Follow-up on Arsenal’s back three: with or without Cazorla

Quick post.

Spent the whole morning compiling this chart as a follow up to my post on Arseblog News dispelling the myth that the back 3 was some kind of panacea for Arsenal’s defensive woes.

As I showed in my previous post, Arsenal’s defense was still leaking a lot of shots and shots in great positions to the opposition but Arsenal’s keepers were saving at a much higher rate and as a result making the Arsenal back three defense look more solid.

The back three also seemed to delay any goal scoring and the average time for the first goal shot up by 20 minutes per game.

Arsenal’s attack, meanwhile, blossomed under the back three, which is counterintuitive since a back three is usually considered a “more defensive” setup.

Yankee Gunner asked me to look at another wrinkle. He wanted to know if there was a significant difference with Cazorla and without in the back four and how that compared to the back three. Here I made a quick chart comparing the back 4 with Cazorla, without, the back 3, the Arsenal season average, and the Chelsea season average.

This chart includes all of Arsenal’s Champions League matches, Premier League matches, and the final two FA Cup matches.

It should be noted that Cazorla isn’t the alpha and omega of Arsenal’s midfield. He was usually paired with Coquelin and Coquelin is Arsenal’s only defensive midfielder. Cazorla is an attacking midfielder by trade and does offer a significant improvement in Arsenal’s attack. I suspect the inclusion of Coquelin explains why Arsenal’s defensive numbers look better with Cazorla.

When Arsenal lost Cazorla, it is pretty clear that they had a dip in form in all areas of the pitch, including the keepers. And when Wenger switched to a back three, he managed to jumpstart the offense. But there wasn’t much improvement in the defense. Yes, the defense went from atrocious to just bad, but I include Chelsea here to show what a properly defensive back three looks like.

While both Chelsea and Arsenal played a 343 this season Chelsea play with two defensive midfielders (Kante and Matic) and Arsenal played with one passing midfielder (Xhaka) and Aaron Ramsey who was instructed to join in the attack.  This is why when Arsenal switched to a 343 the attack got better and the defense got “better” but only better in the Arsenal sense: which is far below the standard of other top teams like Chelsea and Tottenham.



  1. This suggests we’re on the right track, but Xhaka paired with Ramsey only succeeds in the long-term if Ramsey rediscovers his scoring touch. Still, I would rather have a partner for Xhaka who sits deep and is expert at passing or dribbling his way out of a high press than a marauding Ramsey who supports our attackers but can’t register 10 goals or assists a season. Chelsea’s remarkable numbers are yet more proof that it’s defence that wins you titles, not sparkling attacking play.

    If Wenger wants to adhere to his “only top, top quality” standard, he needs to upgrade both Coquelin and Elneny. We have to find the right partner for Xhaka or someone who can duplicate Xhaka’s role (if he’s gets injured/takes an early bath). Think this will be just as important as any potential superstar striker.

    1. I would rather have Ramsey rediscover his midfielding touch. I remember the back end of the 2012/13 season, when he and Arteta locked down the midfield and Ramsey was an all-tackling, all-intercepting midfielder. He has all the tools to do it again.

      I honestly think that that purple patch 2013/14 season ruined him. Now all he wants to do is go forward and score. What we really need him to do is stay in the midfield with Xhaka.

      1. This.

        I can’t see Arsenal winning the League by ignoring the defensive midfield role or by relying on our keepers/center backs to be gods.

        1. This indeed. I thought Kaius’s comment was excellent, but Onlygoodpractice has added the cherry on top. We don’t need Ramsey to score 10+ goals from deep midfield alongside Xhaka (though it would be very welcome!), we need him to be our Kante/Vidal: all action, contributing to the attack one minute, tracking back to make a tackle the next (plus be at least crisp and efficient with the ball in deep positions). He can do this. His stamina is truly extraordinary, as Wenger has commented numerous times, and he’s better in the tackle than people give him credit for.

          The one thing he’ll always lack is great dribbling skills (helpful against the high press, as Kaius mentions), which is why I’d love to see someone like Goretzka or Keita alongside Xhaka (our answer to Spurs’s Dembele), but I’m not holding my breath. I think/fear Wenger has been sufficiently encouraged by Xhaka/Ramsey at the end of the year to not go big on a central midfielder this summer, which will be a mistake, I think, unless Ramsey (or Ox?) discovers his very best form as a genuine two-way midfielder.

          1. One last thought on the need for another midfielder who can break the high press: in analyzing the switch to the back three, Adrian Clarke on the Breakdown made an excellent point (I’m sure plenty of others have made it too, but I’m no tactics guru) that one of the biggest benefits of the 3-4-3 is it helps against the press: the extra central defender means it’s harder for the opponent to press all the passing outlets, with the result that either Xhaka or at least one wing back ends up being open and we can transition up the field.

