On Midfielders and Defending: Gaps Need To Be Filled

Any cod psychologists can leave the room or may well want to. Social media was awash with claims and counter-claims over Mesut Özil’s absence, fuelling and fuelled by stories in today’s press about how the German spent an hour in the changing room after the game so can’t be that ill. I paraphrase, but you get the gist.

Whatever the cause of his illness – genuine, genuine and serious, or completely made up – I doubt we will ever know. If he comes back at Cardiff stronger and more focused, so much the better. If Unai Emery chooses to leave him on the bench, so be it. So long as we win, does it matter?

You can argue, yes, we’re not getting value for money from his salary. This is true and at the moment, we aren’t getting value for money. There’s a touch of the ‘judge me in May’ about the scenario though. The arrival of Unai Emery wiped the slate clean-ish. Some players lost, e.g. David Ospina, others would have lost had injury not interfered, i.e. Carl Jenkinson; there was never a completely new start for those deemed not good enough for Arsenal.

For the remainder of the squad, however, surely we give them a clean slate while Unai Emery makes the changes he wants to the style of play? Surely there is an adaptation period? No, not entirely, it seems. I’m well aware, before you point it out, that the point I’m making should apply to Shkodran Mustafi. It should, shouldn’t it?

Well, he and Hector Bellerin are getting cut no slack – and I know we all contribute to that, including me in the case of the former – but as ever the case against is not as clear-cut as it seems.

Mind The Gap

The team is very much a work in progress, both in terms of match sharpness and tactically. Players are adapting to the new style and there is a lot of work to do. Until the team is fully functioning, can we say any of the squad are ready to be cast out? Not those in the matchday squad, that’s for certain, nor the younger players.

Defence is even tougher. It’s been a rough ride for the back four so far. In part, they are architects of their own downfall but not the key factor why we are struggling at the moment. The midfield is a bigger issue. You only have to look at this snapshot to see the space West Ham enjoyed at the weekend:

Using the full-backs to support the attack, providing width works and is proving productive. However, if the midfield pushes, cavernous gaps are left in the centre of the park. While holding a high defensive line compresses the game, the tactic falls down without four defenders across the line and if there is a huge gap in front of them.

We are guily of both failings.

It’s lack of positional discipline leaves us vulnerable to the counter-attack. I know the players are adapting to a new style and you hope with time that these weaknesses will improve. I suspect that gap in front of the back four will diminish with a true defensive midfielder on the pitch. Lucas Torreira’s inclusion in the starting line-up is surely imminent?

That protection should imbue some confidence in the central defenders. As they adapt to each other, Sokratis and Mustafi will grow as a pairing. A better understanding when to drop deep and how to cover each other’s shortcomings will lead to a tangible improvement in their performances.

Wings of Speed

And just as centre of the defence will benefit from cover, so too will the full-backs. It’s madness to have Hector Bellerin the furthest forward player and not cover that adventure, as well as having Nacho Monreal joining the attack on the other flank. In those situations, surely the wide midfielder or two holding midfielders are vital to counter the counter on the wings?

No wonder Bellerin is getting flak when he’s bolted upfield and then expected to sprint back to act as a full-back. In those scenarios, midfielders should be covering. Thinking back to the fabled back four, if one full-back attacked the other shifted infield so we moved to a back three. I know Emery wants us to attack with a 2 – 2 – 2 – 4, but to not have the players covering full-back is suicidal.

With time, that will surely come but to see the same mistakes in every game is concerning. The question is, how long will it take?

’til Tomorrow.

35 thoughts on “On Midfielders and Defending: Gaps Need To Be Filled

  1. Great post YW,and thanks, this is my favourite Arsenal blog.I too think(hope) the defence will get better,and tightening up Midfield will surely help.By the way,what’s happened to Mavrapanos? I had high hopes for him.On to Cardiff,a strong ref needed for that one.

  2. I’m still not convinced about the alleged shortcomings of Ozil.
    Does the trouble actually stem from the inability of the players around him, to take advantage of his ability to think ahead of play? 😉

  3. Arsenal fans are hilarious 😂 And I’ve followed the team since the mid 70s. You just know if we had lost on Saturday the Internet would be in meltdown. We won and very little traffic, even on the best Arsenal blog!

  4. Excellent stuff Yogi.

    I do think Bellerin catches more flack than is deserved. Your spot on when you talk about him pushing forward and no-one to cover him. When he pushes forward and gets to the byline, then the midfielder is suppose to cover, problem Bellerin us facing is that often times that midfielder or CB is Xhaka and Mustafi(who often times gets sucked in way to easily but he will learn). I always hear about Nacho bossing his flank and being able to do it all but people forget that he also had Kos able to cover that space and thus far this season Guendouzi.

