Just like last summer, and the summer before, and the summer before and, well, every summer since 2008, Arsenal need to buy a defensive midfielder. This is the first time since 2008 where a first choice option has been of the essence more than the possibility of scraping by with another depth signing, mostly because their current first choice is on the decline – though not to the extent that many would have you believe.
Mikel Arteta came in for a lot of undue criticism following the respective implosions at Anfield and Stamford Bridge. The loss at Liverpool was not down to Arteta as he was abandoned throughout, and it was a similar story against Chelsea as Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain was, for some reason, playing 15 yards further up the pitch than usual with all the awareness of a goat on amphetamines, while the full backs were again suicidally high up the pitch. It left Arteta trying to cover two positions every time Chelsea countered. He’s 32 now and was never famed for his pace or ability to cover ground. Slow or immobile players exist in most teams at every level, but as long as they have the intelligence and positioning not to get caught out for that lack of speed, it isn’t an issue. The key is to not actively give those slower players more distance to cover, as Arsenal did for the aforementioned game.
As @northbanklower recently said on the ArseAmerica Podcast, Arteta’s ageing legs are not an issue next to Aaron Ramsey because he is the ideal box-to-box midfielder and in terms of helping our No.8, he has the kind of engine the American Motor Industry wishes it could still produce and, although this often goes unnoticed, is fantastic on the defensive side of things. But it’s a far from ideal state of affairs when your first choice defensive midfielder only really works next to one box-to-box option, while his backup is so technically inadequate that with him there and Ramsey not, Arsenal surrender much of their technical superiority over most teams.
NB: I won’t get into the claims that Mathieu Flamini is either a superior footballer or option for this Arsenal because they are, simply put, too stupid to countenance.
Arteta has been fantastic since signing in 2011. He has been key in transforming us into a high quality defensive unit (most of the time) and has been a major stabilising influence to a team and club that was almost setting itself on fire when he arrived. His passing can be over-cautious, which is frustrating, but he allows Arsenal to control games both with and without the ball. His relatively small height and stature have been little issue, and short of not picking out a few longer passes to runners (when there actually are any in the side), there really is very little for which he can be faulted beyond the aforementioned immobility issues.
Finding a defensive midfielder who gives as much as Arteta does, only with the added legs, is an extremely difficult ask. Most defensive midfielders are thrown into the role because they are units that can both run and tackle, with emphasis on technical skill being fairly minimal. In the last few years, mostly since the rise of Sergio Busquets, more technically adept defensive midfielders who take on a more distribution-heavy role have become more en vogue at the top level, though not an awful lot beneath it because it is so difficult to find or make such players. Javi Martínez and Nemanja Matić are rare examples, both more exception than rule, and both in no way options for Arsenal.
Arsenal pretty much got lucky with Arteta in that sense. Arsène Wenger took a more creative player, made him operate more defensively and harnessed his skill on the ball to make him more ‘complete’ than many he could find. He became integral almost instantly – the luck came in with the fact that so few players like the pre-Arsenal Arteta have his intelligence, ability to read the game and professionalism. Arteta is, above all, the team’s man, and he constantly works to that end. That kind of selflessness, especially in players used to being in more expansive roles, is beyond rare.
But, for all Arteta’s many merits, Arsenal need to move forward. To get an attainable replacement who is actually superior, the likelihood is that they will need to go for another who will undergo the same conversion. The club’s chase for Lars Bender last year and the whispers that they will try again for him (hopefully with more force) speaks to this. Bender himself would be an excellent signing if they can make it happen. He plays further up the pitch for Bayer Leverkusen at the moment and in doing so showcases his ability on the ball and impressive engine. In Leverkusen’s 4-3-3, he sits close to Simon Rolfes who, like Arteta, needs those around him to help with the running a bit, but being highly capable past that.
Despite his forward-going prowess, Bender’s defensive awareness is not to be questioned, and he has played the defensive midfield role for Germany – indeed, there is a good chance that will be his role in the first choice XI for this summer’s World Cup. The remit for the new man is the same as it was last summer: someone who can play both instead of, and with Arteta (which would enable resting Ramsey a bit more, too), and Bender fits that perfectly. One more thing Bender offers is height – this has not been a real problem in defending for many years and Arteta’s own ability to win headers remains surprising given his frame, but having one more option at attacking set pieces could prove extremely useful in tighter games.
However, with all that in mind, Bender would be expensive, and Leverkusen will not exactly be keen on the idea of letting him leave. Should he prove unattainable, my favoured alternative is Morgan Schneiderlin. Like Bender he is more of a No.8 than No.6 in his current role, but is extremely defensively adept and talented on the ball, while fitting into the ‘with or instead of Arteta’ requirement. Both would need a sort of taming process, but given the aptitude both have shown in the defensive areas of their games and when deployed in more defensive positions, it is far from unreasonable to suggest that neither would struggle with such a transition.
It should be said, at this point, that Sami Khedira does not really fit into that mould. He is not an especially defensive player and he lacks discipline, but it is not beyond the realms of possibility that Arsenal could make a move for him this summer. Coming from missing most of the season thanks to his anterior cruciate ligament injury, his stock and hence price will be somewhat lower, Real Madrid have a lot of central midfielders and he is said to be a great dressing room influence. While he would not be a bad signing at all, if he does come in, an actual defensive midfielder would have to as well. He would be a solution to a more minor problem, which is the lack of proper cover for Ramsey. (That being said, there has not been an awful lot to suggest Madrid are planning to sell, and if anyone knows how to make use of a high energy central midfielder who loves tackling while being able, if not exceptional, on the ball, it’s Carlo Ancelotti).
