During the 1992 Presidential election, Bill Clinton uttered the now famous words, “it’s the economy, stupid.” That phrase came to symbolize his campaign. He defeated the incumbent George H. W. Bush by keeping the focus of the election squarely where it belonged; America’s struggling economy. Today, that famous phrase could be applied to Arsenal and the summer ahead, but with one simple alteration: it’s the midfield, stupid.
Robin van Persie is Arsenal’s captain and best player. Indeed, he was the best player in England this season. For that reason, it is completely understandable that his decision whether to remain at Arsenal dominates the discussion among supporters and media alike. But it probably shouldn’t. Because whether RVP stays or goes, one thing seems clear, Arsenal won’t win anything unless the midfield is dramatically improved.
There were a lot of claims this season that Arsenal were a one-man team. Some of those claims are fair when considering that van Persie scored the overwhelming majority of Arsenal’s goals, and provided the second most assists on the team. But that’s not entirely unique. In season’s past, Thierry Henry was similarly important to Arsenal’s goal tally. Even Emmanuel Adebayor “carried” the team in 2007-2008 when he scored 29 goals in 41 appearances.
In 2006-2007 when Arsenal’s goal scoring was evenly distributed among five players in double digits, the team finished a distant fourth and scored only 63 Premier League goals, a meager total under Wenger. This season, Arsenal managed a relatively healthy 74 goals in the league, despite having only one proven goal scorer. And when you look at other successful teams throughout Europe, it is not uncommon to find a single goal-scorer that stands above the rest.
There is no denying that RVP was essential to Arsenal’s success this past season. But if RVP was the best player in England, and he never missed a single Premier League fixture, then why were Arsenal only able to finish in third place, a distant 19 points off the title? Why wasn’t his epic season enough to carry Arsenal to a title challenge? It’s fair to point out that the two Manchester clubs set a blistering pace and finished with impressive point totals. But it’s also fair to point out that our defense was atrocious. Arsenal finished with only 3 fewer away goals scored than City and two fewer than United. Yet we conceded an astonishing 15 more than City and 18 more than United. That’s in just 19 games! Even removing the whopping 8 goals conceded at Old Trafford, the gap is sizable.
So let’s assume that RVP hadn’t had his epic season. Let’s say that he had scored a more modest 22 goals. That still would have left us even with Sp*rs and one ahead of Chelsea for Premier League goals scored this season. But if that decline in RVP’s output had been matched by a goals-against tally that was more consistent with Arsenal’s title winning sides, we could’ve been genuine contenders. After all, the Invincibles scored one fewer goal than the 2011-2012 side. But they conceded an astounding 23 goals fewer.
Perhaps you’d rather compare to a slightly less extraordinary Arsenal side. Well how about the 2007-2008 side that fell just short of a title? Same 74 goals scored. 18 fewer conceded. And Chelsea’s title winning side that managed an impressive 95 points in 2004-2005, scored only 72 goals, but conceded a meager 15 the entire season.
All this unscientific statistical analysis is making my head hurt. But the conclusion I draw from it is that RVP’s goals were so important to this Arsenal side because the defense was so lousy. Had we defended with even the slightest competency for most of the season we could’ve coasted to third with even a pedestrian goal tally from our captain. So as far as I’m concerned, if we want to get back to the top of the heap, we need to stop shipping goals faster than John Terry changes outfits. And if that’s the case, why have I said that we need to focus on improving the midfield? Because, in my opinion, that’s where the problems begin.
We have a better ‘keeper now than we’ve had in years. Whether he’s the finished article is another story, but he’s already better than Almunia. Our defense might not be the best in the league but there’s loads of talent there. Sagna is one of the best right-backs in the world defensively. Most of us rate Koscielny, Vermaelen and Mertesacker. That’s not to say they’re all world beaters, but they are certainly competent defenders. And Santos and Gibbs have performed admirably this season for the most part. So why is this defense shipping vastly more goals than sides that routinely featured Silvestre, Djourou, Squillaci, Eboue, Traore and Almunia? It can’t be down to the quality of personnel alone.