    I actually think Torriera/Guendouzi would be able to not only cover for the FB’s but also the midfield.

    Bellerin will continue to develop as he is still only 23 years old and has never actually been coached up defensively.

  5. nicky:
    I’m still not convinced about the alleged shortcomings of Ozil.

    Ramsey has been more often sidelined by so called “injuries”. Is it a problem? No.

  6. C,

    I agree and put much more emphasis on Mkh not covering and the need for Torreira who will do more covering than either Xhaka or Guendouzi. Belkerin’s attacking play has been responsible for a huge part of our attack. If he is effective, great, but we need to solve the defensive cover. He isn’t a great defender either so he needs to improve for the occasions when he can’t get free in the attacking third but will need to defend deeper.

  7. Responding to Jabberwocky from yesterday:

    Some good thoughts; I enjoyed your post. I do hope we will see more balanced and tactical flexibility once the main framework or approach is established. However, will that get us into the top 4? If nothing really will, fine—let’s take our time and accept a full year of transition. But I think we have a chance to get 4th competing with Spurs, MU, Chelsea for the last 2 spots—an outside chance—if we approached it the right way: defend better and counter with two clinical finishers at pace. Maybe that is too optimistic.

  8. YW, a very good tactical analysis of our situation on the flanks. One point I’ve noted some commentators making about Pep’s high press success compared to our openness to counterattack are the quick fouls to disrupt the counter. If the press diesn’t Retrieve the ball and it starts moving into midfield with players out of defensive position, a quick and harmless foul (ie not a Xhaka flail at a player from behind but a more innocuous looking nibble, push etc…) works to protect the high line of defenders.

    We need to learn these darkish arts. The Wenger era of bright idealistic light should be over.

  9. Fine piece. You are quite the telepathic YW.
    Our CBs are in a footrace to the box on every wayward pass or unforgiving deflection. In no way, shape, or form– should those two be reliant on a plodder like Xhaka to stem a counterattack.

    Must be Torreira. I’m certain Emery agrees. How could he not?

    Presently, there’s been one good half of play from Xhaka. Not-so-coincidentally, alongside Torreira. As it appears that Arsenal are a right-flank attacking team for now (Mkhi and Hector generating almost all goals/assists)– where Guendouzi can provide much of the range of Granit (and way better dribbling!)? Give the CBs a dedicated coverman on the counter. Someone who can actually get into position to break up play– as opposed to fouling or taking a card as their best option.

    Stop with the mindreading please! 😉


  10. Phew, not the best win but a win, i agree. Not going to lie, i thought danny was cool as a cucumber there with the finisher. He could have pooped his pants & first time blasted it thru the roof. However he knew he had time, kept composure, did a little twirl and slotted it home with his left. brilliant finish!

    I’m still not convinced about the alleged shortcomings of Ozil.
    Does the troubleactually stem from the inability of the players around him, to take advantage of his ability to think ahead of play?

    I think you might have a point , we think how we have not had a true ace in front of ozil, like an RvP type or something. However, think about the german squad that just flopped out of the world cup? They have ‘world beaters’ at every position. I think if Ozil is the center of attention you can just mark him out of the game. If we have a few threats, and the opposition DM has to focus on multiple creators then Ozil can do more damage. From all we have seen Ozil is not the one to ‘carry team on his back’ if you ask me. He can exploit weakness like no other and is a neat player but asking him to shoulder the burden of leading a team, scoring/assisting crucial goals, providing the ‘spark’… Not sure he is that guy

  11. At the end of the day, Emery is responsible if things go south!

    Bellerin’s new found role should be occupied by a winger. Mhkitaryan is not going to be that person, and we need a solution on the right. It’s as simple as that.

    We cannot have our fullbacks bombing forward without help. Guess what? now teams who have watched us play and they would sit defensively on the left and wait for us to leave the space in behind for them to exploit. So a solution needs to be found now.

    Welbeck needs to start on the right to give us that defensive solidity. 4-3-3 and we can then rest easy, we need to forget about the 4-2-3-1.


    Let Lacazette lead the press with Aubameyang, Welbeck and Guendouzi involved also.
    This should be our best 11 with a little changes such as Ramsey for Guendouzi, Mhkitaryan for Welbeck and Ozil for Xhaka.

  12. There was something in the paper not long ago, LSG, that Guardiola’s philosophy is if they haven’t recovered the ball in five seconds, the rotational fouling begins. We need that kind of savvy to make the high press work.

