The Importance Of A DM – How To Stop The Rot

By BackoTheDoc
In Guest Bloggers
Jan 21st, 2013

Today I am delighted to welcome Jeremy, better known as BackoTheDoc , as a guest blogger to North London Is Red. Jeremy is a Franco-Australian Arsenal supporter living in Paris with a keen interest in tactics, statistics and analysis regarding the Premier League. Jeremy is an insightful and articulate blogger who wrote one of my favourite posts of 2012 and I’m delighted to have him on NLIR. Take it away Jeremy…..

Depending on what your serenity is you may think that 6th place in the Championship plus a clash against Bayern Munich in the 3rd round of the knocking stage of the Champions League plus a qualification to the 4th round of the FA Cup is not too bad. I think that is definitely not good enough especially when the club is called Arsenal. I honestly think we have a proper squad and that the team in its global meaning is still worthy of interest despite the bad results in the last couple of years (well, even though we have had some good results, strong emotions we haven’t done much concrete stuff and what people remember is what you have won… or not). Among the 80% of good players there are surely inadequate or at least not good enough ones but you have to manage to deal with them. Arsenal have quality players, most of time have decent responsibilities in their respective national squads. A lot have played a fair amount of Premier League and even Champions League games.

Moreover, in what is probably one of the hardest and most difficult periods of Arsène Wenger’s era at the head of the team, Arsenal are suffering. More than just “normal” problems, the club, (that way) I mean the coach and the players, seem to be floundering in different aspects especially tactically. One might think that what I am saying is a combination of nonsense, exaggeration and a spark of silliness. Despite that, I think we need to readjust, to rethink a few things. Consequently, I am willing to analyze what I reckon are the biggest issues. My work will be divided in, I think, three parts. Let’s have a look at them…

I might as well start with the most worrying case: the defensive midfielder… that we haven’t got. I won’t display too much about it because it is the major point of my argumentation and I assume you have understood that it is following. Secondly, in the near future (that means when I’m not too lazy to sum up all my ideas into several organized and clear paragraphs, you know) I will deal with another trouble: the clear lack of qualities of our wingers. Calm down folks, I’ll explain myself. And finally, you can often hear pundits saying that a big team has to have a solid back four; I genuinely agree with that idea so we will have a look at that. But now let’s discuss about the lack of defensive strength due to the defensive midfielder’s absence.

Position of a DM

I can often hear people arguing about the defensive midfielder role. You might think it is old fashion. I reckon it is not especially for Arsenal. I’m sure some teams can manage without one, actually, all depends on the players you have and the way you want to play. In Arsenal’s 4-2-3-1 that often becomes a 4-3-3 with poor organization the midfield tends to be weak. Arteta is doing the job temporary. If we think back, he has been the temporary worker since he arrived. Actually since Song decided to play higher on the pitch a few years ago we haven’t had a proper defensive midfielder. Arteta is absolutely not that type of player. At first it worked pretty well: he had Song alongside and before the Cameroonian went totally berserk regarding the defensive work both of them managed to hold the midfield quite well. This year is a different story: Arteta is pretty much on his own. With Diaby the partnership seemed interesting combining strength, good positioning and pace they managed to get the balls back in their possession and go forward afterwards. But we all know Diaby’s problems. The other players are totally different and cannot really partner him. Wilshere, Ramsey, Cazorla play higher. Everything is hard to understand as Arteta should never be playing there, it is inappropriate.

Anyway the Spaniard does his duty magnificently. Arteta gets fouled often as he has good control on the ball. His passing accuracy is one of the best if not the best in the entire league and you can probably extend that to Europe – 92.7% successful passes bringing it to about 2000 passes and 83 per game on average. His positioning allows him to intercept quite often the ball. The pressure Wilshere and Cazorla plus the wingers try to put on the adversary obliges them to take risks and go quickly. Arteta then “gleans” the ball from the opponents.

Arteta positions

Playing Arteta as a DM means he is forced to stay there. Well, in theory that is what is supposed to happen. Arteta is a player that would be massively more determining higher on the pitch. This position – deeper – restrains his freedom. Arteta seems more and more uncomfortable: you can see that throughout his numerous fouls. Indeed, I said earlier that he usually is fouled a lot but he also commits a lot of them. In fact he is after Fellaini, the second player who commits the most fouls. He is inefficient in his duels; basically whenever he gets past he often has recourse to a foul. The difference between him and a proper defensive midfielder is that Arteta has no great ability to gain the ball back without taking him out whereas the DM would do it by the rule book.

