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20 September 2015

Is Arsenal’s Midfield Bi-Polar?

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Whilst browsing through the hyperbolic maelstrom of social media, I’ve come across our midfield described (quite seriously) as the best in Europe. I’ve also, while watching some of our more sub-par performances, personally labelled them things like insipid, static, and uninspired.

It would be easy to say that the truth lies somewhere in between, and perhaps on aggregate that would be accurate. However, it seems to me that it’s very infrequent that they have average performances – they either click or they don’t. At their best, they can be just as unplayable as any of the great midfields we’ve had at Arsenal. At their worst, they become ponderous in possession, seemingly happy to pass the ball back and forth across the top of the opposition’s box without threatening very much at all.

A lot of this comes down to opposition tactics, and also often how the run of the game has gone. How often have we seen them come flying out of the box at the start of the game, maybe score a great goal, only for the opposition to smarten up, tighten up, constrict our play, and change the tone of the game? Quite a few by my count. Teams that manage to effectively mark Cazorla and Ozil thereby knock out our key transition maker and primary playmaker, and often we’re left without a plan B.

Bring on the goal-scorers (and the Giroud assists)

Opinions on Olivier Giroud are about as divided as they are around Arsene Wenger, and similarly fickle. In playing Giroud up front, we’ve moved away from focussing the point of our attack on one prolific goal scorer – Henry, RVP, for a brief spell Adebayor – and are instead attempting to create a more multi-faceted goal threat coming through from midfield. At times with the latter two, and at the end of Henry’s reign, our play became so determined to channel through that one player that it seemed that if you could stop them playing, you could stop Arsenal playing. Wenger has spoken this season of expecting more goals to come from certain midfield players, and that more egalitarian approach to the goal tally is crucial to his vision of how we play this season.

And so it makes a certain modicum of sense that we use a guy up top who is able to link up play and bring the rest of the team into the game. Nearly all of our current midfielders can provide their own type of attacking and goal-scoring threat. And what’s very potent about this is the variety of types of player involved – from the sublime shimmying of Cazorla and Ozil, to the rambunctious directness of Walcott and Oxlade-Chamberlain, and the energetic, all-action relentlessness of Aaron Ramsey.

As a philosophy, I personally find the concept extremely attractive – a little like the multi-pronged attacks of Pires, Ljungberg, Vieira et al. The frustration comes when, as a unit, they decide not to come to the table. Sometimes I simply can’t explain the lack of movement – especially when you compare it to other occasions when the interchange of positions and intelligent running is complicated enough to watch and assess as a spectator, let alone defend against.

Kicking them where it hurts

The other midfield question which has arisen time and time again is the fact that Vieira has never been replaced, and that we quite simply haven’t been the same since. As much as other teams across Europe have been able to forgo a destructive central midfielder, the fact is that we’re still seen as a team who loses more easily when you kick us. That’s why the uncultured bite of Flamini was so very welcome when he first arrived back at the club. The fact is though, as much as he learnt in his Gattuso lessons, he simply doesn’t have the same technical ability that Vieira had to move the ball forward and into attack. Perhaps Abou Diaby could have been that player for us – we’ll never know.

It’s a little early to make a realistic judgement on whether Coquelin can be that player for us. He’s making less and less mistakes in possession and is looking more and more like a realistic technical peer within the midfield unit, calmer on the ball and with a better passing range. We’ll have to wait and see, but I think the high hopes we all have have been justified so far.

Santi the unexpected terrier

The player who’s surprised me most with his defensive ability in the last season or so has been Santi Cazorla. For a guy who is far from being physically imposing, and who isn’t getting any younger, his willingness to make tackles in the final third, and more importantly, the savviness which allows him to read the oppositions’ play and nip in to make a play-breaking interception before initiating a counter-attack, have been key to our most successful games in the last year. I’d nominate last season’s victory at the Etihad as a prime example. I’m very much hoping that Jack Wilshere can provide similar attributes in this area of the field on his return from injury.

I’m currently in the rainy depths of the UK countryside, and so my ability to watch the Liverpool game was limited to two second snapshots on a pretty jottery stream. The game could easily have gone either way from what I did see with Cech making some spectacular saves, and more or less keeping us in the game. I’m confident that will be the player we see far more often to the less decisive figure we saw against West Ham. The fact is, we’re still tied with Chelsea on points, and given we were missing our centre backs I’ll always take a point against a team like Liverpool.

This midfield, and as such our team, has an extremely high bar. It’s undeniably true that many of us have been saying that for years, and it is getting a little repetitive. However, I’m still confident that this year we’ll see what they’re really capable of on a prolonged basis.

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