We have been a bit of a Jekyll and Hyde team over the last number of weeks, sometimes looking like the most prolific attacking team on the planet and at other times looking like we don’t have the foggiest idea how to open up the opposition.
To make matters more confusing the vast contrast in performances often happen when very similar teams have been fielded in two separate games, and have often included combinations of Arteta, Wilshere, Cazorla, Podolski, Giroud, and Walcott or the OX all in the same team. This is not an insignificant attacking line up especially when combined with our traditional overlapping full-backs. This combination of players should really give any top side in the world a headache in defence, but have at times even struggled to make mid to lower table teams look at all uncomfortable.
When you look at the above names on paper it is difficult to understand how they can, at times, offer very little attacking threat. To try and explain it to myself I have considered the contradictory possibility that maybe we are fielding too many attack minded players to make our attack effective. I would obviously like to open this up for debate, but before I do I will explain a bit more what I mean by this statement.
In recent discussions on AA regarding what types of players Arsenal need to bring in, one type of player frequently mentioned is a more powerful defensive midfielder. This is usually mentioned in reference to a need to solidify the defensive aspect of our team, and therefore make us harder to breach, and is a sentiment that I am in full agreement with. Could a more pure defensive midfielder, however, actually make us more effective in our attack as well?
Conventional thinking would state that the more defensive players you play the more defensive you will be, but I would suggest that there are times when too many natural attacking players in the one team can leave us imbalanced, and upsets our shape so that players that should be supporting the attack more are pulled into positions of defence too often. Conversely the right defensive midfield screen can provide a better platform and reduce the need for other players to have to drop back as often.
Our current first choice defensive midfielder seems to be Arteta who more often plays that role in the midfield three with Wilshere and Cazorla. I like Arteta and think he is an excellent and very important member of our squad and am not in any way suggesting he is replaced and pushed to one side. I think he is and should remain a regular and important first team player. He did however come from Everton not as a pure defensive midfielder, and he has obvious offensive qualities to his game also. In many games he plays the deeper defensive midfield role very well and certainly never lacks heart and effort, and is not afraid of getting stuck in.
I have questioned, however, whether in some games he gets slightly exposed because he is not really a specialist in this role. At these times he seems to require more help in protecting the back four and breaking up attacks, and my observation has been that this more often than not drags Wilshere deeper to help cover in these areas.
Some will disagree and see the deeper role as Wilshere’s role anyway, and I would agree that all players need to perform some defensive duties, but for me Wilshere has far too much ability on the ball to be kept too often in a deeper role. He is not the finished article yet but those bursts of pace and ability to surge past people should be utilised in attack as much as possible, and this is where I personally see his long term future.
I remember, as one example, in the Southampton game thinking that we needed to release Wilshere further forwards to support Cazorla and try and get some attacking intent back into our game. It was not Arteta’s fault, but I felt he was a bit under the cosh in that game and he was struggling to screen and protect the back four effectively on his own. If we had been playing a more specialist defensive midfielder out there, who could have more effectively covered the defensive midfield area on their own, would that have released Wilshere from having to help out so often in defence and, if he could have played higher up the pitch more often, would that have seen us start to take more attacking control of the game?
You could argue that it may not have worked out that way and how can anyone really know, and I would agree that no-one can say for certain. It is more an observation and opinion that potentially a more specialised midfield destroyer to break up the opposition attacks would have given the platform for our attacking players to get into more dangerous areas more often. Once we turn the momentum of a game in our favour sometimes it becomes difficult for a team such as Southampton to get a foothold back in it.
For me a top defensive midfielder should obviously be a good tackler with a good physical presence. He also needs to be able to distribute the ball well, but for me he doesn’t need to be a “Bergkampesue” defence splitting passer of the ball, but more a decent passer who can redistribute possession once we win the ball back. I have always felt, though, that maybe an even more important characteristic for a central defensive midfielder is pace. I feel it is possibly even more important than for the attacking central midfielder where good positioning, awareness, quick thinking and the ability to play a killer pass are potentially more important characteristics. The defensive midfielder obviously needs to break up play but also needs to try and intercept and cut out threats from the opposition. The ability to cover ground quickly with pace is for me an important feature to defending well in front of the back four, and it is the one thing that Arteta unfortunately is not blessed with.
Many players are mentioned as being suitable players to bring in and play the defensive midfield role but some of you will be aware that I have championed Vermaelen for the role. Some would argue that he is not a good enough passer of the ball, but again I would question how important that is. He is a more than adequate passer of the ball for me and would have no problem in effectively redistributing the ball when we have won back posession. The plus side of his extra physical presence, good biting tackles and pace over the ground would far outweigh anything else for me. He could be considered as a defensive midfielder or even as part of a back three where he plays as an advanced sweeper.
As a pure defensive screen Vermaelen could likely provide 1 ½ times the protection that Arteta can in games where it may be more necessary, and if it allows us to play the other two central midfielders to take up more advanced positions then we may actually end up with a more potent attack by playing a more defence minded player in that deeper role.
I am not actually suggesting that Arteta is permanently pushed aside in this role. Far from it, I believe there will always be games where we can play him with Wilshere and Cazorla, as we do in our current first choice midfield three. These three for me do seem to be somewhat overplayed currently anyway, and I feel need a bit more rotation. Arteta could even revert to his slightly more traditional, pre-Arsenal, more advanced midfield role at times if TV is played in the deeper role and Wilshere or Cazorla need a rest or are carrying a minor knock. It is all about having alternative options for me and all of these players would still get plenty of playing time but hopefully with the added bonus of avoiding burn out and possible injury.
So what do AA’ers think. Do we need a more specialist defensive midfielder at times and if so who would be your choice? Would the addition of this player only be to make us better defensively, or could it actually have the additional effect of making us better offensively as well by way of freeing up other players?
Written by GoonerB