One other option to both of them would be Ajax’s Daley Blind. His game is better described here by the excellent @BergkampFlick, but in brief summary – he is arguably more technically gifted and intelligent than both of the others, with a Ramsey level engine, but he is far younger and his only experience has been in the Eredivisie and the group stages of the Champions League – and some Europa League games. There is far more risk attached to Blind, especially as a ‘right now’ signing, and it can be argued that he may be in need of another year at Ajax, or at least more time at a lower level before making the leap. He is potentially the highest gain of the three, but far less in the way of a guarantee of success.
As for Arteta, he has one more year remaining on his contract, while Flamini has two. Assuming a defensive midfielder can be signed this summer, my expectation is that Wenger will keep both next year and simply allow their respective contracts to run down. In an ideal world, Arteta would be the one staying the extra year, if either, but that all is probably a matter for another year.
Arteta remains under-appreciated by too many. His contributions on and off the pitch have been transformative for the club, and in one of the most turbulent periods in its history, he was the one more than perhaps any other who put things back together and maintain order. Even if not first choice next season, he will remain valued around the place. Players like the Arteta of the Arsenal years are difficult to find; professionals like him are even more so.
As Arsenal collapses over the years have gone, this one has not even been the most entertaining. Rather than being triggered by a bad result on a major occasion (see: 10/11), nor every good player getting injured in the same game and disaster immediately following (see: 09/10), nor even a brief blip whose effects were just too much to overcome at the season’s end (see: 07/08), it was instead the slowest of deaths. The only surprising thing about it was the extent of a few of the defeats; bar that, it’s just a diluted form of the film we’ve all already seen.
The first great blow came in the FA Cup tie against Spurs. Theo Walcott’s season-ending rupture to his anterior cruciate ligament left Arsenal without their most effective player for stretching opposition teams, making runs behind the opposition line and their main goalscorer. But however damaging it was, Arsenal had Walcott injured for most of the first half of the season and were sitting comfortably atop the table. This had been mostly because Aaron Ramsey had stepped up his goalscoring, and their efficient and effective, but primarily defensive system was more than comfortable to live without the ball and take attacking initiative in phases through games.
At this point, Ramsey had just been ruled out injured for three weeks. An inconvenience, but there were no teams of any great calibre to play until the second week of February, so Arsenal could make do without great issue. The performances would be less convincing and the goalscoring perhaps more scant, but with Mesut Özil and the strong defence, they would be able to get by.
‘Setback’ is a word that should probably come with a trigger warning for Arsenal fans. It’s worse than the end-of-season implosions for alerting the mind to previously buried traumas. There’s always at least one every year. Usually four or five, probably to the same player. This year was Ramsey’s turn. Three weeks became six, which became another three, which became another two. At this point I’m just relieved he’s still alive.
Most of the teams played in January were ones who were unable to exploit the problems Ramsey’s absence had created in deep midfield. Southampton managed to expose them to an impressive degree. As February arrived, Liverpool, of course, flattened them, while Manchester United went a slightly different route: in their bus-parking, they managed to bring to light the total absence of creativity in that area without Ramsey. With that area also being the supply line to the likes of Özil and Santi Cazorla, and with no hope of going for a more ragged and basic direct route without Walcott’s pace and runs, making it work would always be a major struggle against opposition that ranked anything above ‘competent’.
Contrary to popular belief (and a fair amount in the way of recent evidence, admittedly), this side does have far more mental fortitude than any Arsenal side has since Sol Campbell left. It tends to recover fairly swiftly from its losses (including the heavier ones), but a good mentality will only take a side so far. The loss of Özil in Munich was essentially the death knell for the side while it still lacked Ramsey and Walcott. It could still scrape a win or a draw here and there, but with the remaining options and that fixture list, it would have taken something gargantuan to take more than 5 points until their respective returns.
Meanwhile, Laurent Koscielny picked up an injury, meaning Thomas Vermaelen was brought out of the wilderness, though his positioning would suggest he’s still in a more literal wilderness. So four of Arsenal’s five most important and best players were now missing. Absences on that level would hurt any team, but it was especially bad for Arsenal because those players are the best enablers of their style and system and they, in turn, are extremely difficult to find cover for, even more so en masse.
Arsenal cannot turn defence into attack without Ramsey, Walcott and Özil. Özil is talented enough that he managed to keep things going while the oppositions were of that lower standard. Against better sides, he just couldn’t do it alone. Once he was isolated and picked off, they had a far easier task to overwhelm the defenders by breaking swiftly. The attacking players would be cut adrift by lack of supply and whenever the ball did get to them, they would be under mass pressure with no runners ahead of them. The worst affected is Olivier Giroud, who needs players close to him to mask his limitations. And with Vermaelen in place of Koscielny, the more isolated defenders are now all made worse at defending.
This is not to absolve Arsène Wenger entirely of blame at all. His setups in the Liverpool and Chelsea games were abysmal, and he has recently overused certain players, on whom the effects are evident. The most pertinent example of that would be Mikel Arteta, who is not helped by his surroundings at the moment, and even less by the fact that his legs look to have aged 10 years in the last month. Opportunities to rest him have not been particularly plentiful but they have been there, and Le Boss’ lack of assertiveness in those instances has been damaging for the team.
The overuse point can also be stretched to Giroud, especially while Yaya Sanogo has shown such encouraging signs in a few of his home starts. The recent underuse of Serge Gnabry has also stuck in the craw, which lives directly parallel to his overuse of Lukas Podolski – that’s not a fatigue point, it’s more a general one. Podolski offers nothing unless a team has lost their shape or are actively terrible. He shouldn’t start games, especially as his presence takes Cazorla away from the left hand side, where he is most effective.