            It was noticeable at the end of the year that we didn’t seem to suffer against the press that had been plaguing us all season, with the exception being against Spurs, of course, but they were a) considerably better than us, full stop, b) one of the best pressing teams in the world, and c) playing us when our form and familiarity with the new system was still being built up.

            All this to say, maybe Ramsey and Xhaka can work in the long term, even against the press, though I’d personally love an upgrade to partner the Swiss.

          2. And right on cue, Leon Goretzka’s just scored twice for Germany against Mexico…(he’s got one year left on his Schalke contract, I believe…)

          3. Goretzka is a Ramsey clone, a box to box with aspirations of becoming a 10. So Arsenal will probably bid for him.

          4. Yeah, maybe you’re right about aspirations, but I think he’s both a much better dribbler in tight spaces than Ramsey (this to me is the key), and a bit stronger/more disciplined defensively. Low spoke recently about how impressive he is on defense (though maybe the desire to score goals will kill the defensive discipline over time!).

      2. No, not this. Seriously, when was Ramsey ever a defensive presence in midfield? Never. Mediocre at best. Has he ever ranked in the top ten in interceptions or tackles? Coquelin has. Ramsey gets chronically dribbled past and when someone does turn the corner on him, Ramsey fouls that player half the time.

        A great attacking midfielder, not a defensive midfielder. Where was Ramsey’s greatest successful period? For him personally it was the year he played with Arteta and was allowed to bomb forward knowing Arteta was holding. For the team it was the year he was played in the half-channel on the right flank, coming inside and opening the outside channel for Bellerin.

        Wenger is OBSESSED with recreating Vieira. Maybe the greatest box-to-box midfielder in the past 50 years. There has been a procession of relatively solid defensive midfielders since Gilberto that Wenger has tried to expand their roles; Song, Coquelin, now Xhaka.

        We don’t need another defensive midfielder. We need a new manager who has a fresh tactical vision for the personnel we have.

        1. Who says Wenger’s trying to expand Xhaka’s role? His role is to sit and dictate when we have the ball, and protect the back four as best he can when we don’t (he’s a very different sort of player to Coquelin; Song’s a bit of both, though less good at either role).

          The point is he needs the right partner (in my book, this is NOT another “pure” defensive midfielder, because then the midfield looks too conservative for an attacking-oriented team like Arsenal). I don’t think Ramsey’s perfect for that, but he’s the best we’ve got. Go back and look at the games at the tale end of 2012-13 that OnlyGoodInPractice refers to above, if you doubt his ability to play as an “all action” midfielder who wins the ball back a bunch.

          We’re not getting a new manager for at least two years, so our best hope is that he gets/promotes the right personnel, and picks them in a lineup/formation where they compliment each other.

          1. Jack,
            Yeah, I remember those quotes, and I figured that’s what you had in mind. But they were just bizarre quotes from Arsene, made at the beginning of last year (suggesting he doesn’t have a great grip on the strengths/weaknesses of the players he buys?) and most of the rest of the season, and certainly the run in, after we switched to the 3-4-3, Xhaka was not playing as a box-to-box player, but as a deep lying playmaker, more or less.

          2. It doesn’t matter where he ended up playing – you’re trying to reframe the debate. Jack’s point which you tried to refute was that Wenger tried to expand Xhaka’s role. The evidence was there in his early performances and Wenger’s own words. It’s okay to concede a point and move on to the next one.

          3. I’m not trying to “reframe the debate.” I was trying to reply to Jack’s point (but thanks for the generous reading of my comment). If I misinterpreted what his point was, my bad. Happy to concede a point.

            Here’s Jack’s quote:
            “There has been a procession of relatively solid defensive midfielders since Gilberto that Wenger has tried to expand their roles; Song, Coquelin, now Xhaka.”

            I took the “now” in the “now Xhaka” to mean that Jack takes Wenger to STILL be trying to make him into a box-to-box player, and that this was a theme throughout the season (since the quote Jack used was from last September, and he’s still complaining about it today, I took that to suggest he thought this was an ongoing thing since then).

            If the point was rather that Wenger tried this with Xhaka, that he really shouldn’t have, and that this is evidence of an unhelpful “obsession” with Wenger, then that’s fine (for what it’s worth, I agree with him about Song and Coquelin).

