Arsene Wenger’s decision to use Francis Coquelin in the middle of a three-man defence backfired in Arsenal’s 3-1 loss to Manchester City. Here’s how…
When Arsenal revealed their starting line-up at the Etihad Stadium, the assumption was that Arsene Wenger had switched to a back four. It seemed Francis Coquelin would come into midfield to help combat David Silva and Kevin De Bruyne. And as noted by Jamie Carragher before kick-off, it made sense. “I think you need that extra protection,” he said, “especially with the way Man City play.”
Out on the pitch, however, it soon became clear that Wenger’s intentions were different. Despite Per Mertesacker being unavailable with an illness and Mohamed Elneny – the most obvious available deputy – being left on the bench, the back three remained. In an entirely unfamiliar position and on his first Premier League start since May, Coquelin was the man charged with holding it all together.
Arsene Wenger says referee Michael Oliver got two crucial decisions wrong in Arsenal’s 3-1 defeat to Manchester City
It was an unenviable task against a rampant Manchester City side who had racked up 49 goals in their previous 16 games. It was on this ground that Coquelin produced one of his best performances for Arsenal as they won 2-0 in January 2015, but three years on the circumstances were very different.
The Frenchman came into the game after a largely unconvincing display in Arsenal’s goalless draw with Red Star Belgrade in the Europa League, and even at the best of times he is known as a midfield destroyer – not the kind of cool-headed passer required at the heart of a back three in a team designed to build from the back.
It did not take long for the warning signs to appear. Manchester City pressed Arsenal’s makeshift defence high up the pitch and Coquelin’s distribution suffered. In the 11th minute, a risky pass to Mesut Ozil was intercepted in the centre circle. From the resulting break, Raheem Sterling was inches away from converting Leroy Sane’s low cross.
As more panicked passes from the back failed to find their targets, Arsenal were unable to gain a foothold in the game and their outnumbered midfielders were overrun. In possession, the uncertainty transmitted to the rest of the team, with Aaron Ramsey, Granit Xhaka and Alexis Sanchez all guilty of losing possession cheaply in the space of five first-half minutes before the break.
City pounced on every error and could easily have been out of sight by half-time. “Arsenal cannot compete with the pressure this Man City side are putting on them and every time City win the ball back, they look like they’re going to score,” said Carragher. “They are losing the ball more often than not and the waves are coming,” added Thierry Henry.
The statistics highlighted the big issue. While City’s centre-backs John Stones and Nicolas Otamendi completed 136 of 145 passes between them, Coquelin’s 65.2 per cent accuracy rate was the lowest of any player who started the game. For context, Mertesacker completed 95 per cent of his passes in the same position against Swansea last weekend.
City deserve credit for the ferocious pressing which made life so difficult for Coquelin, but it was difficult to escape the conclusion that another player might have coped better on the ball. Nacho Monreal and Laurent Koscielny were far from perfect in a defensive sense, but they still managed to complete 86 and 88 per cent of their passes respectively.
Wenger ended the Coquelin experiment shortly after Sergio Aguero had doubled City’s lead, replacing him with Alexandre Lacazette in the 56th minute. The Arsenal boss suggested injuries had forced his hand after the game, but their immediate improvement after switching to a back four made the decision all the more curious.
Lacazette, the £49m striker brought to Arsenal to help bridge the gap to the Premier League’s top sides, pulled a goal back just nine minutes after his introduction, and Arsenal were pushing for an equaliser before Silva combined with Gabriel Jesus for City’s controversial third.
In the end the damage proved too great. Arsenal’s fourth defeat of the season leaves them 12 points off the top in sixth place, and they have now not won a Premier League away game in 15 trips to top-six rivals since that January evening in 2015. This time, Coquelin’s role was rather different.