It’s easy to dig at the depth in the side, given how a few injuries deterred it as much as they did. Though in terms of the replacements that came in, most are more than adequate for top sides (discounting a certain Belgian defender and the defensive midfielder who can’t track a runner but by God, he can point and shout), and as the excellent @_SocoAmaretto said:
Losing one was a struggle, two deeply damaging but all three a total disaster. More could have been done to prevent it going as badly as it has by the manager, but circumstances were more than trying – the lack of attacking prowess can be excused but the inability to find a balance between compensating for that and still maintaining any semblance of defensive solidity is his failing.
When looking at Everton’s fixture list compared to Arsenal’s, the players the latter have returning suggests Champions League football should still be forthcoming again, but with the semi final against Wigan next Saturday, the season can go from potential improvement to the greatest of all capitulations. Regardless of what does happen, there has been great and distinct progress from last season, the only problem being there’s a very real chance there will be nothing to show for that.
The summer needs to be a busy one. A replacement for the departing Łukasz Fabiański will be required and not the easiest find, an improvement on the presumably departing Vermaelen will not be as difficult to find but even more essential; some kind of high-energy defensive midfielder capable of playing the box-to-box role would be the most important addition (covered more in an article next week) and, of course, a striker capable of Giroud’s graft, only with far more ability in the finishing and running-at-any-kind-of-discernible-speed departments. A left winger would not go amiss either, even more so considering Podolski’s likely sale (or shooting from a cannon, broadcasted on Instagram, of course), nor a right back if Bacary Sagna does leave (please don’t go, Bac).
As for the manager, I remain staunchly in favour of a renewal. He has had his role in this season’s falling apart, but this team is not far off at all. This season may not even have been a bridge too far had there been better fortune with Walcott and better management of Özil and Ramsey, but there is no use in discussing either side of that. Even if he does leave, the problems are of the side far more than they of the manager. A new man would have the same things to change. While Arsenal’s trademark post-March title race dissolution happened again, the issues are eminently fixable. And Wenger’s apparent summer priorities of central midfielder and centre forward suggest he very much has a plan to fix them.
The memories of the 2010/11 season are ones most Arsenal fans have collectively made a distinct effort to repress. It was not a season without highs: the win against Barcelona, Arsenal’s last triumph over Manchester United, the emergences of Jack Wilshere and Wojciech Szczesny and… that’s probably about it. One that was buried far too quickly, mostly by Szczesny’s excellent start and its being placed in the earlier part of the season, was the transformation of Łukasz Fabiański.
The events that defined Fabiański’s first three seasons (more specifically his second and third) at Arsenal gave little hope that such a change was even possible. He arrived as third choice to an ageing Jens Lehmann and a questionable Manuel Almunia, mostly restricting him to games near-solely in the League Cup. They were impressive, in the main, without giving cause for outrageous expectations. Lehmann’s departure in the summer of 2008 pushed him up to second choice, with the long-term expectation that he would take Almunia’s place soon enough. Most of the season progressed as his first had: strong performances in cup games, nothing to inspire great adulation nor concern.
Almunia’s injury in April that year gave Fabiański the chance to push him (who, being fair, had played very well most of the season) and show he was ready to become first choice in the near future. It started as well as could be expected, until the FA Cup semi final against Chelsea. A simple Frank Lampard long ball over the top of the defence in the 84th minute proved far too difficult for the central defensive pairing of Kolo Touré and Mikaël Silvestre to deal with, leaving Dider Drogba essentially one-one-one with Fabiański around 25 yards from goal. He had to come off his line and do something. Only what he did was run out of his box and straight at Drogba, leaving the Ivorian an easy chance to round him and score the winner. A mistake of inexperience above all else, but a deeply costly one.
The rest of the season passed with a clearly shaken and indeed shaky Fabiański – though to hold him culpable for the defence’s incredible ineptitude in the 4-4 at Anfield would be too harsh. He had certainly failed his first audition. Then, the less said about his 09/10, the better. The ‘cross-shot’ and back pass incidents against Porto and the disastrous late losses to Wigan and Blackburn are still seared into the memory. After such a couple of years, anyone could be forgiven for a lack of faith in him.
During Euro 2012, Arsène Wenger made a comment that has defined Fabiański better than any other. “Fabiański could become the best goalkeeper in the Premier League, even better than Wojciech Szczęsny. He has incredible skills and dynamics. His problem is psychological – he relives his every mistake or moment not playing. I was hoping that the Euro 2012 Championships might help him; his injury is a great misfortune.” Fabiański’s displays after the 2009 semi final and throughout 09/10 were indicative of a player who struggles to overcome his errors.
Yet around nine months on, in March 2013, Wenger spoke of a “complete mental transformation in Łukasz’s attitude”, adding “he is more vocal, has more authority and mentally he absorbs the pressure of the game much better”. Now nearing 29, the time it has taken him to ‘adjust’ and grow mentally will probably be what holds him back from being the goalkeeper his talent dictates he should have been.
In the autumn of 2010, another injury to Almunia (or ‘injury’, after the notorious game against West Brom that season. No, not that one, the first one) gave him a brand new opportunity. He had again not impressed in the League Cup winner over Spurs, but the most significant moment came in his next game; the Champions League group game away at FK Partizan. He had been unable to save striker Cléo’s first penalty but at 3-1, the home side had been awarded another with around 10 minutes left – against an Arsenal whose defensive ability was rightly widely questioned.
His save, and an even better one he made a few minutes later, were made far more than just two-goal-lead-protecting stops by his reactions to them. Fabiański himself seemed changed afterwards. Though Arsenal’s results over the following couple of months were mixed, Fabiański’s performances – with the one exception of his mistake in the 0-1 home loss to Newcastle – were finally creating a belief that he could well be Arsenal’s number one goalkeeper.
