If Arsenal’s defence has had issues with balance, it is a set of perfectly weighted scales in comparison to the midfield. In every team that actually uses the ball on the ground – no need to pay attention here, Stoke – the midfield is the most important area, especially for those who rely as heavily on possession as Arsenal do. But the nature of balance is that individual brilliance must sometimes be sacrificed for the greater good; the problem with which Arsenal may be faced with Jack Wilshere.
It does not need saying what a brilliant player Wilshere will become – not that he is far off now. Like almost all 21 year olds, there are clear rough edges in his game and at Arsenal, where all things are perennially as precarious as a Liverpool fan’s grip on reality, these have had something of a detrimental effect on the team, while his stronger points have been so useful for them.
The main problem at this stage is that he is between positions. He will be a ‘number 10’ in the long-term but at this point his through passing and decision making in the final third of the pitch dictate that he is not ready for it yet. With that, when he finds himself more cut off from play, he does not yet know the vertical movement required to remain an imposing figure in games. These are all fairly standard issues for 21 year olds playing as teams’ main creators, so the solution was to move him into the deeper midfield pair to teach him to “see the game better”, in Arsène Wenger’s words.
In the 2010/11 season, it was a roaring success. Next to Alex Song, often with Cesc Fàbregas, Samir Nasri, Robin van Persie and occasionally Andrey Arshavin or Tomáš Rosický ahead of him, he was not needed to impose himself high up the pitch, and Fàbregas’ own generally deep drifting had the effect of pushing him further back, saving him from his own wish to go forward whenever possible. It was far from uncommon for him to be stationed as the deepest midfielder, and it was ideal. He sat close to the defence and became instrumental in moving the team from defence to attack.
This season, however, there has often only been one proper creative presence in the front four, in the form of Santi Cazorla, who sits further up the pitch then Fàbregas usually did. This has meant that they have needed Wilshere to be closer to the forward line and so he is placed higher, which leaves Mikel Arteta, who was never the quickest, far easier to target for oppositions. With no one forcing Wilshere back, his indiscipline gets the better of him and their midfield shape ends up becoming a strange 1-2, only with the ‘2’ playing far too far away from Arteta which, in turn, left the not-exactly-secure defence even more vulnerable. His being high up was an instruction, and one he obeyed excellently; his lack of tracking and recovery were not.
It was the only way to compensate for the lost creativity while the squad’s only other real advanced creative player, Tomáš Rosický, was injured. But it had the effect of inhibiting Cazorla somewhat, as well as the already documented defensive quandary. That all being said, it must be stated that Wilshere himself was playing very well. It was in January that Arsène Wenger started trying to use him further forward, with Cazorla on the left. He showed flickers of his potential for the role but nothing to greatly convince he should hold the position for the forseeable future.
While he was moved forward, Aaron Ramsey was placed next to Mikel Arteta and the defence started to look more secure, which only grew truer when Laurent Koscielny was restored to the defence. Ramsey’s presence and fantastic form in 2013 made for a much stronger defensive unit. He is better defensively than Wilshere and is placed far closer to Arteta, which can slow down their transitional play somewhat – although the Welshman is visibly excelling more and more as a ball-carrier with every game, he is still short of Wilshere’s level in this department. The diminished deep creativity has been bypassed by generally having two creative presences further up in either Wilshere or, when he was injured, Rosický, with Cazorla on the left.
The Czech captain is far stronger as a ‘number 10’ at this moment, and his tendency to drift to the left hand side works well with Cazorla’s own central wandering. They have not transformed into Mario Götze and Marco Reus (a nice en vogue reference for you) but have interchanged well and, if nothing else, better than Cazorla and Wilshere have together. The issues between Wilshere and Cazorla are unlikely to be a serial problem in years ahead, but for the remainder of the season it is probably the best way to go about it.