I think it’s interesting that Arsenal dramatically improved in one defensive area this season over previous campaigns. Our percentage of goals conceded to set pieces dropped considerably. I think that’s one statistic where the quality of your defenders and goal-keeper is really on display. Ball into the box. Their attackers versus your defenders. Easy way to see how you stack up. In the past we stacked up poorly. This season we were much better. And I think that’s due to the upgrade in quality at the back.
But Arsenal conceded an avalanche of goals this season from open play. We conceded the worst percentage of goals to shots allowed in the entire league. And that’s where you start to see the problem. This Arsenal side was constantly caught out of position and outnumbered at the back. We didn’t concede goals because we had poor defenders and a weak goal-keeper. We conceded goals because those defenders were often left horribly exposed and the opposition was repeatedly gifted the easiest of chances. In my opinion, that’s down to the midfield.
Arsenal used to have Vieira and Gilberto Silva in midfield. They were disciplined, reliable and rarely out of position. If you wanted to score against Arsenal, you had to get past them first. But we also had midfielders that used the ball intelligently. We had midfielders who could be trusted to retain possession and create scoring chances. This season, that changed.
Arsenal created very little from midfield this season. It’s easy to point to Alex Song’s assist total to discredit my argument. And you’d be right to some extent. Alex Song did provide an impressive 13 assists in all competitions this season. But that’s endemic of the larger problem. Song was depended upon to push further and further up the pitch as the midfield struggled to create chances. He became increasingly encouraged to try low percentage passes as the attack stagnated in midfield. Rather than maintaining his discipline and focusing on his defensive responsibilities, Song was often deep in the opposition half trying to fashion a scoring chance.
Alex Song completed 84.3% of his passes this season. That was the worst percentage of any regular Midfielder. But he attempted the second most passes on the team behind Arteta, who lead the team in completion percentage. That means that our defensive midfielder was playing plenty of passes that went astray. He was also dispossessed more than twice as much as Arteta and had nearly double the turnovers. I am a huge fan of Alex Song, but there’s no denying that his forays up the pitch and his carelessness with the ball caused plenty of problems for our defense.
It’s not hard to think of an example to support this theory. You need only look back to Norwich’s third goal in that nearly devastating draw at the Emirates just a few short weeks ago. It was Song’s needless Hollywood pass that gave the ball to Norwich in an excellent position to catch out our defense. Only moments later, the Canaries were level. And we saw plenty of examples like that throughout the season.
Aaron Ramsey is another player who has to take his share of the responsibility. Again, I’m a big fan of Ramsey and I believe he has a bright future ahead of him. I don’t believe Arsene Wenger ever expected him to play as much football this season as he did. But one way or another, Ramsey started at the heart of midfield 27 times for Arsenal this season, and made another 7 appearances from the bench. He contributed some grit and determination at times, but more often than not, he contributed scoring opportunities for the opposition. It’d be easy to point to Ramsey’s paucity of goals and assists as the biggest flaw in his game. But more concerning is the fact that he comfortably lead the team in average times dispossessed per game, and was second in turnovers.
Arsenal play an attack-minded brand of football. It’s not uncommon for both full-backs to be in the opposition half. So when the ball is lost in midfield, it’s easy for the opposition to counter. For that reason, there’s a lot of pressure on the Arsenal midfield to make good decisions with the ball and be strong in possession. Ramsey and Song too often failed to provide that reliability and it was our exposed defense that frequently paid the price.
The one shining light in midfield this season was Mikel Arteta. He was reliable, hard-working, and rarely gave the ball away in a bad position. As I mentioned, he lead the team in pass completion percentage, was dispossessed 61 fewer times than Ramsey, and had 37 fewer turnovers. He was the glue that held a weak midfield together. He was so crucial to the operation of the midfield and the fortunes of the side overall, that the only Premier League game Arsenal won in his absence was on the final day of the season thanks to comical goal keeping from Martin Fulop. And without Arteta, Arsenal managed only one clean sheet, at home to Chelsea, when they rested most of their best players.
But the problems in midfield extend beyond the players who started most of the games. Because Arsenal hardly had a decent midfielder to call upon from the bench. Arshavin could’ve slotted into midfield, but he was inexplicably loaned out in January. Benayoun was deployed almost exclusively in the front three as was Oxlade-Chamberlain. In fact, if you remove Benayoun, Wilshere, Frimpong and Diaby for tactical and injury reasons, the Arsenal website lists only four midfielders. Four. Arteta, Song, Ramsey and Coquelin. (In fairness, Rosicky should be among those listed considering his important contributions in midfield this season.)