His individual showings in the wins against Manchester City and especially Everton and Wolves (all away) were outstanding. Crucially, the latter pair followed immediately after his blunder against Newcastle. He was visibly gaining a fortitude that few could have expected. The previous summer had been spent looking for a new first choice goalkeeper, but Fabiański had now made the role his. That was until he picked up a season ending shoulder injury in the warm-up for the home FA Cup tie against Leeds United. Just when it was all coming together for him.
Szczęsny himself was mostly excellent when taking over, and from then on, the number one position was his. For Fabiański, the 11/12 season was a non-event. Szczęsny played every league and Champions League game bar one – the dead rubber 1-3 loss to Olympiacos, which lasted only 25 minutes for Fabiański after he was injured by Thomas Vermaelen. His FA and League Cup games were consummate; no mistakes to mention, nor any heroics.
He missed Euro 2012 through injury, before (presumably) picking up another whose details remain most unclear in pre-season, dictating that he wouldn’t feature in the first XI nor the bench until he was drafted in to replace Szczesny for the second leg, away at Bayern Munich. Immediately, he was back to his 10/11 self, putting together five strong performances – so much so that many, myself included, believed he would start this season as No.1 – before again having his season prematurely ended. This time by a broken rib, caused by a gratuitous kick by part-time Roscoe Arbuckle impersonator Grant Holt.
Arsenal’s progress and higher level of opposition in the FA Cup this year have given Fabiański some more exposure in the final year of his contract. The fears about him are based on mistakes from almost four years ago, and that mental strength he developed in 10/11 is still distinctly present now. It shows itself best not just in the fact that he plays well, but that he does so despite playing so little. He does not panic under the weight of wanting to prove himself anymore, which has been huge in his progression.
His agility, reactions and distribution are fantastic, and his command of his area and ability off his line have come on greatly since his younger days. One thing that must be said is that his decision making still needs a lot of work, as does his communicating with his defence in non-dead ball situations. One would hope those will grow with greater game time. Fabiański will get his move in the summer; Arsenal will have a difficult job replacing him, and whoever gets him will sign a very talented goalkeeper, but one in need of a bit of polishing, and perhaps some careful treatment from time-to-time.
It has not been the easiest of starts to 2014 for Olivier Giroud. Quite aside from all the apparent ‘goings on’ off the pitch, before Saturday he had managed just two goals and a single assist in his six starts since the turn of the year. In that time, he drew a great deal of criticism for his misses and ineffective play against Manchester United, and some for the shambles at Liverpool. Add to that conveniently-timed ‘rests’ in the month’s two biggest games, the FA Cup match against Liverpool and the home leg with Bayern Munich, wherein his replacement Yaya Sanogo was impressive, it has not been ideal for him.
There are a few things that can be extrapolated from his much-improved performance against Sunderland. First, how useful a long overdue rest may have been for him. The only Premier League games he has not started all season have been the home wins against Hull in early December and Cardiff on New Year’s Day. Arsène Wenger’s distrust in Nicklas Bendtner and Sanogo’s August-to-January disappearance for conditioning had again left him as the only viable centre forward option in the manager’s eyes. After an extended period of highly questionable form, he returns from his week off (so to speak) with two goals and an assist. Correlation? Sure. Causation? Who knows.
A more cynical view that a poor Sunderland team with more than half an eye on the League Cup final next week gave him all the time and space he needed to play well. Which, as itself, is somewhat unfair, even if it does have some elements of truth to it. Giroud, for whatever reason, did have more of the energy and clever play that was so prevalent in the early season, and disappeared somewhat after early January.
A lot of the defence for Mesut Özil’s issues in the same time period has been the absences of Aaron Ramsey and more importantly Theo Walcott. And then there are Lukas Podolski and Nicklas Bendtner are the only real penalty box specialists in the first team squad. With that making being creative so much more difficult, it is only fair that Özil has some struggles. Subbing in Podolski means a player who spends 80% of the game giving very little. He does not stretch teams like Walcott and Ramsey, usually offers very little outside the final third and being easy to close out a lot of the time, often little in it.
This all has telling effects on Giroud. With any of Walcott, Ramsey or Podolski, Giroud can settle into a role where goalscoring is a secondary part of his job. With an extra penalty box presence, Giroud has less space to cover in the 18-yard box and hence has more freedom to make much better runs, or to dwell happily on its periphery. The run that earned him much praise in the early season was his continued darts towards the near post; his near post finishing being a strong suit it reaped rewards for either him or other on-running players.
This is Giroud at his strongest. Arsenal’s best team is setup for him to them to bring the best from him and he from them. Walcott, Ramsey and maybe even Santi Cazorla are all more relied upon avenues for goals, and he enables that. The former two rely on Giroud’s game for their own ends, and it works. Without one, the other steps up, as we saw while one of either was out. Without both, Arsenal need Giroud to be something he is not – a complete centre forward who is more capable in the box than he is.
With all due respect, he is too limited to adapt. He does not have the pace to make runs in behind the defensive line, nor the finishing ability to be the team’s main goals man. On top of that, Ramsey and Walcott are the players best at reading his knock-downs and lay-offs. With them not there, there is no one close enough to him to make him especially effective. His technical ability and strength in simply holding onto the ball until runners arrive closer to him just aren’t good enough to circumvent that problem while those two aren’t there.
