Arsenal vs Manchester City: The importance of the traditional engine room
When you look at any successful team, the centre of midfield always seems to be the key. Everything comes from the middle of the park, controlling the tempo of the game, creating chances for the attackers, breaking up play and holding the shape, which is why it so so vitally important for teams nowadays to have a quality midfield.
A side can be defined by it’s ability to control a game, and in the systems currently being preferred in the Premier League – it is so, so important.
The craze for holding midfielders in this country can arguably be tracked back to Claude Makelele’s rise in the Chelsea team during Jose Mourinho’s first reign at Stamford Bridge. Some hail him as the best midfielder to grace the Premier League, whilst others didn’t quite agree with the French midfielders prominence.
Back in 2014, the then-Tottenham coach Les Ferdinand claimed that Makelele was the ‘worst thing to happen to the Premier League’ – because of his grudge with holding midfielders who just sit in front of the back four, barely moving and not joining attacks.
Whilst the Frenchman was successful in carrying out his job, he built up his reputation of a ‘boring footballer’. His speciality was when the opposition had the ball, breaking up the play expertly, and also holding the shape.
This shape that was used at Chelsea was the 4-3-3, with Makelele playing the lone holding midfielder in that midfield triangle. The position was suitably named the ‘Makelele role’, which is what Ferdinand was fighting, saying too many have tried to replicate it and ultimately failed.
Over the last few seasons, however, the default formation of 4-4-2 that once was, may have been replaced with any sort of variant of a 4-2-3-1. The emphasis has been put on the two holding midfielders, who act as a double pivot to give the third attacking midfielder a chance to have more freedom and get forward more often.
This formation can be transformed into a 4-3-3 if a team wants to play their wingers further forward and the three midfielders tighter together, indeed sometimes using the ‘makelele role’. However, it is the first variant that gets used more in the modern game, therefore putting more emphasis on the engine room.
The subject got brought up in a discussion between Gary Neville, Thierry Henry and Jamie Carragher before the Arsenal vs Liverpool game on Sky Sports, with Neville slamming the Arsenal midfield for not being strong enough for a title challenge.
Arsenal are another side that have resorted to the 4-2-3-1, and at the end of last season, many expected Arsene Wenger to strengthen this position, to bring in a holding midfielder capable of propelling Arsenal to the title that they have been waiting for for so long.
After missing out on long-term target Morgan Schneiderlin to rivals Manchester United, many felt Wenger should have gone in for another quality holding midfielder, but this wasn’t to be. Petr Cech was the Gunner’s only transfer activity of the window in terms of incomings, and this position was not to be strengthened.
Francis Coquelin found scintillating form towards the back end of last season, but as Neville highlighted, is he the the world class holding midfielder to guide the North London outfit to first place? Next to him has been Spaniard Santi Cazorla, which, for me, is not a title winning midfielder.
Whilst he is so effective going forward, and potentially being used in the three in front, Arsenal would be better served putting a superb holding midfielder behind and using Cazorla as an attacking outlet rather than a defensive midfielder.
This is why Arsenal are not a title winning side at the moment, because the engine room is not anywhere near where some of their opponents are. The naivety and arrogance that Gary Neville highlighted was spot on, that Arsene Wenger simply should have improved this position.
When looking at their title rivals, you have to agree that they are streets ahead of where Arsenal are at this point. Last year the title was won from the engine room. The partnership that Cesc Fabregas and Nemanja Matic formed was simply formidable. With Matic playing similar role to the Makelele one, this allowed Cesc to get forward more and in the process, pick up the most assists in the League.
Matic’s defensive supremacy put next to Fabegas’ solidity and attacking potential meant for the ever changing and versatile trio in front to attack with freedom and power with constant cover behind. The purpose of these is not to be scoring the goals at all, but mainly to allow the attacking players the space and the freedom to do their jobs, without leaving unoccupied space behind them.
If these two players are holding the shape and winning the ball, then they are doing their job – and that is exactly what Chelsea had last season, just with even more than this in the form of delicious creativity.
This season though, the Manchester clubs have upped their game. After Yaya Toure’s slightly underwhelming season last term, he has started this season with extreme aplomb. Some do say that Toure is a holding midfielder, but they’re wrong. He’s a typical box-to-box player, with a better attacking presence than most central midfielder’s in the league.
Him next to Fernandinho this season has proved to be a success, both complementing each other with their defensive positioning and the ability to get forward that they both possessed, if City are going to go on and be as successful as their early form has suggested, the midfield here will no doubt be key to their triumphs.
On the other side of Manchester, Louis Van Gaal snatched Schneiderlin from the noses of Arsenal’s to bring him to the red side of Manchester, and brought in one of the worlds most experienced holding midfielders in the form of Bastian Schweinsteiger, with the likes of Michael Carrick and Marouane Fellaini already at Old Trafford. The United midfield has not proved it’s worth as yet, but the promise is their.
The point is, everything now comes from the heart of midfield in the modern game. Providing both defensive structure and attacking outlets, without a good ‘engine room’, a team simply can’t succeed. You can have the best defence in the league or the best attack, if you don’t have the quality to link the two – you’re not going to get anywhere.
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