Especially unfortunate timing with injuries has meant that Rosický and Wilshere have rarely been fit at the same time and so have not been used in the same starting lineup all season. It could be interesting to see how the manager deploys Wilshere with both Rosický and Cazorla further up and hence less need for him to steam forward. However, Ramsey has made himself near-undroppable next to the even-closer-to-undroppable Arteta, so the only opening is to compete for the central role with Rosický. A fairly even battle thus far. The Reading game and the first 70 minutes of the one against West Brom were showcases for Rosický’s merits but they are countered by his struggles against Fulham, wherein Arsenal were visibly missing the drive Wilshere gives them.
So where does that leave Arsenal’s strongest eleven, for the next four games, at least? Ramsey and Arteta pick themselves. Cazorla almost must be placed out wide because the front line of Theo Walcott, Olivier Giroud and Lukas Podolski does not work against most competent defences (covered next) and only he can remedy that – the only potential alternative would be starting Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain with Cazorla infield, but this would place too much creative responsibility on the 19 year old. Rosický is, overall, the better option, but personally I would rather Wilshere start versus Manchester United and the Czech for the rest. I am not entirely sure why. Lucky it’s not up to me.
And then there is next season. It is difficult to say when Wilshere will have the acumen for the ’10’ role, but further playing time alongside Cazorla should see them gain more of an understanding. A creative centre forward, such as Stevan Jovetić, who has been linked in the press, is the top priority this summer. He, or another similar, would remove some of the responsibility on the pair and hence take pressure off Wilshere in the position so he can learn at his own pace – which has been pretty fast thus far.
He is still a more than capable option in the deeper role, if not really for the remainder of this season. Next to a centre forward, a new central midfielder is a major ‘must’ this summer. This need not necessarily be an ‘anchor man’ type (but it really, really should be), if Wenger plans to use Ramsey there more and instead bring in someone more expansive like, say, Beñat Etxeberria, but another option there is beyond essential. My ideal is that they bring in a ‘destroyer’ type defensive midfielder with strong passing long and short, and the ability to spread play. Someone like Luiz Gustavo, for example, would be fantastic, although his name has not been mentioned since January and is highly unlikely. Someone who could function alongside any one of Arteta, Ramsey and Wilshere. I don’t ask for much.
It is the most Arsenal of situations, managing to flit between being perfectly balanced to totally awry depending on the weather. There is a waiting game to be played with Wilshere, but the hope is that this will not be too long. If he does take a bit more time to learn the ways of his shirt number, they need to make him further back a viable option again. This can be done best with more creativity ahead of him and (or maybe ‘or’) a defensive midfielder alongside him who can cover ground better. The problem is not far at all from resolution, but is far enough to be a significant problem now. We have an interesting transfer window ahead of us, from which we will hopefully emerge smiling. I wait with hopeful scepticism.
This is the first in a set of three articles covering Arsenal’s outfield areas as themselves and the good and bad in each one. Rather than make it one ridiculously long article, it made more sense to try and evaluate across three.
Despite generally being filled with competent individuals, Arsenal’s defence has been fraught with various differing issues for a tedious amount of time. The problem this season has been balance, in most individual areas and in the team collectively. This has mostly manifested itself in the midfield and hence has had knock-on effects on the defence, but the back line itself has also had its troubles with it.
Going into this season, the expectation was that the first choice centre back pairing would be new captain Thomas Vermaelen and Laurent Koscielny, the latter coming off an excellent 2011/12 season. However, an early season knock to the Frenchman gave Per Mertesacker a chance to re-earn his place after his solid first season. Koscielny’s injury was to prove a blessing in disguise to some degree.
It restricted the regularly-disappointing Koscielny-Vermalen partnership. It could have worked sublimely as a sort of innovatory defensive pivot, but it just did not, for a few reasons. The two players are stylistically similar as technically adept ‘ball-winners’, prone to attacking the ball. The main reason it did not, or rather has not worked, is that neither are prone to talking and organising; there is no direction as to which attacks and which covers, while neither are particularly strong in the latter department. Both being defenders reliant on their mobility, they often act on their instincts to attack the ball, especially Vermaelen, often leaving a plethora of space behind them when together, not aided by their willingness to push into a suicidally high line.
