Just before Nababkin scored CSKA’s second goal, Arsene Wenger told Elneny to drop deep from the midfield role and help out between Mustafi and Koscielny as a third center back. Mustafi had been struggling all game – as had Bellerin, Ramsey, Wilshere, and Lacazette – with getting overrun by CSKA’s swift dribblers.
The tactical change didn’t work. Wilshere was told to sit deeper and shield in front of Arsenal’s midfield, but Wilshere was having one of the worst nights of his career, which was compounded with the fact that he simply doesn’t play defense. And the result was CSKA’s second goal.
Wilshere wasn’t entirely at fault for the goal, Cech was awarded yet another error for parrying the ball into Nababkin’s path, but Wilshere failed to close down on Golovin in a dangerous area which led to the shot which led to the parry.
It would be unfair of me to red-circle Wilshere if it was the only time in the match that he failed to close down on an opponent or played lazy football but it wasn’t. Twice in this game he allowed passes that were within reach to simply roll right past him, once it nearly started a counter attack but for the swift intervention of Koscielny.
Wilshere had some bright spots: he completed 89% of his passes (2nd on the team – 34/38), went 3/4 dribbles, and he only lost possession 3 times. That’s not bad for an attacking midfielder. Though, on the other hand, he failed both of his tackles, didn’t make a single interception, didn’t have a shot or even a key pass, and blocked just 1 opposition pass. So, while he didn’t do much offensively, he was also horrible defensively.
And Opta doesn’t count things like “failed to close down” and “let the ball roll past him like a player who doesn’t want to play football anymore”. If they did, he would have had at least three of the former and two of the latter.
As I pointed out on twitter*, his midfield partner, Ramsey, didn’t help out much either. In that series you see Monreal throw his hands up and despair at Ramsey’s idiotic defending. As good as Ramsey has been going forward this season – and he’s been fantastic – this is not a repeat of his breakout year. That was the year I hailed Ramsey as the most complete midfielder in the League: a player who can score, pass, and tackle.
With Wilshere incapable of playing defense, Ramsey not interested, Ozil not interested, and Mustafi making mistakes all over the place, Wenger forced Elneny into the third CB role, just to shore things up.
It was still imbalanced. The problem Arsenal struggled with was picking up Golovin and also making him work on the other end.
What Wenger needed was a workhorse in midfield and a third center back to just provide cover as CSKA attacked with two or three up top. So, he took off Wilshere, brought on Calum Chambers, and moved Elneny into the CM role.
Arsenal were down 2-0 and it looked like a defensive change, taking off an attacking midfielder and putting on a CB, but it wasn’t. Wilshere wasn’t in the game and kept turning the ball over when he did get it. Elneny would provide balance in the middle between attack and defense: covering both areas of the pitch, making passes to Ozil and the forwards, and picking up Golovin when Arsenal lost the ball.
It worked perfectly. Elneny laid on two delightful passes for his teammates, creating Arsenal’s only two Big Chances in the game and getting two assists, and his surety in possession, along with just closing down space made Arsenal’s midfield much more solid. The only defensive stats he collected after the 60th minute were a tackle and an interception but it’s true that often you don’t put up “big numbers” when you’re just covering space or making sure your opponent doesn’t have time to pick out his passes.
Up to the 69th minute, Golovin completed 91% of his passes (42/46), had two key passes, took 3 shots, made two successful dribbles. After Wenger took Wilshere off and pushed Elneny back into midfield, Golovin completed just 75% of his passes in the final 20 minutes of the game, completing just 12/16, made zero dribbles, and created zero shots for himself or his teammates. Elneny completed 100% of his passes (9/9) and created the two big chances for goals.
Stats guys are often told “it’s not what a player DOES, it’s what a player DOESN’T do that matters sometimes” and I will freely admit that’s true: just running with your marker doesn’t show up in the stats sheet but it is one of the most important things you can do defensively. The same with closing down space and other defensive actions which aren’t the obvious things like a slide tackle or a well-times interception.
But Elneny had one of those rare games where you can see both the obvious and the subtle. The subtle being how poorly Golovin played after Wenger stuck Elneny near him and told him to close down space and the most obvious being his two assists.
*My tweets self-destruct after a few days, so get them while they are fresh.