One game worth referencing is the 6-3 loss at Manchester City. Giroud himself missed a solid handful of very good chances, but that itself was the crucial difference from so many of Giroud’s other matches against strong opposition – he got the chances, and both Walcott and Ramsey were there. In almost* all the other bigger occasions, he has only had the one (if that). The fact that he missed the vast majority of them is a side-issue at this particular juncture because it shows that Giroud is a much more potent threat with runners beyond him.
*(The 0-0 with Chelsea stands as something of an exception given just how strong that 10-man defensive unit was. Arsenal will meet plenty of parked buses, but few so tall and with such heavily reinforced metal. And even then, Giroud did miss a great chance.)
From there, it becomes an issue that his finishing is so weak, especially in big games when being clinical is so much more important. And however much those two improve his movement, it is still far from being ‘top level’. The struggle for Wenger is finding a player who acts as similarly good foil for the rest of the full team while also having the ability to be both a back-to-goal playing altruist and a more selfish behind-the-line goalscorer, so Arsenal’s reliance on the ever-aforementioned two is not as pronounced.
If he were a better finisher, it would be far easier to overlook the flaws, because he would have been able to bail Arsenal out on a fair few occasions. But as Podolski proves, it’s far better to be, and indeed to have a decent finisher with excellent movement off the ball than a great finisher with average movement. Giroud is an average finisher with good movement as long as provisions are made for him. Without those provisions, he’s an average finisher with poor movement, and whose strengths go to waste and weaknesses are accentuated.
Giroud is a decent player in what, for him, is an unhelpful system at the moment. Against lesser teams it is not as problematic (but still anything from ‘a little bit’ to ‘quite’) because they have more time on the ball in midfield, and the midfield itself can sit a bit closer to him. Against Sunderland on Saturday, part of why he gave more was because the midfield was able to stay so much nearer to him than they would against a side that offered, well, anything in their own midfield. The funny thing is, that’s true (though certainly not to the same extent) for quite a lot of the league’s teams outside the top eight or so.
In bigger games, Arsenal have really struggled to create with the set of available players. And there’s very much an argument that the more mobile and technically able centre forwards in the squad – especially Bendtner, who has the most pronounced talent for runs in the box – are far more useful to the side in bigger games than Giroud is right now. It also helps that neither of them seem to lose his mind against stronger sides, too. But maybe – just maybe – a better rested and rotated Giroud will start finishing those big game chances…
One thing is difficult to argue with: Giroud can be very useful, but as things are, he needs more help than this squad can really give him, and they seem to need more than they will get from him.
It was said, after the completion of Bayern Munich’s incredible treble, that Pep Guardiola’s job would only be made more difficult by the success that directly preceded his arrival. Yet in some ways, it actually made his process simpler. The hunger that the tragedy of Bayern’s May 2012 inspired has been sated somewhat, and the pressure to win absolutely immediately is ever so slightly lessened. It allowed him to try some new (perhaps somewhat controversial) things, such as moving Philipp Lahm to midfield and the evolution of their 4-2-3-1. The results were as expected but the performances were initially more mixed as the players and manager grew used to each other, and various injuries struck.
The fatal mistake made by many a successful manager is to rest on that success, and remain completely faithful to the style and tactics which brought them that glory. With that follows players who are unchallenged and contented in a regular routine. This has always been something Guardiola has worked strenuously to avoid. It showed best in the stream of trophies won across his four years at Barcelona, but also in the changes in personnel and style between their own treble in 2009, and the completed product that was the 2011 side.
2011 was the peak of his Barcelona. And despite reaching the heights he did, Guardiola recognised the need for change and the changes needed. Guardiola’s belief that the team would be best strengthened by making its most important area even better was and is the correct one. Xavi Hernández was ageing and with their reliance on him being so heavy and his uniqueness meant that they would need new figures to carry them forth into a new era.
8 years after leaving, Cesc Fàbregas was re-signed partly for this very job, with Thiago Alcântara coming through at the same time. Thiago is closer in position and qualities to Xavi, but more direct in style. More direct than both of them is Fàbregas, yet both fit perfectly into Barcelona’s ideals of attractive, entertaining and attacking football with a heavy focus on possession. Andrés Iniesta would become even more central over the following few years, compatible next each individual and the best enabler of the in-between point of moving from Xavi’s Barcelona to Fàbregas and Thiago’s, before succumbing to the ageing process himself.
At the start of last season, the alterations were taking shape seamlessly and an invigorated Barcelona, with a slightly more limited Xavi, a more liberated Fàbregas and Iniesta (with the latter more advanced than usual) were a new, different magnificence. Then after Tito Vilanova’s injury, complications in style, control and personnel took shape. Fàbregas struggled for form and eventually lost his place. If they were indeed the orchestra that so many lazy metaphors have described them as being, it was one attempting to play pieces from memory, with a conductor who could no longer lift his arms above shoulder height. Fàbregas’ stumbles caught eyes and headlines, but everyone had forgotten Thiago.
With everything seemingly so precarious, playing an inexperienced 21-year old in the most important area of the pitch while no manager was present occurred to very few. When Vilanova returned, something of his nerve for any kind of risk appeared to have left him in his chase for a record 100 La Liga points. Thiago’s lack of game-time opened up a clause in his contract that would allow him to leave for just €18million. Thiago plays for Bayern Munich now.
Gerardo ‘Tata’ Martino took over as Head Coach in the summer after the unfortunate return of Vilanova’s illness. With Neymar’s signing, there was little left to buy a replacement for Thiago (or a centre back or centre forward, at that), so Sergi Roberto has been brought up to play a somewhat deeper role than his most comfortable one and fill the fourth midfielder space. Martino’s changes have continued and noticeable, despite some detractors for ‘going against’ Barcelona’s traditional (read: Guardiola’s) way of playing.