Tackels / Duels

He tends to go higher on the pitch and tries to get more involved. Arteta cannot be Arsenal’s defensive midfielder, he is the type of player with great game intelligence, who reads perfectly the game. He is not an attacking midfielder neither nor a box to box neither, for example Coquelin and Diaby perfectly fit in the box to box role: a player running a lot with intelligent runs through the field in order to perforate the defense, who is a link between and attack, good strength, pace. I’d put Arteta in a very special category: skilled defensively, he reads the game in order to gain the momentum on the other midfielders. Offensively, in an open play situation he regulates the action by diversifying his type of passing: long balls, short quick passes, though balls. He can adapt himself to the game. Mikel Arteta is that type of player. When you realize the quality and the quantity of work he supplies to in a position he doesn’t really like it would be outstanding to allow him to go higher with a decent back up behind him. Besides, despite his positioning fairly deep he provided around 20 chances this season which gets him to the 4th place of Arsenal players creating chances.

Average pass length

In fact a defensive midfielder has a very restrictive role in my opinion: you probably have the image of the very strong player standing just a smidgeon higher than the center backs. The player has to bring strength, take players out if necessary and get the ball back up the pitch with good passing qualities. That is a little bit of a stereotype isn’t it? I reckon Arsenal would maybe need one. A very charismatic player, strong, who has good influence on the team. You know, the type of man who can get angry at times but masters his anger with a dash of composure.

Amongst the problems that this lack of defensive midfield provides one of them would be the creativity in Arsenal’s midfield. Arteta is multipurpose in Arsenal’s tactical system. The understanding between Cazorla and him is vital for Arsenal. But this link, when it is blocked, becomes a handicap for the team. I’ll explain myself with two simple examples: let’s recall two games, Manchester United and Norwich. Two defeats. In both game the adversary had set up a very precise pressure organization, in a display where a striker was assisted by a player who can be tagged as #10. In these two cases it was Rooney and Hoolahan. Their position had a very clear purpose on a defensive aspect: block the connections between Arsenal’s midfielders and especially the link between Arteta and Cazorla. Arteta had instant pressure whilst Cazorla had very small space to do good use with the ball. The result was sudden and efficacious: Arsenal were totally disorganized; Arteta had to play sidelong or backwards while Cazorla struggled to offer help. Against Man United Arteta passed the ball 62 times; 58 of them were successful. On the other hand when Arsenal face teams that allow Arteta to have more liberties he can reach 100 successful passes.

Pass direction

Recently, Arteta picked up a calf injury. He is supposed to be out for around 3 weeks. Arsenal radically have to change their tactical system in order to stay competitive. Now that the replacement DM is out Arsène Wenger will have to rethink his midfield display. Considering that Diaby is fit, Wenger can rely on him to bring strength due to his physical qualities. Against Swansea, Diaby was the deepest midfield on the pitch. Coquelin played a bit higher whilst Wilshere played very high in comparison to his usual positioning. Tactically it was very interesting to observe how two box to box could fit in together. I reckon the display was a success, even though Coquelin had a bit of trouble sometimes he managed to combine defensive work and good offensive contribution by his runs and passes. This combination allowed Coquelin to launch runs when Diaby was behind him, in control of the midfield. One might think it is a summary tactic to say that a player can cover a zone whilst another goes forward but that is what happened. And it worked pretty well. In spite of the recent success I doubt Wenger will choose to reconsider this partnership even though it is an interesting one. A midfield made of Wilshere, Cazorla and Diaby can work against teams that aim to play quick football and that are not too organized. It is wonderful to watch but against solid midfields Arsène Wenger’s men will suffer rapidly. That is what often happens to Arsenal this season. It is not necessarily clear domination that the other sides show but they manage to react perfectly to contain and put to the test Arsenal – that often can’t react. Basically, Arsenal have one tactical philosophy which is quick passing, one-twos and tricky combination. When you disallow that, the team struggles to readapt itself and tend to become harmless.

