Arsenal’s Defensive Midfield ConundrumPosted: August 11, 2012
New Arsenal signings are almost always a nice thing. Unless Mickaël Silvestre is involved. But so far this summer there have been three (!) of them, all of them well-known, highly regarded and extremely exciting. They have addressed Arsenal’s forward going weaknesses, as well as acting as basic insurance should the captain have his well documented desire to move fulfilled. Although these were serious problems within the team, it would still appear as though the team’s conceding 49 league goals last term has been overlooked, signings-wise.
Of course, there were some extenuating circumstances: the terrible start did not help, especially before the signings of Per Mertesacker, André Santos and Mikel Arteta, while Thomas Vermaelen and Kieran Gibbs were injured and Alex Song and Emmanuel Frimpong were suspended. It was also not aided by having no natural full backs between early December and late January, a spell which saw Laurent Koscielny, Johan Djourou, Vermaelen, Francis Coquelin, Nico Yennaris and Ignasi Miquel play at left and or right back, despite none having the roles as their favoured positions. Through the league season Arsenal were forced to play 22 back four combinations, meaning there was little chance for a settled four to gain a great deal of understanding.
Be this as it may, it simply made a bad case worse (or a lot worse). There can be no denying, even from the most staunch defender of all things Arsenal, that there were many instances of truly shocking defending during the 2011/12 season. Many of them were individual errors from players well capable of playing far better – Vermaelen is one who springs to mind, as does the Wojciech Szczęsny who took over goalkeeping duties in the second half of the year. The real Szczęsny is welcome to stand up. One problem picked up on by many was that the problem lay in Arsenal’s poor defending as a whole team. Any look at their defensive options will show in seconds that they are not bad players, by any means, but they were susceptible to conceding goals.
One player who grew into an extraordinarily valued and needed one last season was Mikel Arteta, so much so that in the 9 league games in which Arsenal were without him (including the three before he was signed), they won just one, the oh so laboured 3-2 final day victory over West Brom. In their games without him they conceded 21 of the full 49 that went past them – in just 9 games. Meaning that their record with him as 28 conceded in 29, which is a fairly respectable total. On the face of these stats, one would assume that Arteta is the difference between all successes and failures for Arsenal, but a further look is illuminating: last season Arsenal only had four midfielders who made more than six league appearances in a midfield three (Francis Coquelin made 10, but only four were in midfield, the rest at full back) – Arteta, Alex Song, Aaron Ramsey and Tomas Rosicky. In the games without Arteta the midfield partnerships in the deeper two were:
1. Newcastle away, 0-0 – Song-Rosicky.
2. Liverpool home, 0-2 – Frimpong-Ramsey (Until 72′, at which point it was 0-0); (72′-90′) Lansbury-Ramsey.
3. Manchester United away, 2-8 – Coquelin-Ramsey (Until 62′, 1-3); (62′-83′, 2-7) Ramsey-Rosicky; (83′-90′) Ramsey-Lansbury.
4. Swansea away, 2-3 – Song-Ramsey
5. Manchester United home, 1-2 – Song-Ramsey.
6. Chelsea home, 0-0 – Song-Ramsey.
7. Stoke away, 1-1 – Song-Ramsey.
8. Norwich home, 3-3 – Song-Ramsey (Until 63′, 1-2); (63′-90′) Song-Oxlade-Chamberlain.
9. West Brom away, 3-2 – Song-Coquelin.
What this information shows is that short of Song, Arteta and Coquelin (who spent much of the year injured), they were without a fit player who was particularly adept at playing in a deeper midfield pair. Neither Abou Diaby nor Jack Wilshere started a game all season, with the former appearing five times from the bench and the latter not featuring at all. Ramsey was thrown into the role at various junctures and was on the receiving end of mounds of criticism for some poor performances there. Some of it fair, most far from it.
The departures of Cesc Fábregas and Samir Nasri and their lack of adequate replacements left Arsenal with no top class creative player. Ramsey’s first half of the season in the classic ‘number 10’ role was strong, as was the rejuvenated Rosicky’s second half of the year there. But replacing a player as good as Fábregas is an exceptionally difficult task. Rosicky and Ramsey took on some creative duties during their respective spells in the first eleven. The rest had to be spread throughout the team. Robin van Persie often dropped deeper even more to aid his fellows and there was more strain placed on the wingers, as well as more creative responsibility for Alex Song.