            I suppose the newspaper quote suggests that Wenger did try this with Xhaka, though I can only report that, as far as evidence on the pitch goes, I see little throughout the season to suggest he was pushing him forward, demanding he play a Keane/Vieira/Gerrard style “box-to-box” role, etc. To my eyes (you may disagree?), he played a pretty similar role/style throughout the season, i.e. collecting the ball from the back four, spraying passes around, rarely making sprinting runs into the box, past the attacking midfielders, etc. He settled into the side more and more throughout the year, and by the end I think it was clear that he was operating as a deep-lying playmaker type. That’s why the quotes were always so strange: even at the time it seemed clear to me and many other fans that that really wasn’t Xhaka’s game, and they suggested to me that Wenger didn’t have a great grip on the strengths and weaknesses of the player (which is probably as damning an indictment of Wenger as any obsession with box to box players!).

          4. Yes, I will concede those quotes of Wenger’s were in the first half of the season. He, true to form, seems to have had a late revelation about how to use Xhaka properly. I think the quote though still gives us a window into his mind – he’s always been on the search for another Vieira. Wenger wants central midfielders who can do it all. In the modern tactics-heavy game they just don’t exist.

        2. Yeah Jack Action, pretty much agree with you there. I’ve spent way too much time thinking about Ramsey performances since that breakout 2014 season. Since the injury that cut that season short he’s come back to a very high level. In terms of his fundamentals though? He’s just a different player.

          Watch 2013-14 Ramsey execute a drag-back to shake off a pressing Napoli midfielder and start another attack in the Champions League. Watch his screamer at Anfield again. Striking a bouncing ball from outside the box, one of the hardest techniques to master. Ramsey is perfectly positioned, weight forward, keeps his knee over the ball, and his timing is perfect.

          During injury comebacks the body changes. His mechanics changed. He snatches at shots, or leans over when he should be perfectly over the ball. To be a player who “scores arriving” as they say say, his technique needs to be near-perfect. He’s a superstar athlete so he’s probably fitter than he was during that season. But technically I think he’s lost too many elements of his game as well as the shot bursts of acceleration that defensive midfielders need to be effective. Much as I love the guy, we cannot seriously go into this season with him as Xhaka’s first-choice partner.

          1. Look PFo, we mostly love Rambo on here. You and OnlyGoodInPractice are more optimistic about him, but like I said it’s just not gonna happen. And by happen I mean Arsenal winning a title with Ramsey as a first-choice CM.

            I do agree with you that we need another proper all-rounder and not a pure defensive midfielder if we want to play the game Wenger’s way.

          2. It’s funny, because I’ve rarely been accused of being “optimistic” about Ramsey! I’m very critical of him most of the time, I’m just trying to be optimistic about our midfield for next season, making lemonade with lemons, etc.

            But my last comment that “it’s gonna to happen” was referring to the last line of your comment: we ARE going to go into this season with Ramsey as Xhaka’s first choice partner (at least that’s my prediction). I’m NOT saying this is a great idea, and it could end up being a disaster. I’m hoping “Good Ramsey” shows up for the whole season, but I’m not expecting it.

          3. i understood you the first time and to be clear, I don’t have any confidence in your prediction.

            And I have even less confidence that Wenger will acquire the CM we need. These two things may seem contradictory, but it’s Wenger’s Arsenal. Anything could happen.

          4. “I don’t have any confidence in your prediction.”
            Yeah, I don’t have much either. Sometimes it just feels good to state a hunch in a dogmatic, matter-of-fact way (not naming any names, but I don’t think I’m the only regular on this site that suffers from this affliction from time to time).

            My hunch that we’re not signing a new starting CM is based on the fact that:
            a) Wenger just invested a lot of money into Xhaka, and he looks like he’ll develop into part of the backbone of this team for the longterm.
            b) Ramsey is one of Wenger’s favorite players within the squad, all AW’s interviews suggest he rates Rambo extremely highly, and he’s shown a huge amount of faith in him (even when it looked to me to be extremely ill-placed) over a very long period of time. So it would be strange, knowing Arsene, if he was looking with any great urgency to upgrade on him now, just as Ramsey was finally showing some real form.
            c) Gazidis just reemphasized today (what we already probably knew) that we are not looking to sign players to fill out the squad, but only top class (presumably expensive) players to go straight into the starting 11, which in midfield means displacing Xhaka or Ramsey, which, based on the above, seems unlikely.
            d) Wenger has said he’s only looking to bring in about 3 new faces, and all the reputable press has focused on him chasing Mbappe, Lacazette, Lemar, and (maybe) Mahrez (along with Kolasinac). The rumors in early spring of Arsenal looking closely at certain continental midfielders (Seri, Fornals, Lemina, Tolisso, Goretzka, etc) have mostly gone quiet since we went on our 3-4-3 inspired run.

