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.