Entering a pretty comfortable run of games, Arsenal couldn’t avoid the eternal deterrent of injuries. Coquelin had side-stepped and hopped over the threat of injury for so long and has been ruled out for three months. Now Wenger’s decision to not reinforce his defensive midfield options will finally be put to the test over a sustained and crucial schedule.
Wenger has options to shuffle his side around and compensate for the loss of Coquelin, with the possibility of Ramsey playing in the centre and starting Campbell or Oxlade-Chamberlain wide. But the Frenchman prefers Ramsey on the right because it gives the side better balance in the centre and when defending. Cazorla playing wide is a thing of the past and so he has to be partnered with somebody who will shield him and allow him to run the game.
Flamini is their only option currently and has been brought into the team for that specifically. But he’s expected to fill the role that Coquelin vacated. The former Charlton-loanee has improved dramatically on his game with the ball, not being just being an intermediary in the build-up. His first-time passes between waves of pressure turn defence into attack quickly, in a team of dribblers he’s learned to hold his own and advance play when he’s in possession.
This Arsenal team have grown accustomed to Coquelin charging forward, getting involved higher up the pitch and providing an extra body. Despite this culture of reliance on each player, Flamini cannot be brought in expected to directly replace Coquelin and that was quite evident yesterday.
Flamini was, on several occasions, neglected as a passing option. Team-mates would see him in space and avoid him, playing riskier passes or unnecessarily spreading it wide. Based on the Frenchman’s positioning with Arsenal on the ball, it doesn’t seem to have been a tactical decision by Wenger because Flamini occupied areas that are essential during formation of attacks. Ruling that out means that his team-mates simply couldn’t trust him.
As a defensive midfielder in that Arsenal side you are going to be heavily involved in the game regardless of what your function is. Flamini attempted 64 passes with the rest trying to negate his influence. Not using that central area as the nucleus of attacking movement will slow everything down and complicate moves in a team that’s recently been more chaos than calm.
Arsenal’s best spell in the game ironically began with Flamini doing what he knows and winning possession by the halfway line. Arsenal were high up in Norwich’s half and had all their men, from Cazorla forward stringing incisive passing moves to create some of their best chances. All the while Flamini was an onlooker.
Laurent Koscielny was taken off injured early in yesterday’s game, being replaced by Gabriel. That had a knock-on effect on Arsenal’s passing game too. Koscielny has taken on more responsibility with the ball and his distribution starts moves and releases pressure well. As the game wore on, Cazorla had to play deeper, because there was nobody else in defence or midfield to help him out. That meant Flamini was free to wander forward and found himself in useful positions. When he played a pass from those areas it was quick and simple.
The good news is that Koscielny will be back this weekend according to his manager and that should mitigate Arsenal’s problem in the middle. But if Flamini really is going to deputise for three months then he’s going to need to be more trusted and involved.