            But then again, as you said, “it’s Wenger’s Arsenal. Anything could happen.” Quite.

          5. The thing about framing these kind of Arsenal strategy debates based on “what Wenger will most likely do” is yes there’s lots of evidence to suggest he won’t do anything radical, but that’s also a huge part of why a large section of people have lost confidence in him. We’ve all head these songs before.

            Our glorious run-in doesn’t change the fact that our build up play was predictably bad during that crazy period of the season, and the warning signs were there during our unbeaten 19-game run. There’s a reason we had to score so many late goals during that period. We couldn’t get the ball from back to front effectively. We weren’t spacing the pitch. Worst of all, in our biggest games we couldn’t control the tempo of games and haven’t been able to for years. Xhaka has repaired some of that but the job of rebuilding our midfield game is only half done. Coquelin has been exposed. Elneny was brought in while we were still top of the table the season before last and couldn’t impact the team enough to stop Leicester and Tottenham overtaking us. He’s done nothing since that suggests he should start for us. And Ramsey has too many flaws. It was the injury-prone flaw that prevented him starting the season with us, it took him too many games to play his way back into form, and though he finished strongly he only ended up with 13 starts and another 10 appearances as sub. The season Leicester beat us to the title he started nearly 30 games.

            Your hunch about why we probably won’t do anything in midfield assumes that, as usual, Wenger doesn’t upgrade his favourites and he doesn’t spend money on the same position for two consecutive summers. These are fact-based predictions, and also habits that Wenger really needs to break this summer if we’re going to avoid an even worse league position next year.

            This week the Guardian said we hadn’t dropped our interest in Seri, so there’s still hope that Gazidis’ comment also applies to our midfield.

          6. I hadn’t seen the Guardian thing about Seri (and I don’t know enough about Seri to be confident that he’ll be defensively strong enough to make a good partner for Xhaka: looks like Cazorla-lite, maybe, and it’s not clear to me that real Cazorla plus Xhaka is physically strong/athletic enough in central midfield for the PL).

            Otherwise, yeah, I completely agree with you about our struggles in midfield, and how they’re likely not going away, but neither of us is the eternal optimist that AW is.

  2. Good analysis. I believe the apparent aberration in the attacking and defensive nos. has plenty to do with our central midfield. Out of the 30 EPL games we played with the back 4 (in reality back 2 as our full backs operated as wing backs) Coq or/and Elneny played 24 (80%) of them. Of the 8 EPL games we played using the back 3 Coq or/and Elneny played 2 times (25%) and the rest (75%) by Xhaka and Ramsey. Coq or/and Elneny aided the defensive aspect of the game, but detracted from the offensive aspect. Just the opposite of Ramsey and Xhaka’s contribution. In other words there is no abberation in the numbers.

    The ideal pairing of course would be a pairing with both players good on the two sides of the ball eg Vieira/ Gilberto or Verratti/Fabinho.

    The jump in the saves by the keeper, I believe must be related to the fact that a back 3 as opposed to a back 2 logically would afford the opponents a little less time to compose for shots at goal, making it easier for the keeper to make saves.

    1. So, that theory about the back three and keeper saves might make sense, but…

      There was also a massive jump in saves during the Cazorla back 4 era. I don’t think the back three helps the keepers. I think the keepers help the back three. Go back and look at my keeper +/- throughout the season: the first 11 matches show that the Keepers were saving us. Also, remember back to Ospina against PSG. The man was a beast and had one of the best performances by an Arsenal keeper this season.

      1. I think the theory that a back 3 made the big chances more difficult could be consistent with how hard Coquelin worked defensively at the times when paired with Cazorla which also made the nature of chances more difficult and made the goalkeepers save percentages comparable.
        There was times of course when Coq was pressing high up the pitch as a new tactical attacking ploy but he did get back and block up the shooting areas better than our other midfield options.
        Coquelin as defensive midfielder and an extra center back are probably pretty close in comparing our defensive numbers.

  3. Maybe a 4-3-3 could suit us, with Xhaka playing a little deeper and Ramsey and a Cazorla-esque new signing (ala Modric, Thiago, Verrati) completing the midfield. On top it could be Alexis and Ozil just behind a new striker as we played at the end of last season. So in fact it would be a 4-1-2-2-1.

      1. What about the Naby Keitas of the world who can contribute defensively a lot but also have the composure and (some of) the foot skills of a Cazorla? There aren’t many in the world, but surely there are a few. Alongside Xhaka, or in a three with Xhaka and Ramsey, this could work, without going out and getting an out-and-out Makelele/Gilberto type.