On top of that, Koscielny is far more comfortable on the left side of the pairing, despite his being right-footed, but this space is occupied by the left-footed Vermaelen when they are together. His positional discomfort led to an even more unsettled backline and rendered him (even) more error prone. It was not quite doomed to fail, but they have not yet been able to make it succeed and nor should it be allowed another chance to do so.
With the captaincy initially making Vermaelen a near-certified starter, Mertesacker had claimed the spare place. Theoretically, this pairing should have worked better than it did. Mertesacker’s lack of pace forces the defence to place themselves closer to the goalkeeper, which was far from a bad thing. But a combination of Vermaelen’s over-exuberance in attacking the ball and charging forward and the minimal protection in front of them left Mertesacker with a lot of ground to have to cover, with which he struggled. The lack of protection was the killer for this pair, but they exacerbated the issues between themselves. Early signs suggested that they had finally managed to keep a lid on the Belgian, but as the season wore on he slipped into his old habits. It is not that he is at fault for all of their defensive woes – far from it – but he is the player most exposed by the way they play and his supporting cast.
Vermaelen’s style is very much high risk and reliant on his excellent recovery and strength in the air. His raw aggression is a brilliant trait if he harnesses it well. His style is not a problem if his anticipation and spatial judgement are sound – the problem is that has has not, and they have not been for some time. That being said, spatial misjudgement was far from uncommon even when he was on top form, but he was often helped by a partner who was somewhere between Koscielny and Mertesacker, in the form of William Gallas. He is not entirely incompatible with the two, as long as the rest of the team is set up to accommodate, but there is nothing to say he cannot be replaced by someone better-fitting should he, as expected, join the list of departures.
He has been cast out of the side by Mertesacker and Koscielny, which is a brilliantly symbiotic relationship. The Frenchman shares the same basic instincts as Vermaelen, but he is far more measured, disciplined and, frankly, much better with (most of) them. He is an excellent defender, as long as he has that organising, calming presence next to him, which the German is, but he is better suited to playing alongside him than the captain. They have been helped by generally having Mikel Arteta and Aaron Ramsey in front of them, but they have also shown greater aptitude under pressure after that barrier has been breached.
In terms of the summer, they definitely need one centre back, given that there are only three there now and should Vermaelen leave, they will need another. There is a question of which one of the now first choice two to ‘upgrade’. An upgrade on Mertesacker would be a defender with his qualities but quicker and slightly more aggressive. Adding those to Mertesacker’s own ability to exude such calm and maintain order so well in the back line is a £20million defender – Koscielny’s performances with and without him are illustrative of this. A player more similar to Koscielny is required: one with whom he will hold strong competition – preferably one less frantic than Vermaelen and more compatible with him.
Mertesacker has also cultivated a strong understanding with Bacary Sagna and has been instrumental in bailing him out on a few of his poorer performances this season. There is no denying Sagna is not the player he was before he two leg breaks, but a look at the midfield in his stronger and weaker games this year is interesting: almost all of his worse performances have come with Jack Wilshere in the deeper role. Wilshere’s high up positioning often means Arteta is a lot further infield when Sagna is looking for a ball out of the defence and when they are being attacked, leaving him more open to being run at, which he is less able to deal with now. Unfortunately, it now seems Sagna’s departure is inevitable.
Carl Jenkinson has had a good season but is still not ready or technically proficient enough to be first choice yet. There is talk in some areas that Héctor Bellerín will be promoted to fill the open space. It would be a huge ask of the 18 year old but, as the cliché goes, if you are good enough, you are old enough. It remains to be seen. Personally I would prefer a signing or, best of all, Sagna to re-sign, but the latter appears impossible. Sagna has been close to the perfect full back, brilliant defensively and adding great presence going forward, even if his crossing has been several shades of abysmal since his injury return. He has not had a great season but replacing him will be no easy task.
On the other side of the backline there is the intriguing battle for first choice between Nacho Monreal and Kieran Gibbs. The latter’s tendency to take the ball to the opposition byline when attacking makes him a very threatening outlet, but his crossing is worse than Sagna’s has been. Monreal is the stronger defender and the better crosser, but is far more reserved, and tends to hang closer to the edge of the 18-yard box than really charge forward. It will be interesting to see how the situation plays itself out; my preference is Gibbs in home games and against bus-parking oppositions and Monreal in bigger games, in which they will look to maintain as much defensive stability as possible.