Let’s try to sum-up everything. Arsenal desperately need a defensive midfielder because of several reasons. First of all, the team lacks of strength, control, firmness in the midfield. Too often the players have been overwhelmed because the opponents were tactically very strong. Secondly, using Arteta as replacement defensive midfielder handicaps the team because he is no longer comfortable considering that he is much better with more freedom and authorization to go forward, provide chances and help the team. Despite his deep position he still is part of the attacks but that isn’t a solution because while he is upfront nobody is where he is supposed to be. Despite his terrific work – he decimated many counters, made a clean sweep of whatever the opponents were trying to do, a fair amount of decent tackles to get the ball back – he often isn’t doing the job as perfectly as someone else, formed to be a defensive midfielder would do. But that is normal. How can you blame a player “forced” to play in a position that isn’t his? Nevertheless it worked earlier (this season) as I said, especially when Diaby partnered Arteta. The likes of Arteta and Diaby guaranteed the qualities of a good DM. The point is that the perfect defensive midfielder for Arsenal would need to have qualities from both players. That is a big issue because that type of player barely exists nowadays. Teams give priority to holding midfielders, which are good links between defense and attack, which are efficient on every aspect but are not really strong “#6” type of player. In Arsenal’s case I genuinely think that it is a defensive midfielder that is needed. Urgently.

Thanks Jeremy. An extremely articulate and well presented post; you’ve certainly got me thinking and I’m sure many more too.

Thanks for reading guys and helping me support my fellow Gooner bloggers. Please do leave your comments and don’t forget to click that follow button!

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About "" - 2 Posts

BackoTheDoc, is a Franco-Australian Gooner with a spark of interest in tactics and the atmosphere of football in general. tactical analysis and Ligue 1 columnist.

28 Responses to “The Importance Of A DM – How To Stop The Rot”

  1. naz says:

    Great article! We also need a new striker. Giroud is not good enough, he reminds of Bendtner, gets into the right positions but can’t finish to save his life.and that volley he tried from way out in the closing minutes, absolute lack of judgement.

    • davi says:

      Give Giroud a bit of time. It takes a while to get used to this league and he has contributed a lot, particularly in assists. Next year I think he will improve, but I do think we should have signed Ba because he could have made an immediate impact to at least get us back into 4th place.

  2. davi says:

    I thought Arteta did a great job in the DM role all through last season, but he was ably assisted by Alex Song who provided the physical presence and took some of the strain from him. This year the midfield looked pretty good at the beginning because Diaby basically stepped in and did the same job. Arteta was always the deepest midfielder but Diaby combined with him to form a defensive screen, just as Song was doing. Since the Diaby injury, Arteta has looked more and more fatigued and it’s culminated in this recent injury. It’s clear as anything to me – he’s a perfectly good defensive midfielder in the way that Xabi Alonso, Pirlo and Leon Britton are good DMs, but he can’t do the job entirely on his own because, like them, he isn’t physically strong enough and if you force him to try to do the job on his own, he will suffer for it. Perhaps we should have used Coquelin more frequently during Diaby’s absence rather than rushing Wilshere back? I definitely agree that the other midfield options haven’t really connected with Arteta on the pitch, although to be fair to Santi and Jack, they have tried to help defensively, and maybe Coq could have done a better job in there?

  3. JH says:

    There’re only two words to this problem.


    He’s available, on the cheap, passes very well, rock solid tackler….

    Character issues can be inspired by fellow French mentor arsene?

    • Daniel Cowan says:

      I think both Jeremy and I are clear on our thoughts on M’Vila and that’s “no thanks”.

    • K says:

      May I enquire as to why this is? The guys got an attitude problem, but that’s exactly what Arsenal need. RvP also had a massive attitude problem at Feynoord. I’m not saying M’Vila is the solution, but why not? I’d be happy with any sort of meataxe.. because unless you’re Barca who can retain the ball so effectively, you’re going to need a real fighter.

    • Daniel Cowan says:

      Nothing to do with his attitude but for me he offers nothing more than Song did and I genuinely rate Coquelin higher. If Coq player regularly he’d start over M’Vila for France in my opinion. Loads of people have called me crazy for this in the past but all I can say is Coquelin plays for Arsenal whilst M’Vila is lucky to be chased by QPR and Rubin Kazan.

