Today I am delighted to welcome Jeremy, better known as BackoTheDoc Follow Jeremy!, 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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