  13. Great post Yogi

    Based on what we have seen during the last 2 years and what we have seen so far I don’t think our players are really suited to play a high pressing style. A manager can make the team play as more then the sum of its parts but he can’t change who a player is and he does not really make a player better. I understand the idea of preaching patience and sticking with our tactical style but if we miss the top 4 again this season then it will be 3 years in a row and the longer we go without CL football the less we seem like a real “big team” and players like PEA, Ozil, MKH are not getting younger so there is some urgency to at least getting back into the top 4. Realistically our squad is probably 5th or 6th best and we can’t climb back into the top 4 if we don’t make some tactical adaptations. If we wait to long and give up to many points then any chance we have of finishing in the top 4 is gone

  14. Interesting notes on the ‘rotational fouling’… I agree the squeaky clean family friendly Wenger era is gone, lets get some grit and fight back in the game. We complained about rotational fouling ‘interrupting’ our play for years. Now is the time to switch things around and start bossing the other teams. Get a little physicality back into our play!

    Also the hector situation is interesting this year… If he is able to continually affect games with his attack, we should abuse that but figure out how to balance the team more around hector bombing forward.

  15. I think the idea that Ozil is so good that our players just can’t take advantage of his brilliance is utter and complete rubbish. However, even if it is true these are the players we have so what is the point of him being in the starting line up until we can get better players and that is going to take a couple years.

  16. LSG,

    If I wasn’t clear, then yes sir, I do agree– that Granit played better in the second half. When provided space, Xhaka is fine as he showed in Russia.

    With Torreira of the first names on the team sheet– making it either/or Guendouzi or Xhaka. What I’d prefer? Is Guendouzi’s similar-to-Xhaka’s passing range, and ability, when necessary, to dribble out of danger. In this season of retooling, I’d rather give Guendouzi the experience in minutes. Matteo’s upside is much higher than Xhaka’s ceiling IMHO.


  17. LSG,

    Yup, I think getting Mhkitaryan to track even just a little more I think will help but Torriera will as well. Outside of that Alonso goal(yup Torriera switched off), if you watch him, he is generally the one that covers for Bellerin when he is in the team, Xhaka, for what he can do, simply doesn’t seem suited currently to do that. The thing were I think Bellerin will develop is that if we are all ij agreement that Arsene didn’t do the defenaive side which means Bellerin didn’t learn positionally, then we must allow for that part to grow under Emery and honestly judge him in May. Your spot on though, Bill kills Bellerin for attacking and nothing coming of it but by far his overlapping runs have created chances, think about the Chelsea match, he should have had 2 more assists if either Mhkitaryan or Iwobi finishes those chances and even against Citeh and West Ham, his final ball has been crucial.

    A mate of mind compared Bellerin to Kyle Walker in the sense that they were both known for their pace, quickness and being better attackers than defenders and now Kyle Walker is a much better all around RB under the Pep who has demanded he defend and be good at it and is much better attacking wise. He then noted that you already the difference in Bellerin’s decision making and final ball, and Emery has a history of teaching FB’s how to defend and he, like I, think we could see a much different and better Bellerin come June especially when you consider that he just turned 23 this year.

  18. When you play against teams that have more talent then you the best way to get results is to play a defense first then counter attack strategy. We have to be willing to accept reality and the only realistic way for any squad not named Liverpool to compete with Man City is to use that strategy. By trying to play our game and play football with City we clearly decreased our chances of getting a result and that mode of thinking has never made sense to me. The idea to give yourself the best chance to get results in each game and ultimately to collect as many points as possible and hopefully finish in 4th place.

  19. LSG,

    Your spot on about the fouls, I commented during the match that instead of Ramsey taking one for the team, he tried to run with Felipe Anderson and it left them with a 4v2 and while they didn’t score, if Ramsey takes one for the team then he stops their counter.

  20. How about this for a staring 11. We haven’t gone any natural wingers so why not play a diamond?
    hector Mustafi. Sokratis Monreal.
    Ramsey. torreira
    Lacazette. Aubameyang.

  21. If you only count the number of games where Ozil is actually productive then his wages are close to £1m a week.

    That was his 7th absence from sickness in about a year and a half apparently which is worrying from his health perspective and also from ours as we gave him this stupid contract. He doesn’t turn up in about a third of games and is injured or sick for another third.

    The contract extension was a mistake; letting him go for free would have been better. Now Ramsey is holding out for more money and is using Ozil’s contract as leverage. I don’t blame Ramsey at all, I blame the fools that authorised the new deal for Ozil. It smacks of panic and desperation.

    Did we miss Ozil yesterday…

  22. C,

    That run in particular was completely maddening. Just let him run the whole pitch without putting a foot in. Some might call it “the dark arts” but I think what we need *first* is just more professionalism. Stopping a counter like that is a professional move. Hell even rotational fouling on a single player (I.E. hacking willian to shreds) is fine within my books as long as you arent breaking bones.

