New look Arsenal: where now for Wilshere, Ozil and Arteta?
If Coquelin and Cazorla are the future, Arsene Wenger must decide how to handle his big names
Arsenal's impressive win over Man City on Sunday has generated plenty of debate after the Gunners new-look midfield managed to stifle the efforts of the champions.
With youngster Francis Coquelin in the holding role and Santi Cazorla excelling in the centre of the field, has Arsene Wenger finally stumbled upon a formation that works and what does it mean for those who were on the bench or injured at the weekend?
The breakout star of Sunday's clash was defensive midfielder Coquelin, who took David Silva out of the game and provided much-needed protection for the back four.
The 23-year-old made his Arsenal debut in the infamous 8-2 demolition by Manchester United in 2011 and had just 12 league starts to his name for the Gunners prior to Sunday. He spent last season on loan with Freiberg in Germany, where he made little impact, and he was out on loan again at Charlton and apparently on his way out of the Emirates in December. "Few, then, would have predicted that Coquelin would start 2015 being hailed as Gilberto Silva's heir apparent, the solution to Arsenal's seemingly perennial need for a defensive midfielder," says Rory Smith in The Times.
But injuries saw him recalled to the Emirates and he has started the last four Arsenal games. "The turnaround in Coquelin’s fortunes, then, is as unexpected as it is unlikely. That it has happened says much, of course, for his own virtues: his dedication, perseverance, a refusal to be written off, his development as a player," says Smith. But is also speaks volumes about Arsenal's problems. "That a player of such limited experience has made such a difference, though, exposes just how yawning Arsenal's need in that position had become."
The diminutive Spaniard had the game of his life against City. He scored a penalty, provided the assist for Olivier Giroud's goal and pulled the strings in midfield. But he, like Coquelin, found himself in the limelight more by accident than design.
Injuries to Mikel Arteta, Jack Wilshere, Aaron Ramsey and Mesut Ozil promoted Coquelin's recall from Charlton and also necessisitated Cazorla's move into the middle of the fuield. "A new central midfield order has been established," says Jeremy Wilson of the Daily Telegraph.
James Olley of the Evening Standard agrees. "Cazorla utterly excelled in a central midfield role many thought him unsuitable for when Wenger first tried it," he writes. "The Spaniard’s close control and intelligence in tight areas enabled Arsenal to release the pressure on their back four, never allowing City to generate a head of steam. A goal and assist was just reward for his ball retention and clever distribution."
Perhaps the luckiest of the three, as he is currently the man in possession of the third and final spot in the centre of the 4-1-4-1 formation. "As recently as a few weeks ago, the notion that a central midfield trio of Coquelin, Santi Cazorla and Aaron Ramsey would nullify City's powerful engine room to inflict their first Premier League defeat since October sounded preposterous," writes Olley. But he notes that Ramsey has been shown "limitless faith" by Wenger.
The England midfielder is on the comeback trail after injury but could be the man most at risk from the new look midfield. "Arsenal have won 10 of 13 games since Wilshere’s injury," note Jeremy Wilson of the Telegraph.
Wilshere has yet to recapture the form of his 2010/11 breakthrough season and he has been blighted by injury. "There is now a sense that he can sometimes be too slow to release the ball and consequently almost too willing – and brave – to invite the sort of challenges that do his ankles no good," says Wilson. "For a player given licence to break forward, there have also not been enough goals or assists."
There is time for 23-year-old Wilshere, but Cazorla is now the man in possession and he must wait. "If Arsenal really are to make this the springboard for their re-emergence as serious contenders, this central midfield foundation cannot be compromised."
If the game against City was a "landmark" it could also spell bad news for Ozil. The backs to the wall display "hardly stood out as an Ozil-flavoured occasion and perhaps is the real point when it comes to where the trajectory of the current team leaves Arsenal's record signing," says Barney Ronay of The Guardian.
If Arsenal stick with 4-1-4-1 "it is hard to see how Ozil would actually fit into Arsenal's best XI", he argues. "In this formation Ozil is neither a serious prospect as a central midfielder nor the best option as a wide player."
There is no room for Ozil's "personal crow's nest" in the new look formation, particularly now Arsenal have the industry of Alexis Sanchez to rely on. How Wenger handles Ozil's reintegration into the team will say much about Arsenal's future approach, Ronay believes.
Abou Diaby, Mathieu Flamini, Mikel Arteta
Surely Diaby's career at Arsenal is reaching a conclusion after 25 games in the last three-and-a-half seasons, and only two in the last 18 months. Flamini's return to the Emirates in 2013 was a pragmatic step, but he too could be surplus to requirements, while 32-year-old Arteta is nearing the end of his contract.
The emergence of Coquelin and Wenger's pursuit of another holding midfielder, Morgan Schneiderlin, leaves at least two of them heading for the exit, says the Daily Mail. "Abou Diaby is set to leave when his contract expires in the summer, while the fact that Coquelin has now overtaken Mathieu Flamini in the midfield pecking order has placed doubts over his future at the club," says the paper.