        1. I agree, Wenger wont go for a guy that can only defend, thats what made Ramsey so special when he played alongside Arteta. We need an all action hyperactive midfielder whoa can stuck in with the tackles one minute and then carry the team foward by dribbling his way out of pressure. Not an easy task to find that player, but paired him with Ramsey just in front of Xhaka and we may be into something.

          1. If we can find that special player (not easy, as you say), I’d just keep the 3-4-3 and drop Ramsey. Then again, what happens when Xhaka gets injured or needs a rest? Can special player also cover as “sitting” midfielder? Because as good as Coquelin is winning the ball, he can’t sit and direct our buildup to save his life!

          2. If Xhaka isnt available (funny how quickly he has become tactically very important) we change formation to something that doesnt require a sitting creative midfielder (4-2-3-1). Flexibility is a key asset, just look at Spurs succesfully switching formations according to the opposition and the personal available.

          3. 1. I can’t really see Wenger shifting formations so readily. It’s just not how he likes to do things, and I’m ok with that. It’s one thing to be willing to proactively change formations when your team is struggling, it’s another to switch formations as soon as you lose one player for a game or two to injury/suspension (I’m not saying it’s wrong, just that I understand Wenger’s reluctance to switch so often). I’d rather have someone who can do Xhaka’s role adequately when he’s out.

            2. I think the 4-2-3-1 still requires someone who gives us Xhaka’s attributes, even if that’s “divided up” among the midfielders differently, e.g. neither Coquelin nor Cazorla has Xhaka’s exact combo of skills, but they work as a two, and I don’t think that’s especially because of the 4-2-3-1; they’d work just as well in the 3-4-3, I think.

            3. One thing I’m absolutely convinced of by now (and I hope Wenger is too), is that Coquelin-Ramsey doesn’t work against PL quality opposition. So when Xhaka’s out, what happens? Elneny’s the closest to Xhaka in terms of his passing, but his defensive contribution is typically really weak, and anyway Arsene doesn’t seem to trust him. So if it has to be Coquelin who comes in for Xhaka, I’d rather he come in along with someone who takes care of the ball better (without that equalling just really conservative passing) than Ramsey. So Xhaka/Ramsey is first choice and Coquelin +1 is second choice. But who’s that +1 going to be?
            Ox? He can do it against opposition who don’t press, but against quality pressing teams I fear his tendency to put his head down when he dribbles will get us into trouble in deep positions. This is where coaching/training could improve him: is he going to stay, and is Wenger going to give him his chance to develop as a CM this season, and if given the chance will he take it? Doubtful on all three.
            Jack? Could work with Coquelin, but he’s injury prone and looks to have one foot out the door.
            Iwobi? Promising, but is still very green and Wenger has been slow to try him in CM.

            So we need to buy another midfielder.

  4. Tim, the keeper saves with-Sant-playing, could be more of Coq-in-box defending effectively creating a back 3.

  5. We’re looking in the wrong place, and scapegoating Ramsey as usual. Ramsey does his fair share of D, Tim. My own lying eyes, and your stats, point to it. I see him making tackles and interception in the midfield and our own box. Let’s lay aside the set narratives, please.

    Much as I like Xhaka as a passer, wouldn’t it be better if we bought someone who could play both roles in the pivot — pass AND stop? The modern game is about having players who can do more than one thing, and that’s why Francis Coquelin has been exposed and Kante is ascendant. We’ll never have Viera/Petit, or Viera/Gilberto again, but complementarity is important. Ramsey is a good player in the Arsenal combo style, and he’ll get goals (as he did in the FA Cup final). But you need both midfielders in the engine room to have good stopping ability. It’s not just incumbent on one of them. As I said, I like Xhaka, and hopefully he grows into that part of the game, and becomes a modern day Petit for us.

    On midfielders. Why did we acquire Elneny, besides his price? What does he REALLY do? Santi did not have out and out stopping ability, but his supreme game intelligence meant that he could be relied on to use the ball safely in tight and perilous areas. Santi’s career, by the way, is over. We might as well get used to the fact.

    1. Whoa, who’s scapegoating Ramsey? We’ve all had nice things to say about him, but also critical points. Surely that’s allowed, without our views being dismissed as “set narratives”.

      And I for one think Xhaka does do the “stopping,” he just isn’t good enough at it (because not mobile enough) to do it on his own.

      The best comparison for Xhaka, I think, is Xabi Alonso, who was very crafty defensively, but could hardly be counted on to do all the defensive cover, especially late in his career when he lost a step (he was never quick). But he was one of the best midfielders of his generation; certainly Madrid and Bayern thought his ability to dictate a game was worth having him in there, even if he couldn’t be relied on to cover the back four on his own. So he was partnered by Khedira and Vidal, neither of whom is really a “defensive midfielder” if that means something like a “shield”. Rather, they’re two aggressive, physically robust, two-way midfielders who contribute going forward but are known for their defensive side.

