the centre backs than Coquelin, but equally he’ll likely struggle to have the same effectiveness without the ball, and is a pretty obvious downgrade. Ramsey may be able to cover for that drop off defensively, as on his game he would add significantly more defensive prowess than Cazorla does. His drive and physicality in the middle adds it’s own presence and he is a genuine attacking threat with goals and assists. Neither of Coquelin or Cazorla have scored away from the penalty spot in 2015, while Ramsey is genuinely world class when it comes to goalscoring from midfield.
Arsenal will almost certainly buy someone in the January transfer window. History has suggested that Wenger often uses the January window to add depth – Monreal, Gabriel – and has used injuries as a reason to, maybe somewhat reluctantly, go into the market and sign players he perhaps otherwise wouldn’t, such as Danny Welbeck last year. On top of this with Arteta and Flamini’s contracts running out this summer there’s a need to make a long term replacement. It’ll be interesting to see what type of player Wenger brings in and what his role will be in what will be a new and adjusting midfield. The most likely and obvious purchase would be a deep lying playmaker to take Flamini’s place and sit behind Ramsey, with a similar midfield structure to what was seen in the 2012/13 and 2013/14 seasons.
There is some feeling on twitter that Ramsey was very hard done by to not be playing central midfield towards the end of last season and the start of this one. I’m not sure I agree. He struggled at times in the first half of last season, Cazorla impressed over the winter and when he displaced him Arsenal’s results improved. Wenger hardly has a lack of belief in Ramsey and isn’t the type to make him unhappy without strong reason to do so. Cazorla was simply a good fit for the jigsaw at the time and Ramsey was doing a good job as a type of box-to-box Thomas Müller on the right, averaging more final third passes than anyone, making good runs and helping defensively. It was always likely he’d come back more centrally at some point down the line, and now he’s got the opportunity he craves. It’s clear he has the potential to be one of the best central midfielders around and now he’s got the chance to show it for the foreseeable future and nail down a place once and for all. Arsenal’s next midfield will be likely be whatever he makes it.
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