When the severity of Cazorla’s injury became known, there was no question manager Arsène Wenger would have to change personnel: The only two plausible midfielders available were Mathieu Flamini and Aaron Ramsey. The issue was whether Wenger would rethink the team’s formation and style to adjust for the absence of two essential players.
Evolution of the status quo
Flamini and Ramsey have now played six matches together—against Sunderland, Aston Villa, Manchester City, Southampton, and Newcastle in the league and against Olympiacos in the Champions League. Halfway through those fixtures, it appeared that the differences between this midfield of necessity and its preferred predecessor were subtle but not substantive. The formation remained a 4-2-3-1, for example, with the likely candidates simply replacing their injured colleagues.
Over the festive period, however, the differences became more pronounced. In particular, where Coquelin and Cazorla had emerged as a well-coordinated, if unlikely, pairing, Flamini and Ramsey grew less and less synchronized. Their divergence was made clear by the performance of Calum Chambers in Flamini’s stead against Bournemouth: In his first outing as Ramsey’s midfield partner, the neophyte looked more integrated and influential than Flamini did against Southampton or Newcastle.
Let’s be clear about two things, though: 1. The sample size remains small, particularly when it comes to Chambers’s involvement; and 2. The effects have not been the catastrophe many expected.
Since Coquelin’s injury against West Bromwich Albion, Arsenal have played nine matches, winning seven, drawing one, and losing one. That’s a successful run, accomplished in large part (six of the nine matches) without last year’s top scorer Alexis Sanchez.
Any criticism of “Flamsey” can’t rest on the results, then.
Instead, the critique seems to focus on the aesthetics. This isn’t meaningless, because we follow the Arsenal in part for the team’s artfulness and because those style points might reveal imperfections that, on other days, could cost the Gunners points in the league table.
In an effort to analyze the dynamics of the current midfield, the rest of this article examines the team’s orientation, its movement from defense to attack, and its defensive framework.
Although Arsenal’s setup has remained a 4-2-3-1, there’s often much more space between Flamini and Ramsey than there had been between Coquelin and Cazorla. The average position graphics for each match on Arsenal.com make this point clear. Keep in mind these are composite renderings, so that at any given moment a player might be operating far from his indicated location.
For example, against Watford, the map shows Coquelin and Cazorla almost on top of each other. They were a little farther apart against Everton (map) and against Swansea (map), but in all three cases they took up central positions connected to each other and to their teammates.
The positions of their teammates are also interesting. As we’d expect from watching Wenger’s recent teams, fullbacks Nacho Monreal and Hector Bellerin offer the width, while the wide attacking players Alexis and Ramsey drift inward. And, as would befit standard operating positions, playmaker Mesut Özil works just behind the center forward, whether that’s Olivier Giroud or Theo Walcott.
For comparison, let’s look at the typical positions with Flamini and Ramsey in midfield. As Adrian Clarke pointed out on his ever-excellent Breakdown segment, acres of space separated Flamini and Ramsey against Newcastle (map). But in their other matches together, the distances, on average, are comparable to what we saw from Coquelin and Cazorla. Perhaps mental fatigue played a part in this development last Saturday, prompting Flamini to retreat slightly and Ramsey to advance, truer to their instincts.
With the Flamini-Ramsey midfield so far, Özil often finds himself in the most advanced position, even ahead of Giroud. This change might partly be a result of Giroud’s enhanced and more adept involvement in the buildup of play. Ramsey’s instincts forward might also be a factor; with Ramsey pushing up, Özil does not need to drop deeper to receive the ball.
Indeed, we see different patterns of distribution and circulation with Flamini and Ramsey in midfield. Though the destination, as before, is Özil.
Cazorla served as the hub, receiving passes from both center backs, Per Metesacker and Laurent Koscielny, in comparable proportions and working the ball forward to Özil. Against Watford and Everton, Cazorla-to-Özil was Arsenal’s most frequent passing combination, while against Swansea it was tied for third. Meanwhile, a pattern developed on the left, where Monreal linked with Alexis frequently. (Stats from FourFourTwo's StatsZone)
A less diversified pattern has emerged since the Flamini-Ramsey pair debuted against Sunderland.
Ramsey has replaced Cazorla as the conduit to Özil, but he’s less likely to receive the ball from both center backs. It’s more often Koscielny who passes to Ramsey from defense; Mertesacker has been much less involved than he was with Cazorla.
This may have little to do with Cazorla’s exit and Ramsey’s arrival. Instead, the opposition may be putting pressure on Mertesacker so that he can’t jumpstart the offense, which he does so effectively. That’s opened lanes for Koscielny to exploit.
While the relationships between defenders and midfielders are important to the attack, they’re probably more important when Arsenal don’t have the ball. Midfielders support their rear guard to fend off opposition attacks by intercepting, tackling, blocking, or just outnumbering the offense.
In these duties, Coquelin excels. But Cazorla is no slouch defender. His collaboration with Monreal was particularly effective, as shown by their shutdown of Leicester City’s Riyad Mahrez in Arsenal’s 5-2 win in September.
Cazorla and Coquelin also adeptly patrolled the approaches to Arsenal’s penalty area, reducing the threats of through-balls and shots.
Ramsey and Flamini seem to provide less security. That’s not just a general impression; it’s apparent in the diagrams of defensive interventions and heatmaps. It’s also evident in the statistics, as this “By the Numbers” analysis by 7AMKickoff details.
There are several forces at work here. One is that Ramsey’s attacking instincts take him into the opponent’s third more frequently, leaving him with a longer retreat if Arsenal lose the ball. Another is that he and Flamini switch sides without the ball, so at some points Ramsey is supporting Monreal on the left and at others he’s working with Bellerin on the right. This might inhibit the development of a comfortable defensive relationship. It also has to be said that the 31-year-old Flamini has a narrower area of activity than Coquelin, 24.
The result is that opponents have found more areas to exploit, both centrally and on the flanks.
Thus far, these variations and imperfections haven’t prevented Arsenal from succeeding. The Gunners now top the table, whereas they sat fourth after drawing with Norwich. Despite what is essentially a 15-player senior squad, Arsenal secured nine points from the 12 available during the festive period, bettered only by Tottenham’s 10 from 12.
We should not forget those bare facts amidst the concerns, criticisms, and dissatisfactions about the aesthetics of the team’s play. At the same time, this analysis might help us understand the manager’s priorities, decisions, and instructions as other challenging matches approach.