      Xhaka is not at Alonso’s level yet, but I think he can be, and he’s a bit bigger and more physical to boot (another comparison is Carrick). What I’m suggesting above is that Ramsey can/should be encouraged to become our Khedira/Vidal, or, if not entirely, that he could shift his game more in that direction, without entirely suppressing his attacking instincts.

      1. You don’t need to leave Arsenal to find a comparison. Arteta will do. He was not a conventional stopper. He was a a superlative reader of a game, and like Alonso always seemed to be in the right place at the right time. Xhaka is not there yet, as the often seems a mini-step behind the play. We need Xhaka to up that side of his game. He’s already a terrific player, and’ll be an awesome player if he completes his education.

        On Ramsey, tickled to see that you think the cap fits.

        Aaron’s doing fine, and getting his groove back. He was perhaps among our best 3 or so players in the last 7 or so games of the season. Helping to knit offensively, working hard, doing his share on D, and getting the rub of the green with his chances.

        So who do we have to play those two roles? Xhaka, Ramsey, Ox, Elneny, Wilshere, Santi and probably Iwobi. I reckon we sell two and buy one superlative defensive midfielder. Someone like Monaco’s Bakayoko, who’s going to Chelsea.

        1. 1. I’ve said the same thing about Ramsey for years, and consistently on this blog: there’s Good Ramsey and Bad Ramsey. Bad Ramsey is my least favorite player at Arsenal (you’ve heard me moan about him plenty Claude, so I’ll not do so again here). Good Ramsey has flaws but makes up for it with superlative covering of every blade of grass and keeping things relatively simple. When Good Ramsey scores a few goals his confidence soars through the roof and he becomes Brilliant Ramsey, but we’ve only ever seen that guy for half a season. We’ve seen Good Ramsey at the end of 2012-13, at times in 2013-14 when he wasn’t being brilliant, a few isolated games since, and at the end of last season partnered with Xhaka.* Good Ramsey is a two-way midfielder, contributing a lot defensively and offensively. Bad Ramsey spent the best part of three years trying to get in touch with his inner Brilliant Ramsey, and took a huge step back in his career as a result. Wenger needs to encourage Ramsey to stick to Good Ramsey, as that guy could be a legitimately good partner for Xhaka moving forward.

          * I guess Wales 2016 Ramsey was somewhere in between Good Ramsey and Brilliant Ramsey, but it’s hard to compare given the differences in style and personnel between Arsenal and Wales, and the differences between the PL and a mediocre, two week summer tournament.

          2. Good shout on Arteta, but even in his best form as a holding midfielder, he wasn’t defensively strong enough to cover the defense on his own. Sure, he was good enough for a top four run, but not good enough for a title run in the PL, when you can’t afford to drop lots of points in fixtures like Southampton away. He was a very smart player and I loved him for it, but he was also weak and slow, and to push on we needed an upgrade at the time. Arteta/Ramsey worked pretty well, and that’s the template for Xhaka/Ramsey, I think, except I’d want Aaron to do the defensive work first, look to score goals second. Let’s not forget the year they were our first choice pairing we were hardly watertight. One significant difference is that that year we had a back four, whereas now, at least in theory (in spite of Tim’s stats!), the back 3 should be more secure behind Xhaka/Ramsey than the back four was behind Arteta/Ramsey.

          1. I’m all for Bakayoko, but as you say, that ship’s sailed, and I don’t think Wenger is going to concentrate on that sort of player with both Xhaka and Coquelin in the squad (I don’t see either leaving this summer). Our best hope for reinforcements is more of a two-way player, either as improvement/cover for Ramsey (all-action) or because Wenger realizes he needs someone to give us what Santi used to give us (deep-lying dribbler). I think Keita or Goretzka combine both those things, but I doubt we’ll try hard for either. Jean Seri? What about this Norwegian kid we were linked with two weeks ago?

  6. The right revolution should be in our midfield. We need those in our CMF to be good with and without the ball. Without that pairing we were still short even with great strikers/goal scorers like Henry, RVP, and Sanchez. Xhaka and Ramsey are weak on the defensive side. Coq is weak on the offensive side. Elneny is neither here nor there.

  7. Xhaka can be our Pirlo.

    Juventus played a 3-1-4-2 when Pirlo was there and Pirlo took the ball off the defense and sprayed the ball around the pitch, managing the game, setting the tempo. Pirlo was no great defensive midfielder, he was slow. And Juve were a pretty solid defensive team.