They key difference in personnel between this Barcelona and the 2011 one is the wings. Where before there were Pedro, David Villa, Bojan and occasionally Iniesta, they are now Pedro, Alexis Sánchez, Neymar, Cristian Tello and occasionally Iniesta. More individualistic and dribbling-prone players, perfect for a more direct method. Behind them remains Fàbregas who, of course, is perfect for such an endeavour. And then there is the embodiment of Tiki-Taka; the unchangeable man that is Xavi.
Xavi is too important not to play most of the major games. For one thing, for a team with a relatively weak back line whose primary defensive strategy is retaining possession, his importance is almost on the level of Lionel Messi and Sergio Busquets, even though he has decline. For another thing, he’s the best they have for that deep midfield position. Iniesta can play there, but it is a role with which he is not entirely familiar and is generally a better option in smaller, more open games. The same is true but to a far greater extent with Sergi Roberto. So Xavi plays. Even at 34, despite averaging 52 games a season over the last six, he almost always starts and generally plays much of, if not the full 90.
But at the same time, Xavi is not who he was a few years ago. He cannot control games as he did then, he is missing the dynamism and mobility he once had that allowed him to alter a game’s pace through the speed of his own passing and movement as he pleased. Well-drilled defensive sides have been far more able to disrupt the Xavi-Iniesta partnership of late. Too many times in the last couple of years, stagnant performances lacking in their former majesty from the pair have been bailed out by individual brilliance in the final third – mainly from Messi.
In the meantime, the question still remains as to what Barcelona’s best eleven is. The injuries to Messi and Iniesta meant they have not been able to test their various shuffles against the more major opposition. Even though Iniesta has had a few adaptation issues with Martino, anything Iniesta gives will almost always outweigh what Martino could believe to be lacking. While Pedro and Alexis are in such form and Neymar has impressed, Iniesta on the left is relatively unlikely. Yet the holy trinity of Xavi-Busquets-Iniesta have had the aforementioned issues; Fàbregas gives them that extra dimension. Fàbregas-Iniesta as a pairing leaves the defence too exposed against stronger attackers. It is a difficult one to solve – my expectation is Martino will either trust in a more advanced Iniesta with Xavi closer to Busquets, and Fàbregas either benched played up front, with Messi on the right. Or maybe being a bit bolder, and playing Iniesta starting from the left, interchanging with Fàbregas in the midfield.
Barcelona lost their true Xavi replacement last summer, and they won’t move forward until they find an alternative. İlkay Gündoğan is one who would fit in style but more significantly, would allow for greater versatility, fitting into a 1-2 midfield setup and even more comfortably into a 2-1, which would be ideal for Busquets, Fàbregas and Iniesta.
Gündoğan, or a player like him (good luck finding one of those) would be the optimal – assuming he does not suffer too greatly in the long-term from these injuries – especially if the rumours of Xavi’s departure to the New York Red Bulls have any truth. Even if not, they allow Xavi to remain at the highest level for far longer than forcing him to play 50 games a season would, and with less Xavi, shifts to greater directness would be even easier to facilitate.
Xavi has given Fàbregas the keys back this season after the lapse midway through last. If Barcelona can add a centre back, Gündoğan (or some other of that ilk) and a central striker to both cover Messi and allow more versatility alongside him, they will be the complete force again. A very different kind, but approaching similar supremacy.
All the while, adding a proper left-sided centre back to partner Gerard Piqué would free Javier Mascherano to play as Busquets’ backup (a vast improvement on Alex Song) and even his partner, allowing the Catalan to harness his more creative and expressive qualities, while keeping the defence well-protected at the same time.
Spain, too, must attempt to marginalise Xavi in an attempt to move forward. However, they have what Barcelona do not, in the form of the far greater pool of well-fitting players, including the dearly departed Thiago, himself. Busquets, Fàbregas and Iniesta are all, of course, ever-present in the squads. Xabi Alonso, Javi Martínez, Koke and even Santi Cazorla, Isco and Juan Mata, are all options for the spare spaces next to Busquets in the central midfield three.
Iniesta generally plays on the left-hand side, to wonderful effect and Busquets is constant, but Vicente del Bosque’s propensity to rotate steadily from game to game and his incredible depth of players makes it somewhat difficult to predict his next moves. He is generally loyal to his old guard, to the point where Fernando Torres has somehow not been given a restraining order from the squad/taken outside and shot. My prediction is that he will look to replicate Barcelona’s most-often used midfield set of Busquets, Xavi and Fàbregas, with Iniesta on the left, rather than a midfield of the trinity with Fàbregas up front.
It would allow Xavi to settle in as that more defensive player with Fàbregas, Iniesta and whoever is on the left or up front – most probably any two of Pedro or David Silva and Álvaro Negredo or Diego Costa (the latter is even tougher to call). Though, if Thiago keeps up his more recent form at club level, it will be difficult for Del Bosque not to play him, and perhaps even use him with Xavi and Busquets, pushing Fàbregas back up to the false 9 position.
It is easier for Spain than Barcelona both in the short and longer terms, after the Thiago fiasco, to work for a future without Xavi. While his slow descent marks the end of an incredible era for both his teams, it does not have to be an end to their supremacy. They have been Xavi’s sides for the greater part of the last decade. Now someone else, or a number of others must create something new and most importantly different, because there won’t ever be another quite like Xavi.
There is a truth near-wholly acknowledged among football watchers that players below a certain age, or a certain number of first team appearances (the exact numbers remain vague) are allowed a certain level of leeway with regard to the shortcomings in their game. It’s only fair. The underlying idea behind this is that being young, inexperienced, or both, they will eventually grow out of their flaws and learn from their past mistakes. It’s often a slow, but worthwhile, and most crucially visible process. It rarely happens particularly quickly but in observing many young players over time, it’s easy to see them steadily ironing out some of the more negative and inhibiting facets of their play.
