Arsenal’s Midfield Dilemma

Is it our strength or our weakness

There’s odds and ends to cover before we answer the question at hand. First, Arsene Wenger has made some reasonably delusional comments regarding Manchester United. He claims that we are equal to United in midfield and attack but they have the edge defensively. I realize that he’s saying things he believes and, more importantly wants his players to believe. But maybe the time for coddling has ended and the time for tough love has begun. For Wenger to say that we are equal to Manchester United in any department at the moment rings hollow. It somewhat damages his credibility, although managers’ comments to the media rarely deserve any real scrutiny. But it might be good for his players to hear that their current level of play isn’t good enough. Some of our players need to do a little soul searching and it’s up to Arsene to start that process.

The most uplifting news at the moment is Tomas Rosicky’s return to full training. It’s been a while since the boss declared Rosicky’s season over, but with nothing to play for and two games remaining, it would be nice to seem him take the field if even for a moment or two. Eduardo hasn’t had much impact on our season, but it was a lift for the team and the player to get him back on the pitch. I think the same could be said if Rosicky were able to appear in one of our final games. More importantly, though, it looks like he’ll be on track for next season. It’s impossible to say what he can provide, but he claims that he’s ready for a summer of hard work and that the fear that gripped him on his initial return has subsided. I have been a big supporter of the player and believe that his return can boost the team in several areas. Not only does he provide experience, but his ability to score from distance is something that has virtually disappeard from Arsenal’s … well … arsenal.

Now to answer the question: is the midfield our strength or our weakness? It’s a tough one. It’s an area where we lack some qualities, but have others in abundance. Let’s start with the albatross of a holding midfielder. It’s an area where we’ve been missing something and despite Alex Song’s development, we haven’t really gotten the postion properly sorted. When we’ve played two holding midfielders, it’s had the effect of somehow making us more vulnerable. I haven’t quite supported Arsene Wenger’s decision to try Nasri as a holding midfielder, but I think I’m starting to understand his motivation.

Next season Wenger could have to choose from a midfield that includes, Rosicky, Nasri, Cesc, Arshavin, and Theo. If they were all healthy at the same time (something I hope we someday see) then you have a real problem. They each probably deserve a starting role. Arhsavin, Nasri and Theo can all play behind a lone striker in a five man midfield, so theoretically, they could all start together. But in order for that to happen two things have to happen first: the defense has to be more reliable, and one of the five players has to be relatively competent in a holding role. If Nasri can show some quality in that position, then it allows Wenger to start a supremely talented midfield and have attacking options all over the pitch. Without sounding like too much like I’ve abandoned objectivity, this group of five players could represent the most talented midfield in England and second best in Europe to only Barcelona.

But having the most talented midfield doesn’t mean you have the best midfield. While Manchester United clearly have some less than world-class players that regularly line up in the middle of the park, they each understand their roles, give 100% to the cause, and strike the right balance of attributes. The delicate balance is what makes them play so well together. Arsenal clearly lack that balance. That’s one of the things we lost when Flamini left. He certainly wasn’t the most talented player on the pitch, but he was our attack dog. He was a Gattuso-type player who did the little things that don’t get headlines or glory. He worked hard to give more talented players the freedom to play their pretty football. It’s something we’ve sorely missed this season. It’s something Abou Diaby doesn’t look like he’s anywhere close to learning.

It’s entirely possible that we will regularly play a five-man midfield next season. There’s not many people that believe Adebayor will be a Gunner come September and our best attacking options behind the big Togolese might be members of our current midfield. Arshavin has been relatively outspoken about his desire to play a more central role and I have no doubt that he would flourish more than anyone playing directly behind a lone striker. If Rosicky is healthy then he can lineup on the left, Cesc in the middle and Theo on the right. That leaves the holding midfield role for Nasri. As we saw on Sunday, Nasri can play that holding role and still get forward into the attack, but he did look vulnerable and ill-suited for defending on the move that let Anelka get free for his goal. If Wenger plans to play with this attack-minded a midfield, the quality of play from our four defenders will have to be a vast improvement over this season’s performance.

Barcelona have, to a certain extent, proven that you can win everything playing beautiful football. But in proving it, they’ve had the luxury of depolying talent that’s unrivalled in world football. Their midfield is exceptional and their front three of Henry, Eto’o and Messi are from another planet. But Barcelona don’t have the world’s best defense. Far from it. They defend from the front with pressure high up the field. Their defending starts in the opponent’s half. They control possession, make it difficult for the opposition to get the ball back, and when they do give the ball away, they protect their back four by preventing the opposition from getting out of their own half. When Barcelona do have to defend in their half of the pitch, they do so with mixed results.

We can play the same way. We have the strikers and the midfielders to control the tempo of games, pass the ball confidently and keep the majority of play in the opposition half. But the missing ingredient from Arsenal football is tenacity. Playing the way Barcelona play requires tenacity. If the midfielders are lazy, and the ball gets behind them easily, then the defense becomes extremely vulnerable. Eric Abidal and Dani Alves in particular are usually in the opposition half. That makes it even more important for Barcelona to aggressively pressure the ball up field before the defense can be exposed. It’s very common in Pep Guardiola’s system to see eight Barca players participating in the attack. Because they work together and are committed to pressuring the ball when they lose it, they aren’t often caught on the break. Arsenal players should watch hours of tape from Barcelona’s games this season to better understand what is required to play this way.

But to answer the question, I think that the midfield is our strength. We have the quality to match anyone in England. With the right attitude and tactics, we should be able to compete with Liverpool, Chelsea and even United. But to be the best, you have to get the mix right. You have to get the tactics right. Arsene Wenger has tried giving players like Diaby, Denilson and Song their chance. Certainly Song has shown the most improvement. But if players like Nasri, Walcott, or Arshavin have to take the bench so that one of those three can play, then something’s gone horribly wrong. Wenger has tried using players out of position, with dismal results. It just doesn’t work. You win with your best talent playing in their best positions. At least that’s my opinion. And since this is my blog, let’s leave it at that.

So it should be interesting to see how we line up on Saturday. Rosicky isn’t healthy, But Cesc, Arshavin, Theo and Nasri are all available. Will one be sacrificed so that a lesser player can come in? I hope not. Playing all of these attack minded players at the same time might put too much pressure on our current crop of defenders, but at least it gives us a chance to control the pace of the game. And at Old Trafford, where we have to win someday if we want a league or European title, controlling possession is crucial. The game on Saturday means very little, and it’s one that could be uncomfortable to sit through, but if Arsene Wenger wants to prove something about his team then my advice would be to play the best players he’s got. At least then we’ll get a chance to see how they stack up.

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About Yankee Gunner

Loyal Arsenal Supporter, Obscure Television Personality
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