    No need to reinvent the wheel Wenger; a great precedent has been set before, it’s a matter of looking at Juve and seeing how we can best replicate what they had with tweaks of our own.

    1. Cech Buffon
      Mustafi/Mertesacker/Koscielny Caceres/Barzalgi/Chiellini
      Xhaka Pirlo
      Bellerin/Ramsey/(Ozil)/Monreal Lichtsteiner/Marchisio/Pogba/Asamoah
      (Sanchez)/Giroud Tevez/Matri

    2. Yeah, I’m not familiar enough with the Juve of that era to be convinced we should emulate them, but I completely agree with the general sentiment re Xhaka and Pirlo. That was the point I was trying to make above comparing him to Alonso.

      1. Having written all of the above (the rest of you all must be thinking, “this guy obviously has no job or life to speak of!”–the truth is I’m a stay-at-home dad for 6 more weeks, and my kid’s taking an epic nap!), I’m going to stick my neck out and say Wenger’s not going to sign a deep-lying or box-to-box midfielder this summer (unless it’s a kid).

        If we’re very lucky, we’ll get Lacazette and hold onto Sanchez/Ozil/Ox, or maybe get Lacazette, lose Sanchez, and “replace” him with Lemar/Mahrez. The midfield is what it is, I suspect.

        1. We’re not getting anyone. Prepare yourself, this smells like the summer of 2013 when we chased Suarez, Gustavo, Fellaini and a couple of others and then only landed Ozil fortuitously (because Real needed the money for Bale). Same thing this summer; Mbappe, Lacazette, Lemar.

        2. For a moment, I read that as “stay at home dad of 6.” And I thought, damn. No wonder you retired to the computer 🙂

          This transfer window is hard to call, and we might as well all sit back throughout July and not raise our expectations. Alexis to City seems to have credible weight, but I’d be very disappointed in Wenger and Arsenal (what’s new) if that happens. We accept that he’s an asset of considerable worth, and under the circumstances, any club would sell. But don’t tell us you’ll hold Alexis to his contract, and then not do so.

          Dortmund kept Lewa to his contract, even though they eventually lost him for nothing to Bayern.

  8. Dortmund doing so doesn’t necessarily mean it’s smart. There is so much new super talents around, we should be held hostage by any one player that is not Messi (not even CR7 at 32).

    1. As someone who loves Alexis enough to riot if we lose him this summer, I agree that the smartest move for us is to sell wisely and buy wisely. That means letting Alexis go, but it also means shipping out guys like Walcott, Elneny, and Gibbs. Over the years we’ve lost more than we could get for Alexis this summer by not selling squad players when their values were high.

  9. not sure i agree with the notion that coquelin is a defensive midfielder. he’s more of a two-way player. when he was called back from his loan, he filled in as a dm because there was absolutely no one else to do it. in time, it proved more effective to switch roles with santi. coquelin is far more kinetic than cazorla while the little spaniard is more of a leader, directing traffic, collecting the ball from the defense, or switching the point of attack. i think it just surprised everyone, when you consider his technical brilliance, how well cazorla was able to control the flow of the game from the dm role.

    the defensive midfield position gives you more control over the game and, on top teams, is typically reserved for senior players. one reason is they’re more experienced recognizing and thwarting danger. another reason is they provide a lot instructions and the other players on the team need to respect what they say. i think it’s safe to say that alexis and özil respect cazorla more than coquelin. cazorla’s ability to control the game is why arsenal were winning more games, not the formation or his defensive prowess.

    while i really appreciate the statistical work you’ve done, the difference between talented teams and good ones is good teams have players that are better at developing tactical situations on the pitch. for instance, if a striker is in a “prime area” but their angle is bad, they may consider cutting the ball back. however, if cazorla has rotated over and is waiting for the cutback to dispossess said striker, what’s that striker going to do? their best option is to shoot that bad angle shot. there’s no stat for that but it’s so important. sometimes, the strikers have bad days or the defenders/goal keepers make dynamite plays. i always tell my youth players to develop the situation first and then make the play.

  10. an aside; our £35 million central defender can’t get into the german c-team since that game against chile where he assisted alexis’ record-breaking goal. £35 million! nuts!

  11. Thanks for scratching our Carzola itch Tim!

    I was looking at the results in the early parts of our season, and it seems that Carzola was paired with Xhaka most of the time.

    The one time where we played Carzola and Coquelin together as the deep lying pair was against Chelsea where we ran rings around Kante.

    But the numbers make for good/grim reading. With Carzola in the team, our expected for/against goal ratio is at Chelsea’s territory, marginally better.