    Let those beefy bastards like Marko Arnautovic know that you can play tough as well instead of letting him wreak havoc on the defense. That guy has single handled shown up our midfield and defense for years now starting in the Stoke era. Good on him honestly, he (like other quality strikers) sense blood when they play against us. If i was an opposing coach i would show them tape of our defense getting scorched by long balls. Start with mustafi/aguero in the cup final last year haha.

    Now the trick is to let bellerin sprint upfield and then hoof it over towards the gaping hole near Mustafi and Sokratis. If the opposition punted the ball 100 times, i would wager they break our lines at least 10 and score 1 or 2 goals.

  23. Thrillbo,

    Yup, let him tun litetally from box to box when he had a perfect chance to take one for the team, have to admit I chuckled a bit when Ramsey thought he would actually match Felipe for pace. Its intereating yhat Sokaritis has taken a couple like that and yet nobody else would.

    I agree, nothing wrong with a professional foul if the team needs one. I honestly wish Xhaka could learn yo control his aggression and not either go with or without it because he certainly could give us that.

  24. Alex Ice Cream,

    It is interesting that Ramsey isn’t catching nearly the flack for wanting big money, sell him now and have the 30m ready for a defender or winger in the winter?

    Just think mate, we could be United who are paying Sanchez 500k/wk and he hasn’t started a match, was bang average for them last season and barely participated for United in preseason for personal reasons.

  25. 3 0 to Spurs. Mourinho home by a Christmas?

    I thought Spurs would struggle at the start of the season given so many of their players were back late from the World Cup but as much as it pains me to say they have started very well. Worryingly well.

  26. C
    My views on Ramsey have not changed – sell and reinvest in a CB. We could have gotten much more for him 2 years ago but then Mad Arsene would have wasted the money on shite.

    Even if Ramsey wants 200k a week, that’s still £40m over a 4 year contract for an injury-prone 27 yr old who has had 2 good seasons in 11. Ramsey doesn’t have the tactical and positional discipline to play Emery’s pressing game and his goals have really dried up.

    Sell and get what you can. Can reinvest 200-250k a week wages also.

  27. Alex Ice Cream:
    My views on Ramsey have not changed – sell and reinvest in a CB. We could have gotten much more for him 2 years ago but then Mad Arsene would have wasted the money on shite.

    Even if Ramsey wants 200k a week, that’s still £40m over a 4 year contract for an injury-prone 27 yr old who has had 2 good seasons in 11. Ramsey doesn’t have the tactical and positional discipline to play Emery’s pressing game and his goals have really dried up.

    Sell and get what you can. Can reinvest 200-250k a week wages also.

    Have some respect, calling our most successful manager mad is not courteous.

  28. Adam Singh:
    3 0 to Spurs. Mourinho home by a Christmas?

    I thought Spurs would struggle at the start of the season given so many of their players were back late from the World Cup but as much as it pains me to say they have started very well.Worryingly well.

    World Cup hangover is not something that happens to most teams not named Arsenal. Arsene rightfully gets most of the blame but the players have to take some of the responsibility for what happened to us in 2014.

  29. “Rotational fouling”, two of the most disgusting words in professional football.
    Think of Diaby et al. 😉

  30. G’day,

    Only saw the highlights on Arsenal.com due to bank holiday weekend commitments, but even from those snippets of play its clear to see our defence is going to ship loads if we carry on like this. I appreciate that the team are adapting to new tactics and players, but shouldn’t that mean that we bring changes through at a pace that doesn’t leave us vulnerable at the back? Put on a midfielder who will cover the full backs. Don’t play your CBs so far apart, or so far up the field. The PL is not the place to do your experimenting. I want to see Emery’s plans come to fruition, but we are going to offer every team we play against a free shot at goal at least half a dozen times a game at this rate. By the time the players have an understanding on the pitch we could be 12 points off the top 4 (or a lot more). Maybe some of the teams at the top of the table don’t go the distance, but some of them could be in the mix for Europa League spots and we are giving them too much of a head start.

    Positives from the highlights were that Bellerin has been taking crossing lessons, as he was putting in some decent deliveries, and Ramsey had a pretty good second half.

    PEA badly needs a goal to kick start his season.

  31. I agree with Wavey on this point, the PL is not the right place to experiment with tactics especially with our CB’s. However the situation is far from ideal and a good number of persons would not mind if Mustafi never wore an Arsenal shirt again, but it is what is and we just have to watch the mistakes happen.

Comments are closed.