The defence has been a source of frustration and anguish for some time, but the issues within the unit are very much solvable. The likelihood is that there will be two sold and two or three brought in. The midfield has been a big cause of their troubles but the aforementioned issues it has had in itself have only made them worse. There have been clear strides towards fixing the defence as the season has worn on, if coming a little late. And who knows what difference a reliable defence could make.
A search for a modern full back who excels in both attacking and defending yields few results. The worldwide desire for attacking football, although not universally recognised at the highest levels, dictates that most full backs are converted wingers, who do not have the attacking prowess to make it further forward, but have use further back. Alternatively, they are reared under the idea that a full back’s main purpose is to be an attacking outlet, and so defending is focussed on less. As a result, there are far more of Glen Johnson’s ilk than of Philipp Lahm’s.
Ignazio Abate is far more similar to the former, although he is significantly better. He is a good right back who has the ability to add another level of threat to AC Milan’s attack when he is on form, while being defensively okay, if fallible under pressure. As if Milan did not have enough problems at the season’s start – especially in the defence – he suffered an ankle injury which led to him missing a few of their opening games.
There was little to smile about during Milan’s 1-0 home loss to Sampdoria on the season’s opening day. Daniele Bonera, Mario Yepes and Robinho all started; the misery of the Milanisti seemed to have osmosed itself onto the sandy mess of the San Siro pitch and the team appeared to have nothing that could change that. Only the 20 year old right back, fittingly just rewarded with the number 2 shirt, provided any relief from the negativity. His exemplary positioning, intelligent runs and eye-catching crosses were a patch of well-mown green on a muddy potato field.
Mattia De Sciglio understands more than most the “importance” of wearing the number 2 for Milan, and has spoken of his wish to follow in the path left for him by Mauro Tassotti and Cafù. He grew up in Rozzano, a small town in the Province of Milan, just a 20 minute drive from San Siro. A lifelong Milan supporter, his youth was filled, like so many others’, with dreams of representing them and emulating his idol Paolo Maldini.
When he turned 10 he joined the Milan academy. He rose through every team in every age bracket before being included in the first team squad and making his debut at the age of 18 last season. His numerical movement at the start of this year was the start of his greater involvement in the first team.
He is the poster boy for Adriano Galliani’s ‘Project Youth’ (also known as ‘Operation: Oh Shit, We Have No Money’) both on and off the pitch, to a greater degree than the fantastic Stephan El Shaarawy given longer-standing ties to the club.
The aforementioned injury to Abate and loss to Sampdoria, along with with games against Bologna and Anderlecht were his initial breakthrough. An injury to Luca Antonini opened up time for him to showcase his ability at left back as and when he was needed there, while Abate himself was in and out of fitness. The circumstances had conspired to give him a chance to give him a run in the first team far earlier than even he could have hoped, but not once has he looked scared, out-of-place or overawed. In the difficult early months, he and El Shaarawy gave some early encouragement to the new-found belief in youth.
De Sciglio is a distinctive figure on the ball. He has the height of a centre back, the breadth of a flagpole and an odd, but graceful running style which allows him to cover ground very quickly. His standout quality is his calmness, especially for someone of his age. His having started out as a centre back is evident in his exceptional reading of the game, tackling and aerial strength. It is rare to see him slide into tackles. He specialises in the standing challenge; his ambidexterity means he is comfortable enough to lead into them with either foot. He is a fantastic defender in the making.
He has stated that he prefers to play on the left-hand side, which allows him to cut in onto his favoured right foot when further forward, although I am of the belief that he is stronger at right back. The few times he has been caught out and made errors – examples of this were his being drawn inside for Luis Fabiano’s first goal in his first game for the Italian National team (though that error excepted, he was excellent) and penalty he conceded in the 2-2 draw at Fiorentina – have come when he has been on the left side. At this point, he adds greater attacking threat on the right side, with his deliveries on that foot being better than with his left.
