The Real Problem Facing Arsenal's Midfield
By way of a throat clearing, let me make it clear that you will not find a more fervent endorser of Gary Neville’s punditry than I. In the previous few weeks however, he has found himself at the centre of some media attention for his decision to brand Arsene Wenger as ‘arrogant’ for failing to sign more physically imposing central midfield players. While Neville was correct to identify central midfield as department of the team causing Arsenal some problems currently, the fact that his diagnosis focused solely on a lack of ‘power’ was simplistic and ignored the real issues behind the teething problems that Arsenal have suffered so far this season.
The 2004-2005 season saw the emergence of Cesc Fabregas as a first team player at Arsenal, making himself known to the footballing public with an impressive display against Manchester United in the Charity Shield as well as a memorable, if ill judged mullet tinged with blonde highlights. At the time, Arsene Wenger was committed to the 4-4-2 formation that had brought him 3 Premiership titles and 3 FA Cups. He could choose from club captain Patrick Vieira, Gilberto Silva, the coming man Fabregas or the reliable Edu to fill the two central midfield positions.
In recent years and speaking in retrospect, Arsene Wenger has recounted that during that season he came across a problem. Gilberto and Vieira was an effective partnership, as he and the rest of football were well aware. Gilberto and Fabregas was also looking like a cohesive partnership on the occasions that they played together. However, Vieira and Fabregas just did not work. Both players wanted to work in the space that the other occupied; I suppose the famous Lampard/Gerrard conundrum for England would be an analogous example. With footballers of the calibre of Vieira and Fabregas you do not adapt them to the needs of the team, you adapt the team to their needs and build a side around them. Simply put, there was not room for the two of them. His age and persistent knee problems meant that it was Vieira who was sold to Juventus the following summer.
This event, together with the promotion of Fabregas the following season marked the stylistic sea change that Neville was referring to. Wenger decided that Fabregas had to be at the sun at the heart of Arsenal’s footballing solar system and began to sign players who would complement his style. Alex Hleb was brought in the summer of 2005, with Tomas Rosicky signed in the summer of 2006. The concept was to put Fabregas at the heart of a possession based team, surrounded by players of a similar style who could receive the ball under pressure, keep it, before transferring the ball back to Fabregas further on in the phase of play. 4-4-2 persisted for a few more seasons, with the exception of the 2006 Champions League run, with Mathieu Flamini taking on the Gilberto Silva role, notably in 2007-8. His departure in 2008 however, saw Wenger adopt a three man midfield intended to compensate for the fact that Arsenal did not possess the strong runners that they did previously.
The pre-Fabregas tally of League titles stands at three, while the post-Fabregas tally stands at zero, a fact which is at the heart of Neville’s argument that this change in tact was a mistake. What has become known in Arsenal circles as ‘Project Youth’ was ultimately a failed project, due to both a lack of silverware and the fact that Hleb, Flamini, Nasri, Adebayor,Clichy, Fabregas and Van Persie left the club. Arsene Wenger vastly overestimated their loyalty and affection for Arsenal. Robin Van Persie’s move to Manchester United in 2012 can be said to mark the end of this project.
The three years since have seen Arsene Wenger try to rebuild his team with, contrary to the stereotype, a number of new signings and a high rate of change within the playing squad. Neville is correct to point out that during this period, the one department of the team without a major purchase is the defensive midfield position. Mikel Arteta was pushed back from the No.8 role, with solid results it should be said, and more recently Francis Coquelin has filled the berth. It has been assumed that Coquelin was the direct object of Neville’s critcism, which I believe is a misrepresentation of what he said.
Arsenal’s lack of an incoming striker over the summer was understandable given that none of Europe’s elite forwards were available. Many however, believe Morgan Schneiderlin to be the one player to move to or within the Premier League who would have strengthened Arsenal. An extra body would have undoubtedly improved the squad, but whether he would have improved the first XI is arguable. He is a good player, with competent ball winning skills and he would have added some extra height in central midfield.
However, if one examines his career in more detail we see a pattern that may have put off Arsene Wenger. At Southampton, he played alongside a more defensive partner in Victor Wanyama and so far at United he has played alongside a more defensive partner in Michael Carrick. At Arsenal, if he was played in the holding midfield role that many have advocated, he would have been alongside a more offensive partner in the shape of Aaron Ramsey, Jack Wilshere or Santi Cazorla. It seems that Wenger viewed Schneiderlin as a box to box player, which would have put him in direct competition with Ramsey and Wilshere. Thus he decided to pass on the player.
But back to Neville’s comments about Coquelin and Cazorla, but particularly Coquelin. Arsenal’s biggest problem in recent weeks, even at the end of last season, has been scoring goals at home when teams typically defend deep and in numbers. One of the reason’s they have struggled to break teams down is the way they have struggled to play out from the back swiftly and fluently. This is because Coquelin is not a natural deep lying distributor, capable of controlling the tempo of the team’s play.
Neville’s comment that he will struggle in games when the team are on the back foot, or has he put it ‘when the screw is turned’, are actually the games that Coquelin excels in. He is a reactive player, sharp across the ground with good snap in the challenge. This is suited to matches where Arsenal defend more than usual such as Man City away back in January, United in the FA Cup, or Chelsea in the Community Shield. However he becomes an obstacle to the team’s passing in matches such as West Ham at home, or against a ten man Newcastle.
It is due to these deficiencies in Coquelin’s game that Wenger has been forced to play Santi Cazorla next to him by way of compensation. Due to the fact Coquelin is not especially adept at making space to receive the ball from the centre backs, Arsenal rely on Cazorla’s technique and dexterity to get them out of tight situations. If Arsenal possessed a defensive midfield player who was both an athletic ball winner and a metronomic passer (a Coquelin/Arteta hybrid) then they could afford to move Cazorla out of this position and move Aaron Ramsey back in there. Ramsey’s is a superb central midfield player, but is not the most reliable at receiving the ball in deep positions and retaining it under pressure. He needs a reliable manipulator of the ball next to him; his golden spell in the Autumn of 2013 came next to Mikel Arteta. Coquelin and Ramsey as a partnership has been tried twice in the League; in the loss to West Ham last month and the 2-1 defeat to Spurs at White Hart Lane back in February. Contrary to assumed knowledge, its not a ‘Vieira’ that Arsenal are in need of, but a ‘Busquets’ type figure.
Only a fool would argue that Arsenal are a physically imposing team, because they most certainly are not. But if one glances at some of the most successful teams of recent times, they are not overly endowed with powerful midfield players. Gary Neville and Manchester United won three titles and got to three Champions League Finals, winning one, with a midfield based around Michael Carrick and Paul Scholes. Neither would be described as powerful. Darren Fletcher was brought in to bolster the team in big games, but he is hardly an imposing figure. Barcelona are another example, though Neville is right to stress caution with them due to the nature of the Spanish League and the fact they have an exceptional player in Messi. A Liverpool team with a midfield of Steven Gerrard, Jordan Henderson and Joe Allen came within a game of winning the League. Is there much power among those three? Neville’s old boss Sir Alex Ferguson wrote in his autobiography about how the midfield department has changed in the modern game, with a greater need for players who can intercept passes and start counter attacks than those who clatter people.
Arsenal are indeed having problems finding a balance in midfield at the moment, but their deficiencies and flaws are not always the ones you might think.
Featured Image – All rights reserved by Philip Hartland
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