      He’s a good player but for me he’s not a solution. So many times last season we conceded goals that people claimed we would not have conceded if we had M’Vila yet I often saw Rennes concede those types of goals.

      No disrespect to anyone but most of the people that rated him highly only ever saw highlights, YouTube clips or international games but in Ligue 1 he wasn’t that good. He was good but not “that” good.

      For me, he didn’t dominate a physically inferior league so I have doubts that he can physically dominate in the EPL the way people want him to. Jeremy wrote an excellent piece on him last summer that for me backed up everything I had been saying about him for months. Check it out

  4. Jamie says:

    Who would you and Jeremy suggest Arsenal buy?

    • Daniel Cowan says:

      I don’t know about Jeremy, I don’t speak for him (except for the M’Vila thing but I know his opinion on that).

      I’d buy Capoue if we want a true DM, or even Mavuba if we want an experienced head. I’d even consider buying a new centre back like Howedes and doing what we did with Petit, arguably one of the best DMs we’ve ever had and push Vermaeleb slightly forward into the DM position. I actually think in many respects it suits him better.

    • tyson says:

      good idea but there is no need to buy ,when Koscielny and Mertesacker can play at the back and Vermaelen play along side arteta or coquelin.Diaby has become worthless and should be sold .That is my opinion!

    • Daniel Cowan says:

      Bit harsh on Diaby and pushing Vermaelen forward without buying at the back is risky. It could cause a double gap if he is injured as we’d be a DM short and we’d be down to 2 CBs & Squillaci (and a few youths who aren’t ready). Not good, especially if Per or Kos got injured as well.

  5. Jeff Schrier says:

    One can’t argue that a defensive midfielder is not needed. A more glaring problem for the club at this stage is the shockingly poor performance of a certain B Sagna at RB. He has been directly responsible for the team conceeding a number of goals of late (Newcastle 2, Swansea 1 & Chelsea 2). He also makesno effort to sprint back when caught way out of position. Jenkinson should be given the position. He is a 100% trier.

  6. Luke says:

    Look no further than Mohamed Diame- that lad is the driving force of West Ham, just look at how their form dipped when he got injured- I see him as a Vieira-type, a powerful presence who is strong in the tackle and a good user of the ball. With his 7m release clause I think it’s a no-brainer

    • Daniel Cowan says:

      He’s a good player but you have to ask yourself the question “if he’s that good why didn’t we get him on a free last summer?” It’s not like we don’t have a scouting network.

    • We had song and AW always spoke about Diaby and Frimpong and Coquelin “as well we have Arteta who can play in that position” so the scouting network turned a blind eye and we got Santi (AM), Poldi (LF) and OG (CF) because of we had those players. As it stands 3 weeks Diaby is a 10 game player per season, Frimpong as we know was also out and is yet to get a chance, with Arteta out and Song sold, I think we would have considered him but for now I’d love to see Wanyama
      (outstanding against FCB and most CL games for Celtic).

  7. TotalArsenal says:

    A thoroughly, enjoyable read, Jeremy, and I agree with all you say. Arteta is a fine player who can play anywhere and could be used in future to give any of our three midfielders a rest. Let’s get a beast of a DM, play Arteta or Diaby next to him, and Cazorla, or ideally Jack, in the ‘hole’. It would work miracles for us.

    Arteta is a clever player who works hard and reads the game well, but he lacks the physical qualities to make the DM role really his. Your stats say it all. Because of lack of physical qualities, Jack now, and Song in the past, have to stay too close to Arteta, which makes our midfield narrow and our attack under-supported. A really good DM could sort this all out for us.

  8. Good article man. It is our biggest problem, and has been for years now(Song wasn’t good positionally) I also wrote about it a month ago

  9. De-Morgsa says:

    This article is so spot-on. Actually, i have been wondering all along, if the technical team, led by AW cannot observe this glaring weakness. Actually since AW is so anti buying players, I thought he would wisely use the players at his disposal. I thought he would have Kos and Met as the central defensive parnership, move Vermaelen to DM position, move Arteta to CM position, move JW to AM position and move Cazorla to either wing. When TR7 is fine, he can alternate with JW or even play on the right wing. I honestly think Vermaelen can excel in that position, as he is tough, tackles well and his passing is not very erratic. When one of the central defensive pairing is out injured, he can always drop Vermaelen back and introduce Diaby or Coquelin in DM position.