Arsenal, like most teams, are heavily reliant on a well-functioning midfield. Between early March and late December 2013, they had put together their best midfield setup since Cesc Fàbregas’ departure in 2011. They key to it all was and is Aaron Ramsey, preferably and most often partnered by Mikel Arteta in the deep midfield pairing. They allowed Arsenal to become something they had not been since Sol Campbell had left: a team comfortable without the ball, perhaps more so than with it. It took Mesut Özil’s signing for attacking cogency to be added to the improved defensive play, and with a midfield in perfect working order, everyone was thriving and they sat atop the league.
Ramsey’s goals were the first reference point for praise but far more important for Arsenal in both defence and attack are his remarkable engine and exceptional intelligence on the pitch. His movement in and around the box has always been impressive but more than where he goes, it’s about when he commits forward or remains back. Arsenal don’t get caught on the break when Ramsey is playing, even when he sits significantly further up the pitch than his midfield partner. They barely concede goals with him there, and score plenty.
Under Liverpool’s heavy pressing in the game last weekend, Arsenal looked lost in a way they have not done since the home first leg against Bayern Munich last season, despite having met heavier and more efficient pressers than Brendan Rodgers’ side since. There was a struggle in the first half an hour of the home match against Borussia Dortmund, but once they found their feet, they were fine against it. Under heavy pressing, the players being attacked need simple passing options close to them. When Ramsey’s there, they have them, even if they aren’t Ramsey himself. Without him… well, Saturday happened.
Arsenal’s midfield shape against Liverpool was one not seen since before that Bayern game. That midfield shape was the main cause of some of the more disastrous defending of last season. The primary reason for that, in the most part, was Jack Wilshere, his errant positioning and love for an aimless roam up the pitch, with little intention of returning to his station. Arsenal with a disjointed midfield makes for Arsenal with a leaky defence, and Arsenal with an unfit-for-purpose forward line.
On Saturday, it was the exact same issues as last season. Wilshere sat and pushed far too high, Arteta struggled to make up the ground, the opposition had an open middle and an exposed defence to attack. The full backs struggled, just as they did through a lot of last season, as they had no passing option on account of Arteta’s having to cover the position of two players 10 yards away from where he would ideally be, because who knows where Wilshere was. From there, it was easier for Liverpool to double up on both full backs and draw the two centre backs out of position.
Arteta came in for more criticism than Wilshere immediately following the game – mostly jibes about his mobility and struggles against Liverpool’s pace. Arteta isn’t perfect: he is slow and lacking the engine of the ‘top level’ defensive midfielders, and he has been known to play a little over-cautiously on the ball. He is a player who needs protecting and a bit of help, but with it he provides a valuable service which no other in the squad can do as well. Ramsey gives that help. Wilshere does not.
With Wilshere partnered by Mathieu Flamini, Arsenal lose a lot of their edge on the ball in midfield because they have one who is fairly average with the ball at his feet and another who, although far less limited, does not do enough practical and useful with it. In many games, that will not be the biggest of issues because even though they lose something without the first choice pair, most teams do not have enough to counterbalance that. But Bayern certainly do.
Ramsey makes up for some of that which is lost technically with Flamini over Arteta with his own smarter positioning and use of the ball. The greatest worry is that the issues with Wilshere are the same ones as last year. They are not technical limitations. He is an extraordinarily gifted player, but he does not appear to be learning from his mistakes. A year later and every problem that was prevalent then is prevalent now.
It is the case in so many areas. His lack of regard for defending is, of course, the standout. Beyond that, he still is not particularly adept at making himself available to receive the ball. He still holds onto the ball far too long in attacking areas. He still keeps dribbling until he gets fouled, tackled or forced into a move-killing sideways ball rather than play the earlier passes. His end product has shown improvement but it isn’t worth playing him in a central position where he damages the team’s setup for maybe 5-10 extra goals and assists each season.
Saturday, after half an hour and only the four conceded, marked was the return of ‘Wilshere vs The World’, while his team mates around him show themselves to be unworthy of the passion and drive he brings. Never mind that he was a major reason why the rest had played so poorly and he had no plans to help them out while he was on or off the ball. Another who specialises in such performances, especially this season, is Wayne Rooney. They have spent the game playing to their team’s detriment but they ran forward with the ball a lot in the final third. To little end.
Wilshere’s best position in this team is on the right wing. There, he has permission to drift inside and aid their quicker one and two-touch play closer to the box, where he is highly skilled; there is scope for him to harness his fantastic dribbling and he is less damaging to the team’s overall shape. He can exist comfortably as something a luxury while hopefully reaping the benefits of greater game time.
But that is the issue. His goal and assist numbers are the best they’ve ever been, but beyond ever so slightly more productivity from deep midfield (most of the goals or assists have come from him playing the advanced roles), he does not appear to have learned much, if anything for the central roles. Upon returning to the middle, it’s the same as the shambles that was the first two thirds of last season.
Given the comparison with current Ramsey has been so pronounced, it makes sense to compare him to Ramsey in the time following his injury, given that is the stage Wilshere is in now. It took a while for Ramsey to recover his best self, but what was habitually visible was his constant work for the team and movement in front of goal and to receive the ball in midfield, which is not the case with Wilshere. The England international’s issues mainly emanate from a seeming unwillingness to actually use his brain.
Ramsey had similar problems with being slow to release the ball and often losing it, but he has always had an altruism and intelligence on the pitch that Wilshere never has. Wilshere, at the moment, is an individual around whom the team has to mould itself. The problem for Wilshere at this point is that Arsenal have better players to build around and he simply does not yet give nearly enough to warrant being the centre of all things.