These errors remain firmly in the memory because they were such rarities. His self-assurance, despite his mere 36 professional games for club and country, is astounding. His aptitude and tranquil nature are made even more impressive by the defences he has had alongside him. Having any combination of Philippe Mexès, Yepes, Bonera and Cristián Zapata next to you is not something that would fill any sane individual with mounds of confidence, but he has defied them.
He has shown great promise going forward, too; the most noticeable facet of this being his brilliant crossing. He has been Milan’s fourth highest chance creator this season, but the presence he adds – or, more accurately, should add more – in this area is the closest thing to a weakness in his game. It must be said that, like his comfort on his weaker foot, this has noticeably improved through the season. While being a primarily defensive player, he is good in attack, but does not add the same threat as someone like Abate just yet. That being said, if the swift improvement he has shown in his attacking this season continues, it will not be long before he conquers his counterpart in yet another department.
The greatest testament to De Sciglio’s rise, more so than his rise from novice to the Azzurri in just 7 months, was the Abate to Zenit St. Petersburg deal in January that eventually never actually happened. The fact that Milan were willing to sell the 26 year old and trust De Sciglio to be their first choice right back, with the arriving Cristian Zaccardo as his backup, says all it needs to about how highly he is regarded at Milanello.
Quite shockingly, the young, talented, Italian, lifelong-Milan-supporting defender has been labelled as the ‘New Paolo Maldini’ by some. The comparison helps no one, in reality but, like his hero, De Sciglio may join the pantheon of one club men. His best performances have come in the Milan derby and in the win at home to Juventus, as well as having a very strong game overall against Brazil – he holds no fear of any opposition. And he has no reason to do so.
His mature style translates to his wider being. There is often an inherent danger in indulging a young player in excessive praise while he still has so much to learn, though De Sciglio remains level-headed and grounded, eager to improve and aware of his own potential. He is in the perfect environment to thrive: Milan are providing a platform for young players and hold great belief in him. He is a phenomenal talent; at a time when so few in his position are really capable in both attacking and defending, he stands out as an exception to this already.
And who knows, in 20 years time, maybe the 2 will join the 3 and the 6.
In a recent interview, Bastian Schweinsteiger said of his club that “in Munich we play to win”. There has never been a culture of accepting second best at Bayern, which only goes further to emphasise how truly disastrous last May was for the club. The Bundesliga had been lost, yet again, to Borussia Dortmund, who were to play them in the DFB-Pokal final, with the Champions League final in their own stadium against Chelsea a week later. There is unlikely to have been a worse week in the modern history of the club. An unquestionable 5-2 battering in the former, and history’s biggest and luckiest heist in the latter and Bayern were left weeping into the spoils of their season.
The squad boasted magnificent talent across the pitch, but its flaws were fairly open. The clearest was the level of depth and quality at centre back. This, in the main, was addressed early, before the May collapse, with the €5million signing of Dante from Borussia Mönchengladbach (though some would argue that there is still another signing needed there). Another was the depth in the forward positions, especially with Ivica Olić’s impending departure. The re-signing of Claudio Pizzaro after 5 years away was confirmed at the season’s close and after an impressive Euro 2012, Mario Mandžukić was brought in.
With them was Xherdan Shaqiri, signed as the long-term replacement to Arjen Robben, for around €11million, which had been announced the previous February. By June, there were at least two players of high quality in every position; there looked to be little need for upgrades.
Towards the end of the month, rumours emerged that they were chasing Javi Martínez from Athletic Bilbao. Barring a sale in the defensive midfield area, where they already had Luiz Gustavo and Anatoliy Tymoschuk, it just seemed somewhat unneeded (though it is not as if that has been a deterrent for Bayern before) especially for what Athletic were set to demand for their best player, and the excellent season Gustavo had just had. Bayern had hoped to get the deal done for around €25million, but such was their wish to get the 24 year old on board, they agreed – amid much controversy – to pay his €40million release clause.