The Song-Arteta axis is a strange, but on the whole effective one. Song’s creative ability – which saw him make 11 league assists – was harnessed, sacrificing some of his defensive work, much of which was left to Arteta. A typical pair of midfielders operating behind a more attacking colleague in a triad will consist of a regista and a ‘destroyer’. Song and Arteta, between them, were both and neither. The typical ‘destroyer’ breaks up opposition play and recycles possession, while the regista makes play from deep (as explored in this); they shared these duties. Song averaged more tackles per game (2.9, compared to Arteta’s 2.5 – league only), where the Spaniard was the expert in possession, completing an average of 76.9 passes per game, but giving just two assists to Song’s 11 (while the Cameroonian averaged 66.1 passes per game). When it worked well, it was excellent: their two styles complemented each other. Both tasked with breaking up play (to differing extents), Song, being more direct, would be more inclined to drive forward, in contrast to Arteta who, evidently, was more prone to build on the foundation of possession.
With Wilshere and Diaby still unreliable in the extreme in fitness terms, a signing is of the essence. But who? Ideally, a player who can work alongside both. Earlier in the transfer window there was much talk about a possible move for Yann M’Vila. He is capable of playing as a true holder, as well as more of a box-to-box player and could be ideal. A pairing involving him and Song could work very well; both have outstanding qualities as box-to-box and holding midfielders and they could form a strong defensive unit, protecting the back line. Also, if ever partnered with Arteta, M’Vila or a similar holder/box-to-box hybrid could similarly allow Arteta to be more attack-minded, but the rumours concerning M’Vila have rapidly subsided of late.
Since, there has been numerous substantial stories concerning a potential loan for Nuri Sahin. He is highly adept at playing in a midfield triumvirate, both as a forward playmaker and primarily as a regista. With new signing Santi Cazorla ahead of him, he (or a similar regista-type player) would take on a secondary creative role, next to a stronger holder. This would entail one of Song or Arteta being more defensive to allow said player to flourish. Arteta has shown himself to be content with more defensive work, however many have expressed concerns about Song.
There are two incarnations of the number 17. On the one hand there is Alex Dmitri Song Billong: he wins the ball: plays it short (doesn’t overcomplicate); Alex Dmitri Song Billong: nothing flash, he cannot shoot (he’s got dreadlocks!); Alex Dmitri Song Billong: plays the holding role; scores the occasional goal. (Incidentally, that’s one of my favourite ever Arsenal songs. Could you tell?!) On the other end there is the man Arsenal fans have taken to calling ‘Songinho’. His desire to roam forward appeared to override his judgement at times. Though this was rarely a problem in seasons past. He may prefer to run around the pitch like some sort of over-excited puppy, but he is well-capable of playing the role of disciplined defensive midfielder and perhaps it will be better for the team for him to play this less thrilling of positions; much like Sergio Busquets for Barcelona (though to a much, much lesser level). He does not exercise his full creative potential, instead playing in a more subdued fashion. Song’s weapons could still be used in desperate times, or in certain tighter games, but with more creativity in the side, there could be greater need for Song to be more restricted.
Many of Song’s performances have seen a complacent player with little competition. This was partly born out of the injuries but there is a case to be made that it is worth bringing in a defensive midfielder of similar quality with the aim of creating a stronger squad with more motivated players. A signing is essential, but there is a big call as to whether to make it a regista or a ‘destroyer’. In an ideal world, they would be able to get both, but with squad and monetary restrictions, it is most unlikely – not impossible, but assuming only one can be bought, a decision must be made as to which can be brought in.
Personally I would elect for a natural regista. With Song, Arteta and the excellent prospect that is Coquelin well capable of playing as holders and all ready to compete with each other for places in the team and hopefully bring the best out of one other, the promise of less goals with the likely departure of van Persie means more and more creativity is required, so those replacing him in the form of goals must receive more in the way of chances. Even on the off chance that he does stay, a central midfield pairing with Song, Arteta, Coquelin and a new deep lying playmaker provides more in the way of tactical versatility, with Diaby and Wilshere potentially adding more, but they cannot be used at all in future planning.