    Without him, even with the back 3, there is still more work that can be done. There are rumors of us going for Bliase Matuidi, what do you think? Can he work?

  12. Here’s an interesting philosophical question, what does it mean when you under- or over-perform your XG? Does it mean you’re lucky/unlucky or a good/bad attacker/defender? Or does it mean that XG is limited?

    B4&Caz and B3 both had an XG of 2.2, but w B4&Caz we over-performed scoring 2.5, B3 was wasteful scoring just 1.9. Chelsea over-performed even more than we did, exceeding their XG 1.8 by 0.4 goals per game to score 2.2. Does that mean they’re better because they took their chances? Or are we better because we created more high quality chances and scored more overall during our salad days of B4&Caz.

    Similarly whose defense is better? Chelsea which overperformed its XGa of 0.93 letting in 0.8 or B3 which overperformed its Xga of 1.3 letting in just 0.7. Were we just luckier? Or were we better, not at keeping people out of the box, but at getting that little nudge, deflection or fingertip save to keep them out?

  13. To test your hypothesis that the magic of B4&Caz was mostly Coq, you could make a heat map of Arsenal’s defensive actions and then overlay a heat map of Coq’s defensive actions. Also compare with a heat map of B3

    See this a href=””>article for methodology.

    My pet theory is that with B4&Caz and B3 we had fewer give aways in bad positions and so were less likely to be caught out of position to defend. Also the third defender felt more able to take a gamble at interceptions and tackles when he had two people behind him.

    1. I think so as well. Both Carzola and Coquelin are able to hold on to the ball in tight spaces.

      The pair also gobbles up loose balls.

      And, I suspect Coquelin’s defensive output falls when Carzola is not beside him.

      1. agreed. coquelin is more talented than he’s often given credit for being. he has a poor finish and a dreadful long ball but he has absolutely everything else. what’s more is he’s sound, tactically, which maximizes his effect on the team. his play as the third defender is probably the best in the team and may be the very reason he’s an arsenal player.

        i reckon cazorla was able to communicate well enough with coquelin to get him playing somewhere near his best. i’m hopeful xhaka will be able to control the midfield as well but we have to remember that he’s still so young and learning the english game. we’ll see.

  14. This is harsh to say, but we should forget about Carzola imo. He is only getting older and is too injury prone now (like Rosicky was). Wenger shouldn’t have offered him a contract.

    Elneny, Wilshire and Coq need to be culled this summer as they offered nothing this season. We need to get a new worldclass CM because our rivals have better midfields than us. Even Everton have a more balanced mid pairing, I’d even throw in Crystal Palaces midfield pairing for good measure.

    This is why we cant control games and get beaten badly so often (Bayern, Palace and West Brom), changing formations only gets you so far before the rot reappears.

    1. Yes, will Cazorla actually ever play again? I have my doubts. Even if he does come back we’re firmly at the beginning of the post-Cazorla era.

  15. The Santi comparisons are null and void. I do appreciate the suggested aspects of our D that need improving upon. Reason I say this is Santi is done. Jack is done. Move on. If you watch the last game Kante was kept in check. Arsenal need another deep lying mid or another person to form the “shield.” I watched all the games, many had tuned out, and Arsenal played better all the way to the end. Many wanted to give the chavs the trophy- well they got owned. So, moving forward, bring back Szcz, get another deep mid and a striker to compliment Sancehz, and give it a go.
    Very solid analysis from many contributors on here, but as the saying goes “just win baby!”

  16. Great post, great comments, thanks everyone

    For me the defensive stats show that formations are secondary, and we have still not got our defensive tactics worked out. To press or not to press, that is the question. Whether tis nobler to sit back in a low block, intercept the slings and arrows and hit them on the transition with Xhaka’s killer passes, or to take up arms against opposition defences and by opposing pressure them in to coughing up the ball. Sometimes we try to do both, sometimes neither. We are too indecisive, too much Hamlet and not enough Henry V.

    Blame Wenger if you like for lack of coaching, but as a counter-argument I’m also happy to place some of the responsibility on players. Arsenal players are empowered, and with power comes responsibility. If you want to be drilled to within an inch of your life don’t come and play for Wenger – and everyone should know that, so I’ve got little patience for bewildered complaints from ex-players. It doesn’t suit everybody’s personality, there’s no arguing with that. But if you want to have freedom and make decisions on the pitch then you have to have the be ready and prepared for that. And make no mistake, good players flourish under those conditions, and when they do it’s a joy to see. Arteta, mentioned by many above, maybe being exhibit A in that regard. This is basically the flip side of the coin that people are using as a stick to beat Wenger with, if you will allow me to both mix metaphors AND use a couple of horrible cliches.

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