To be the player for whom the club known as ‘FC Hollywood’ broke their transfer record is no mean feat. Some felt that €40million was too much to pay for a player who had never played in the Champions League, or even outside of Bilbao; others, including the chiefs at Bayern, took the view that someone of his talents and of his age could be a mainstay in the side for the next ten years. Thus far, he has more than justified his fee.
Gustavo is the more typical ‘destroyer’ defensive midfielder: he is an exceptional tackler and marker, as well as having a strong range of passing. He relies more on these than his reading of the game and anticipation which, although good, are simply not on the same level as Martínez’s. The same is also true for his passing and his ability to protect the ball and carry it forward. The Basque is much more of an all-rounder, and far stronger and faster in turning defence into attack.
The most apt stylistic comparison between Martínez and another, made by the 24 year old himself, is with Patrick Vieira. A lazy man could characterise both as pure holding players, based on their physical power and defensive talents, but in reality they both epitomise the ideal box-to-box midfielder. It is extremely difficult to find that combination of supreme technical talent, unstoppable physique and extreme intelligence that the two both possess. Martínez has the same capability to burst forward, following Vieira’s example in using his strength and skill to do so, and has it within him to reach similar heights to those Vieira did in his brilliant career.
While deployed in the midfield anchor role, sitting deeper than Schweinsteiger, Martínez shares more of the German’s characteristics than Gustavo, taking some of the creative and transitional onus from him. This can be seen as limiting Bayern’s vice-captain somewhat, but he remains the key figure of the whole side, on whom so much of their play hinges, and the presence of both makes Bayern a far more layered threat. With him marginally more ‘limited’ they are a stronger collective defensively, and Martínez’s own quality mean they have not been hamstrung by losing some of his attacking influence, in instances. They are perfect midfield pivot.
With regard to their improvement as a defensive unit, the stats seemingly need little development, but any they get only makes them more impressive. The mere 13 goals they have conceded in the 28 league games they have played this season is impressive enough, but is made more so by the fact that only four of them have them have come in Martínez’s 1482 minutes on the pitch, meaning they average a goal conceded every 370.5 minutes with him there. By contrast, the average in the time he is off is a goal conceded every 105.3 minutes (9 goals in 948 minutes).
Within those four goals, one was a penalty, conceded via a mistake by Jérôme Boateng (which, perhaps most impressively of all, have been kept to a minimum this year) in the 1-1 draw with Borussia Mönchengladbach; a goal by Mario Götze vs BVB after some poor marking at a corner and the two in the 9-2 müllering (pun intended) of Hamburg SV when they were already 7-0 and 9-1 up respectively this weekend. Martínez is still yet to meet with defeat in the Bundesliga, and has only been confronted with it twice since moving: in their shock 1-3 loss to BATE Borisov (although he was taken off at 0-1 down) and in Arsenal’s 0-2 triumph at the Allianz Arena, which was an uncharacteristically poor game for him, deployed further forward in the ‘Schweinsteiger role’.
The centre of midfield is the most important position in almost every top team. Around the fantastic plinth of the Martínez-Schweinsteiger axis, Bayern have one of Europe’s finest sides. If they are not the strongest team in Europe then they are certainly the strongest squad. For Arjen Robben, despite his many, many, many, many flaws, to only perhaps find a run of games in the team – if Xherdan Shaqiri does not manage make the space his own – now Toni Kroos has picked up an injury and Thomas Müller will move infield from the right hand side, is a huge testament to the phenomenal depth in their squad, and the talent within it.
Both have been reflected in their results this season. They have dropped points on just four occasions (three draws, one loss) and stand just days from potentially securing the Bundesliga title. The DFB-Pokal semi-final awaits them against Wolfsburg, with Dortmund already having been vanquished in the quarters. Meanwhile, they hold a 2-0 lead in the Champions League quarter final against Juventus.
It will take a lot for the ghosts of last May to be exorcised entirely – the scars from the latter final may never heal – but if they continue as they have, their pain could pull them over the line. The willingness to pay the full €40million for Martínez last summer has been reflective of their ruthlessness through the season. The constant reminder of their late switch-offs will keep them focussed and driven for the last six weeks of the season. And now it is time for their amends to be made.