Arsenal’s central midfield trio
As you know, Arsenal have struggled to get the ball forward in the first two matches of the season, regaining (as Wenger would say “a bit”) their fluidity in the 3-1 win over Watford.
Against Liverpool the problem was a combination of Ramsey making too many forward runs, Elneny being the sole outlet for the defense, and Coquelin’s continued struggles to integrate into the structure of the team when Arsenal have possession. It wasn’t until Cazorla and Xhaka were introduced that Arsenal were able to move the ball forward from defense and create in the final third — scoring twice to set up a grandstand finish.
Against Leicester, Arsenal regained some of the composure lost to Ramsey’s constant forays forward with the introduction of Özil. Cazorla also provided a stable platform in midfield but Arsenal struggled with positional play as Xhaka’s tendency to stay deep created imbalances in attack — though it did (crucially) protect the back four and limited Leicester’s ability to hit Arsenal on the counter. Once Özil was on the pitch, Arsenal suddenly looked likely to score, though you could tell that Özil was lacking (a bit maybe the) fitness and he waned quickly after his introduction. Still, if Walcott had finished just one of his two big chances Arsenal could have ended with all three points.
Arsenal’s midfield all came together nicely in the win over Watford. And it wasn’t just about player quality which finally got Alexis the service he needed.
As you know Wenger prizes verticality. The average Arsenal analyst hears what the pundits say on TV about Arsenal’s “pretty passing moves” or catches a glimpse of Arsenal’s goals against Norwich (Wilshere) or Sunderland (Rosicky) and thinks that Wenger wants his team to score what amounts to miracle goals, as this article argues. Nothing could be further from the truth.
He understands basics like triangles, teamwork, and positioning but he isn’t a slave to positioning nor a technocrat like Mourinho. But he’s also not entirely a jazz coach, setting out his team to play improvisational football for 50+ matches a season for the last 20+ years. There is a method to his seeming madness. Wenger wants his team to play the percentages. Wenger knows that throughballs, and the resulting shot from the throughball, is the most dangerous pass in the game. Arsenal already have 4 throughball key passes this season, more than any other team and they consistently dominate throughball stats.
If you have read any of the books by the players they tell you how much he drills this verticality into his teams. In her book Invincibles, which is the best researched Arsenal book of the last decade, Amy Lawrence interviews all of the players from that Invincible side and the remarkable insight into Wenger’s coaching style is how much he pounded verticality into that team. Ball goes from center back, in to midfielder (usually Vieira) and quickly up the ladder to Henry.
Wenger achieves this because he sets his teams up to capitalize on movement both on and off the ball which will allow them to capitalize on spaces behind defenders. On and off the ball is important. There was a recent study about football passing by Stefan Reinartz which looked at how many players a single pass could bypass. Think of what a throughball does… it slices through two banks of four, creating space in behind the lines. This is what Reinartz means when he talks about bypassing players. There are other ways to do this as well, for example, Xhaka is an expert when it comes to the long pass which bypasses the midfield. In fact, Reinartz’s system ranked Xhaka as 5th best in the Euros at bypassing midfields and 2nd best in the Bundesliga last season.
Reinartz and his team also looked at dribbling and how player movement off the ball creates these opportunities. It’s not a coincidence that Wenger constantly talks about how he prizes a forward “running behind” the defenders. Wenger particularly prizes this in Theo Walcott and I suspect (along with his work rate in training) is the major reason why Wenger let Joel Campbell go.
Again, we see the importance here of Cazorla (who is Arsenal’s best dribbler) and his ability to slip past midfield markers, creating space for him to then find the vertical runner or create mismatches in defense. But unsung is often the player’s ability to get into these vertical spaces for his teammates. The Reinartz system (which is called “Packing” UGH) measured players receiving the ball as well as passing and it turned out that… shock… Özil is “the best in the world between the lines.”
As a side note, this concept of verticality, dribbling, and playing between the lines is the reason why Wenger just as recently as yesterday said that he wants Jack Wilshere to finish his career at Arsenal. When Jack is 100% fit and mentally committed to the game, this is exactly what he does best. He is very much like Cazorla in that respect and a bit like Özil, though I can’t remember if he moves into spaces that bypass the defense as well as Özil.
All of this is a long-winded way to say that Arsenal’s best midfield trio is Cazorla-Xhaka-Özil and against Southampton, most of the outcome of the match depends on them starting. They provide Arsenal’s most vertical threat and most precious ability to bypass defenders.
There is one quirk about Southampton that you should know: they actually want possession. It’s unusual for a mid-table or lower team to want to keep possession of the ball but already Claude Puel has his team near the tops of the possession charts. For example, against Man U, Southampton dominated possession 57-43. They are also geared toward playing attacking football and will almost certainly start with two strikers Redmond and Long up front against Arsenal.
Their problem is that Puel plays a diamond midfield. What they gain in that formation is control of the center, what they lose is control of the wide areas and especially the wide areas behind the fullbacks, because it’s the fullbacks going forward who provide the width in the diamond.
This flaw should sound familiar to Arsenal supporters who still have scars from when Arsenal used to play Barcelona-lite style of football and all of the fullbacks would be posted deep in the opposition half. But the good news is that Wenger now has options to exploit that flaw.
New striker Lucas Perez and old striker Theo Walcott are both whippet quick forwards who love to run in behind the opposition defense (see above with the verticality). Meanwhile, Özil, Xhaka, and Cazorla all love to make the kind of vertical passes that Perez and Walcott like to run on to. I’m not a mathematician but I think that adds up to some great chances for Arsenal.
The threat on the other end is that Arsenal’s defense is far from settled and there are question marks about who will start for Arsenal in the center back role. No matter who starts they will need to deal with the dual threat of Nathan Redmond and Shane Long. Redmond is only 22 years old and was mainly deployed as a wide playmaker at Norwich. Puel has moved him to the center forward role this season and his tricky dribbling could be a real threat to Arsenal’s defense. He’s second best playmaker on Saints behind Tadic and tied with Long and Tadic for shots per game with 3. Keeping him and Tadic quiet is the main task for Arsenal’s midfield and defense.