For now, that leaves Wilshere in a purgatorial state. Either he becomes the team’s man or… who knows? Time is on Wilshere’s side. There are no questions about his ability. My hope at the start of this season was that he would shed the ‘Star Player Syndrome’ with the signing of Özil and Ramsey’s rise, but the signs have not been particularly encouraging. Wilshere is his own main obstacle, but we are at the point now where it is fair to worry whether or not it is an obstacle he will overcome.
The state of Arsenal leaving 2014’s January transfer window was markedly different from the previous year. Arsenal were down in sixth, the lack of depth at centre forward was even more pronounced than it is now and the day before the window shut, they lost Kieran Gibbs for ‘up to 6 weeks’. With André Santos playing like Father Jack Hackett after going through a bottle of bleach, they were in desperate need of a new left back. A day later, Nacho Monreal’s £8m signing was confirmed – a deal apparently organised for the following summer, but brought forward upon necessity.
Monreal was the ideal signing, for both the circumstances and as an example of the purchases the club must look to make in the future. Unless the players you have are the best you can possibly get, no top level club should really look to buy squad fillers or backup players; new buys should be in the name of progress rather than preservation of what already is. Monreal and Kieran Gibbs play at similar levels, constantly challenging each other, and competition appears to be bringing out the best from both.
Monreal’s first two performances, 1-0 wins against Stoke and Sunderland respectively, were impressive, if unremarkable – which works well enough as a description of Monreal himself. His assist for Santi Cazorla’s 84th minute winner against Aston Villa was his first really notable attacking contribution and instance of resurrecting his combination with Cazorla from their days together at Málaga.
Despite starting well, he was not blameless in the shambles at White Hart Lane, and can be accused of being at fault for Aaron Lennon’s goal. That said he, like the rest of the team, seemed far more comfortable and secure after it. With Gibbs now fit, Arsène Wenger erred towards using Gibbs in home games, where Arsenal would look to play on the more assertive side and Monreal away, wherein comfort without the ball was more valued.
The Boss’ use of the pair and rotation of them is illustrative of their different abilities and styles. Gibbs is significantly faster and having spent most of his youth as a left winger, the more inherently attacking player. He plays wider, and tends to go right to the byline when attacking, making him far more useful in stretching teams. His pace allows him to take more risks on the defensive side, often relying on his recovery pace to make up for how high he commits up the pitch.
Monreal, however, is the more reserved. His attacking play generally consists of contribution from closer to the 18-yard line and although Gibbs is the more committed with his attacking, Monreal is more decisive and productive. He cannot rely on keeping pace with the quicker wingers as Gibbs can, so must position himself even better. The most notable difference between them with regard to defending is Gibbs’ greater strength facing players one-on-one, where Monreal – at present – is the stronger reader of the game.
Monreal’s return to pre-season was delayed by the Confederations Cup. Gibbs started the season exemplarily, playing like someone who knew he had to prove he deserved keeping his place. What’s more, in the absence of Cazorla, Lukas Podolski and Theo Walcott, the width Gibbs supplies became far more essential to Arsenal’s play.
Monreal’s main role before November was as a defensive impact substitute, used to close out wins. He played well in the cameos and occasional (mostly League Cup) starts, and once the league starts followed he played as Gibbs had in the early part of the season: with renewed purpose.
As is his way, he has been quietly superb, in the most part. He had poor games away at Manchester City – though so would 2004-era Ashley Cole for all the protection Jack Wilshere and the midfield game him – and, recently, Southampton away, where he struggled with little protection from his midfield (Gibbs himself also struggled when playing alongside the pairing of Mikel Arteta and Mathieu Flamini, most memorably away at Manchester United and Napoli). Otherwise Monreal has been consistent, deserving of his place and again combining with Cazorla to great effect.
While he works well with his compatriot, he does not work so well with Podolski. When Cazorla plays on the left, it is really in name only. He has total freedom to wander around the pitch with the left side merely his base position when Arsenal do not have the ball. Monreal’s narrow sitting, alongside Cazorla, Mesut Özil, Wilshere, Aaron Ramsey and even Olivier Giroud at times, all of whom generally pitch themselves just outside the area, makes for the best and slickest combination play in the final third.
Though Podolski, like Monreal, prefers to sit narrower; closer to the edge of the area. With the two together, either Podolski cannot make runs from his favoured area because Monreal is already there and the opposition full back can easily follow him, or Podolski is forced to try and ingratiate himself with the midfielders as Cazorla does – which the German is not really technical or inventive enough to do. Arsenal are a narrower side with Cazorla on the left but a far more inventive one; with Podolski, they need Gibbs’ width to add that extra dimension to their attacking play; this was evident in the first half on Sunday against Crystal Palace.
The great advantage of having such high quality and stylistically different depth in the left back position is that Wenger can rotate depending on opposition and options further forward. My hope is that he reverts to the idea of the end of last season, using Monreal mostly in away games and Gibbs at home. He may well feel differently now but the most important thing by far is that he has the luxury of a choice without fretting or worrying about which player he does select.
Monreal worked hard from the bench in the early season to re-earn his place and has done very well since doing so. Both Monreal and Gibbs offer things very different from each other in many respects but on a fundamental level, both are highly strong defensive and offensive outlets, while the Spaniard’s adaptability has been crucial in allowing Arsenal to close out games so effectively at various points this season. Good left backs are difficult to find: Arsenal are lucky to have two of them.
(Thanks to the excellent Christian – @CSJDKK1 on Twitter – for chipping in (ahem) with help for the headline.)