Even if you want to count Benayoun, he’s probably off this summer, and really wasn’t ever deployed in midfield. Frimpong is out with a long term injury. Diaby might well have to retire if he can’t find fitness soon, and there’s some legitimate concern about whether Jack will be back for the start of next season. How can a team so dependent upon possession and attacking football possibly expect to mount a challenge for any silverware with five fit midfielders?
To be fair, it’s hard to expect that the midfield would’ve been very good this season after last summer. Cesc Fabregas lead the major European leagues in chance creation year after year. His departure was bound to create a hole in the middle of the park that was going to be difficult to fill. And while Samir Nasri was inconsistent and rarely played in midfield, he would’ve at least given the boss another option had he stayed.
But even more important might’ve been the loss of Jack Wilshere. Wilshere’s absence forced Ramsey further into the spotlight. Jack’s work rate was something Ramsey couldn’t match. And Jack’s ability to receive the ball from the defense and move into attack without losing possession was something we desperately lacked, especially when Arteta was unavailable. I’ve heard some supporters suggest that Arsenal employed a “double pivot” in midfield. I could see that working with Cesc, Jack and Song in the side. Cesc was able to take on most of the creative duties and occasionally get support from either Jack or Song. But with Ramsey replacing Jack, and no one really replacing Cesc, the strategy failed. It lacked both creativity and defensive discipline. That deficiency was even more obvious when Arteta was out of the side.
Arsenal’s three man midfield desperately depends upon a dominant playmaker. There has to be that “quarterback” who runs the attack and sees the entire pitch. When cesc was in the side, he could take the ball anywhere in midfield and create a scoring opportunity. He linked well with the attacking trident and read their movement intuitively. That allowed Wilshere and Song to do more of the “dirty work” in the center of the pitch, while occasionally supporting the attack.
Without Cesc, there was no one who could be depended upon to start the attack in midfield. And without Jack, there was a noticeable lack of energy and tracking back. Song pushed higher up the pitch but couldn’t do what Cesc did. Ramsey hung back at times, but couldn’t keep the ball or defend like Jack. Arteta was strong in possession and added some discipline in midfield, but had so much responsibility to cover for the other two, that he rarely linked up with the attack. All-in-All the midfield lacked dynamism, yielded possession too often and exposed the defense to frequent counter attacks. Tomas Rosicky’s resurgence in form helped add some drive to midfield and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that he started 8 of the 9 games in our late season winning streak. But once Arteta picked up his injury, and Ramsey was forced to replace him, the midfield was exposed once again.
If it sounds like I’m being overly negative, that’s because I am. But only in the sense that I think there’s an excellent Arsenal team waiting to blossom if we can get the midfield right. Alex Song needs another dependable holding midfielder in the side. Not only to partner with him, but to compete with him for playing time. Moreover, Arsenal need to replace Cesc. At least we need to try. There’s no Cesc Fabregas out there for us to buy, but there must be something similar. Juan Mata would’ve been a start, but that’s spilled milk at this point. Wenger needs to find someone who can play at the top of the midfield, play those killer passes into the attackers, and add some goals when the opposition defense gets pulled out of position. Finally, Arsenal need Jack Wilshere to come back and pick up where he left off. I’m a believer that Wilshere is the best player at Arsenal. Not the best player after RVP, just the best player period. What he did against Barcelona at the Emirates was nothing short of astonishing. But I think that’s the level he can provided on a regular basis once he’s back and fit. And if that’s what he can contribute, then his importance to this side cannot be overstated.
But the reality is that the deficiencies in midfield aren’t minor. Even if Jack comes back for the start of next season, and even if you have confidence in Coquelin to continue his development and Ramsey to improve dramatically, that still only leaves us with five midfielders. There’s still a lack of creativity in that group and uncertainty about their ability to keep the ball and support the defense. All the attention is on whether we keep RVP or not, but if we don’t make a few major additions to the midfield, keeping RVP is unlikely to dramatically change our fortunes. If we do makes some quality additions to the midfield, however, I believe that Arsenal can contend for trophies next season. Maybe even without our Dutch master.