  10. G_Snelling says:

    I thought against Chelsea, that Coquelin can do a job at DM. I Thought he broke up the play nicely and he didn’t dwell on the ball too long before passing it on and frankly I believe if he stayed on we could of got something out of the game. He allows Wilshire to be have more freedom and with Diaby (when fit), provides a bit of balance to midfield (Rather then having three attacking minded midfields in Santi, Jack and Arteta). The only question marks are where to fir Santi into the line up as he sure isn’t a wideman and his inexperience, but then again experience comes with games and playing time!

  11. We play a 4-[2]-3-1; the best [pivots] IMO are a DP[Deep Playmaker] & B2B[Box to Box]… When you look at the best teams in the world,

    Madrid: [Alonso – Khedira]
    Dortmund: [Gundogan – Bender]
    City: [Barry – Yaya]
    Juventus: [Pirlo – Vidal/Marchisio]

    I think [Arteta – Diaby] is a very good partnership, but the problem we have is the backup, IMO Coquelin should be the backup to Diaby, but then Arteta has none…
    Examples; Bender, Capoue, Gonalons.

  12. I personally feel Coquelin has too much talent to just sit as a DM, I think he can offer more with more freedom in a box to box role were he has the license to defend & attack, press around the pitch similar to Ramires for Chelsea, think we should give him a chance to fight for the B2B role with Diaby, I don’t think his as comfortable in possession to be the deepest midfielder, football has changed and teams press higher up the pitch and Coquelin isn’t as comfortable on the ball in tight situations same with Diaby, but Coquelin with the license to hunt players around the pitch; I think he would develop into a wonderful player.

  13. maybe is because i’m chilean, but i think that if we are going to buy someone, we need someone like Arturo Vidal or Mauricio Isla, both are good defensive players (and Vidal is a pretty good attacker too)

    but this is how i think arsenal could be a little better:
    Mertesacker (or vermaelen if we don’t buy anything)

    MF (like a diamond shaped midfield… kinda like argentina back in the old days…)
    Vermaelen (as DM) (or isla)
    Arteta (AM)
    Wilshere (AM)
    Cazorla (AM)


    i think sagna and gibbs are more than enough to cover the wings, and if we think a little this team has no good winger, so lets use our stronger side, we have good midfielders, and i think we can excel attacking more like a south-american team…being strong at the middle and using the wings as a secondary attack wave, not our only way to break defenses…besides, none of our forwards are really good in the air…we should clearly attack from the middle..

    but again, maybe is because i’m Chilean…

    and please, go easy on my english…it’s not my native language, i promise i will never make fun of your spanish.

  14. Chippy says:

    You’re all looking outside, when a perfectly acceptable alternative is already available internally…and all your “tactical” analysis flounders on not a single one of you mention Frimpong for this role. The lad is young, hungry, powerful, built AND tackles like a brick wall. His attitude is spot-on…calling out and giving verbals to Nasri. EXACTLY the sort of “boot in, have a go, get it done” type the team needs, and he grew up with JW for an excellent understanding between the two. Don’t bleat about his “discipline issues” I’d like to see a few more yellows and reds from players who give a crap about the badge.

  15. BackoTheDoc says:

    Hi guys, sorry for the late response I had a bit of stuff to sort out. I’ve made my tea (although, watch it, I’m not British) so I am definitely ready now.

    @JH and K – on M’Vila : As Daniel said I am not interested. I’d really be gutted if we signed him. You can read my article I wrote about him last summer if you are interested in further details. Basically, my point is that he isn’t the player Arsenal need. Even if I put aside the behaviour (that has been quite annoying for both club and French U23 squad) even though you have to consider every aspect of a player when you are willing to sign him. I don’t rate him as the dumbest player ever, definitely not. He had his best season before 2012’s Euros with Rennes. He looked sharped, with composure and intelligence in every thing he did on the pitch. Last year wasn’t as good, but come on, let’s say it was okay. This year he hasn’t played much due to punishments Rennes and the FFF inflicted him. He often remained a key player for Rennes whenever he played BUT that is not enough for Arsenal. I reckon English people don’t realize the massive gap between Ligue 1 and Premier League. It is huge. So when I see he has trouble against teams struggling to not go down to Ligue 2 I am sceptical. He has qualities, you can’t deny it. He might become a superstar within 3 or 4 years but in my opinion Arsenal need a player with instant impact. He can’t do the job we are waiting for him to, well he can I guess, but you guys may be disappointed.

