For years, Arsenal have been analysed with the use of cliches: not enough characters, a lack of mental strength, trying to walk the ball into the net, comfortable with fourth place; the list goes on.
But Tuesday’s loss to Watford wasn’t really “classic” Arsenal. Arsene Wenger’s sides are often criticised for failing to perform in big matches, for going into their shell against physical sides and for struggling at certain points in the season. But they don’t generally lose apparently simple home matches against bottom-half sides, and certainly not in the manner of their latest defeat.
Watford didn’t adopt the typical “away at Arsenal” approach, in that they didn’t sit deep and they didn’t look to frustrate their hosts. Instead they came out and played and, in Etienne Capoue, had the game’s outstanding midfielder.
His all-action display was summarised by his part in Watford’s second goal; a quick interception was followed by a burst of pace and dribble past two opponents, before a good shot was parried by Petr Cech into the path of Troy Deeney, who tapped home.
Watford midfielders simply don’t come to Arsenal and run the show like that: This wasn’t a normal Arsenal problem; this was new Arsenal.
In midweek, their main issue was in midfield. Arsenal are short of options in this zone — somewhat surprising for a club that always seems overloaded with accomplished ball players — and continue to be hurt by the absence of Santi Cazorla, who hasn’t played for three months.
Cazorla represents everything that is good about Arsenal, as someone who can dribble past opponents in tight positions, set the tempo of the game, play through balls into the final third and sometimes score goals.
He solved many problems and, because he was a small, quick-thinking, creative player, it was easy to find him a natural partner. Francis Coquelin is not the most gifted player technically but played behind Cazorla, kept his position and provided physicality. It was simple: one created, the other destroyed.
Cazorla’s absence has presented Wenger with a problem, though, because Arsenal don’t really have anyone else like him. Coquelin has been the most-used player in central midfield this season, starting 16 of 23 games, but there isn’t really a natural partner for him.
Aaron Ramsey can charge forward excellently on his day, but doesn’t offer the same control. Granit Xhaka can form a more defensive-minded midfield partnership with Coquelin, but that feels too cautious against weaker sides when Arsenal need more penetration. Meanwhile, Mohamed Elneny is a good all-rounder but his game is more about reliable contributions, rather than the moments of magic Cazorla can provide.
Before he dropped into a deeper role, Ramsey formed an excellent partnership alongside Mikel Arteta, who provided the deep positioning and passing quality, which left Ramsey to focus on energy and forward running.
With Arteta having retired, though, it’s difficult to pinpoint Ramsey’s ideal partner. Xhaka has showed his physical rather than his technical skills this season, while Ramsey has never been paired with Elneny, who has always started alongside either Coquelin or Xhaka, as if he’s extra cover for the defence, rather than someone who can do that job on his own.
Arsenal, therefore, haven’t found the right central midfield balance. There’s been much to admire about the rest of the side: The defence has largely been solid, the attacking players create chances and both Alexis Sanchez and Olivier Giroud have led the line well.
In terms of midfield control, though, Arsenal are rather lacking and this could be a serious problem on Saturday at Premier League leaders Chelsea. Moreover, Wenger has serious selection problems: Elneny is still at the African Nations Cup, while Xhaka remains suspended and Ramsey is a serious doubt having limped off against Watford.
It all means that we will see a combination of Coquelin and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, who impressed in that position during last weekend’s 5-0 FA Cup fourth-round thrashing of under-strength Southampton; playing against Nemanja Matic and N’Golo Kante, however, is another situation entirely.
What Coquelin and Oxlade-Chamberlain must do at Stamford Bridge is remain solid. Chelsea have been so effective this season because they have protected the centre of the pitch and rarely exposed their centre-backs. Coquelin does that naturally, but Oxlade-Chamberlain probably needs to curb his natural attacking instincts and focus upon remaining close to his midfield partner.
The drifts of Eden Hazard into central playmaking positions can be hugely dangerous, but Arsenal must resist the urge to shackle Hector Bellerin. Often their most dynamic and exciting attacker, he needs license to get forward, which means Oxlade-Chamberlain must play a disciplined covering role.
This is a huge chance for Oxlade-Chamberlain to impress. What Arsenal have often lacked over the past decade is that reliable, functional player, who does a job against particularly dangerous opponents in big matches. Think of Manchester United’s Darren Fletcher: never the star, always useful in big games. If Sir Alex Ferguson wanted to nullify a particular player, Fletcher was the man.
For all the discussion about Oxlade-Chamberlain’s best position, perhaps that debate is irrelevant: his best position is wherever Arsenal need him in a particular game. On Saturday, that will be as a right-central midfielder, holding his position and trying to prevent Hazard getting possession easily.
It’s worth remembering that few considered Coquelin a potential first-teamer until he was suddenly thrust into action at Manchester City two years ago, where he turned in an impressive performance in a surprise Arsenal victory.
Oxlade-Chamberlain needs a similar experience this weekend. It won’t solve Arsenal’s long-term midfield balance issue, but a big performance from him in a big game might make Wenger re-consider his options in future.