Balance and Imbalance, Volume Two: The MidfieldPosted: April 26, 2013
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.