    @Jeff Schrier; I think you are being a bit harsh with Bakary. I agree he is struggling this year (especially in the last couple of games) but he has been magnificent since he signed for Arsenal a few years ago. I think all the problems you are highlighting have to be put in relation with Mertesacker. Often the German giant drifts towards Vermaelen (on his left) and Sagna has to get back in to cover the zone. That allows the adversary’s wingers to run down the right hand side. Of course you cannot blame Per for everything.

    @Jamie and I’ll try to respond to Luke at the same time: First of all I’d like to say that it is one the hardest kind of players to find. Besides, it is hard to purchase an efficient DM in summer and it becomes a real nightmare in winter. Wenger should’ve dealed with that earlier, way earlier.
    A few options I’d consider: Etiennes Capoue, of course. He is young yes, but he is absolutely brilliant. Very very talented player. I’m often reluctant with young players but with him it’s a different story. Unlike M’Vila, Capoue is a beast of every aspect. Strong, intelligent, decent passing capacity, reads the game well that’s a few of his qualities. More than a basic DM he can deal with any kind of situation in my opinion.
    McCarthy would be a massive signing. I reckon we could get him around 10M bucks. He already plays for a Premier League side so no adaptation problems. He really is a great player in my opinion.
    Diame, yes, maybe. At the type he played for Wigan it’s precisely McCarthy that “changed” his way to play. He used to play much deeper, as a real DM. He had an outstanding season at that time. If his buy ouy clause is really 3.5M we shouldn’t be thinking to much. BUT he was free 7 months ago, if Wenger really was interested he would’ve signed him last summer.
    You might laugh at me for the next guy. I used to watch Villarreal a lot before they went down to Spanish second division and I used to supplicate Wenger to sign Bruno. At the time I wanted a package made of Cazorla, Borja and Bruno. Bruno plays alongside Senna. Or played, I’m not really sure, but I think things haven’t changed that much. He is so underrated : of course, he has never been hyped a lot. But he is one heck of a player.

    @G_Snelling: Actually against Chelsea (and Swansea) Coquelin played alongside Diaby. Diaby often was deeper than the other French man (youhou a lot of Frenchmen here!). They were in “double pivot” display as we say in French. It is hard to consider him as a DM, he loves to run with the ball and is the perfect link between defense and attack. That isn’t what a DM is supposed to do (and that is what Arteta does). If you had Coquelin alongside a real DM that could be very interesting.

    Anyway thanks to all of you. I really appreciate your comments. I hope I was as clear and synthetic as possible.

    • Daniel Cowan says:

      I’ll have to completely disagree re Sagna/Per. Jenkinson performs admirably and capably with Per in the team (slightly less so without him but I think that’s a general defensive frailty that the calming influence and leadership of Per sets straight).

      I think Sagna’s lack of form is three fold. 1) 2 leg breaks in a year would hold anyone back. 2) his legs are slowing down, as happens with age. 3) he is losing interest.

      For memories and status we should judge Sagna on his entire career with Arsenal but in terms of what is best for the team we should judge all players on their impact and form as well as the abilities and effect of their competition in the squad and sadly this season Sagna has been mostly inferior or on par with Jenkinson. In contribution, defensive stability and effort I think the younger man wins.

    • BackoTheDoc says:

      Ah sorry, I probably didn’t explain myself well. My point is not to blame everyone except Sagna for the [few] dreadful performances he has had this season. He is at fault most of the most but the Per’s positionning is bizarre sometimes.
      I mostly agree with everything you said. Jenkinson had one hell of a start this season, he deserves to have a go. Sagna had a good game last night though.

    • Daniel Cowan says:

      Still don’t agree re Per’s positioning 😀 He’s the best reader of the game we have and his positional sense has improved our defence massively this year. We’re still not as solid as we’d all like but we are much much better than we have been for a few years now.

  16. tyson says:

    wenger should buy marin from chelsea ’cause his talent is wasted there

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