All summer long, Arsenal fans have cried out for new signings. We wants strikers. We want wingers. We want central defenders. We want a left back to replace Gael Clichy. Some still believe we need a goal keeper. And some even want a new manager. But with all the madness surrounding Arsenal’s supposedly “very active” summer in the transfer market, there’s been little attention paid to the area of real concern: defensive midfield.
Arsenal have only one Song. It’s a clever line, and it’s factually accurate. Unfortunately, it’s also true in the figurative sense. Arsenal have only one true defensive midfielder at the club. Within seconds of reading that sentence some will declare that we have Francis Coquelin and Emmanuel Frimpong, but I ask that you hold those objections for the moment. Within the recognized first team as it currently exists, we have only one true defensive minded midfielder.
It’s at this point that the tactically minded readers will want to discuss the “double pivot.” You might suggest that we don’t need a true defensive midfielder because our midfielders move fluidly around the pitch and there are actually two men in midfield always prepared to protect the back four. I will readily admit that I will never be mistaken for Zonal Marking’s Michael Cox when it comes to tactics. But I do believe that we need a true defensive midfielder, and I further believe that the statistics bear that out.
Everyone seems to agree that defending has been Arsenal’s achilles heel. And that consensus has lead to the general belief that Arsenal need to sign a center-back this summer. I would agree with that to some extent. However, I would also suggest that having a settled, quality goal-keeper is also essential to the success of any defense. This season, Arsenal have reason to feel optimistic about the goal-keeping situation for the first time in several seasons.
But Arsenal do have quality central defenders. There’s no denying Thomas Vermaelen’s abilities, and both Johan Djourou and Laurent Koscielny impressed in spells throughout the last campaign. Both were playing their first full season for Arsenal’s first team (for different reasons), and both should improve this season. While Sebastien Squillaci isn’t anyone’s favorite defender, it’s rare that the fourth choice center-back at any club is little more than emergency backup. And of course I’m obliged to mention young Miquel, who may feature for the first team at some point in the near or distant future. So it’s fair to say that Arsenal’s stable of central defenders is far from empty.
In the defensive midfield, however, Arsenal are terrifyingly understaffed. Alex Song has emerged over the past two seasons as a quality defensive midfielder capable of ascending to the highest levels at his position. He gives his team a physical presence in the middle of the park, and knows how to tackle. When Song is in the starting eleven, Arsenal are more successful generally, and more successful defensively.
Now is the moment in this article when I delve into statistics. Statistical analysis is not my strong suit and it’s unlikely that the good folks at Opta will appreciate my efforts. So if you want to attack my subsequent analysis I suggest you hold your objections because I readily acknowledge my shortcomings. But I think these statistics are relevant to the debate so I intend to use them while accepting that statistics are not always conclusive.
Over the last two seasons, Arsenal are better when Alex Song starts. Much better. Arsenal won 60% of its premier league matches when Alex Song started, compared with only 43% when he did not. Looking at last season in isolation, the disparity was even more dramatic with Arsenal winning only 13% of its games without Song, and 60% with him. Bear in mind that Manchester United won the league last season with a 60.5% win percentage.
It’s worth noting that Arsenal only played 8 games without Song during the 2010-2011 premier league season. But I believe that 8 out of 38 games is statistically relevant. And the statistics become even more revelatory the further you delve. For example, Arsenal kept 12 clean sheets in 30 games with Song starting. We kept just one clean sheet in the 8 games he didn’t start.
The scoring totals make for unhappy reading as well. We allowed 30 goals in 30 premier league games when Alex Song was roaming the midfielder. That’s an average of 1 goal allowed per game. (I did that math without a calculator!) But when he was missing, we allowed 13 goals in 8 games, for an average of 1.65 goals per game. Again, Manchester United won the league allowing 0.97 goals per game.
When you look at it that way, you start to see a problem. With Alex Song in the lineup, our win percentage and goals allowed compare similarly to the league champions. Without him, it’s more like mid-table, or worse. I recognize that the sample set for the last season is relatively small. Eight games might be statistically relevant, but perhaps not conclusive. Having said that, you can also judge with your eyes. When Denilson plays instead of Alex Song, are we as solid defensively? I think that’s an easy question to answer.
Take the game at Newcastle as an example of our current problem. While no one wants to relive that nightmare, it’s instructive when considering our problems at defensive midfield. That day, Abou Diaby started in midfield with Cesc Fabregas and Jack Wilshere. We dominated the game so thoroughly in the first half, that it mattered little which midfielder was meant to protect the back four. But after Diaby was sent off, the game changed dramatically.
With only Wilshere and Fabregas in the middle of the park, we started to get overrun. Arsene needed to bring on another midfielder who could break up the play and sit in front of the defense. So who did Arsene bring into the match? Tomas Rosicky. You might say that’s because Wenger is a fool. We were completely on the back foot and Newcastle were moving through the midfield effortlessly. Why bring on Rosicky? Simple. He didn’t have a single defensive minded midfielder on the bench that day. Granted, he could’ve brought on Squillaci and moved Djourou into midfield. He could’ve brought on Eboue and stuck him in midfield. But the fact remains, he didn’t have anyone to properly play the holding role that day after Diaby was sent off. And we paid for it with a historic collapse.
But that’s purely anecdotal analysis. What about more beautiful, eye-popping, page-turning statistics? Well, we’ve got more of those too! Alex Song’s personal defensive statistics stand out among our midfield players. Here are some other interesting statistics from last season.
Song averaged 3.3 tackles per game. That was second only to Gael Clichy’s 3.4 last season. The next closest midfielder is Denilson with 2.1. That’s a massive difference obviously. Our other “defensive midfielder,” Abou Diaby averaged 1.8. Just to put that into context a bit, Andrey Arshavin averaged 1.5 and few regard him as a defensive asset.
Song is our best interceptor of the ball in midfield. He averaged 2.6 interceptions, second only to Clichy once again. But the next best interceptor in midfield was Jack Wilshere at 1.5 per game. More than an interception less per game than Alex Song. Denilson and Diaby were both at 1.1. Again just a shade better than Arshavin’s 0.9.
Song once again dominates the midfield in clearances. His 2 clearances per game were obviously fewer than all our defenders, but most among midfielders with Diaby ranking second at 1.5. Interestingly, this is a statistic where Denilson lags far behind at 0.6 clearances per game. That’s just better than half the clearances we get from Robin van Persie. I think this statistic is one that shows defensive awareness, aggression and work-rate. So it’s no surprise to me that it’s one of Denilson’s poorer statistical categories. And also one of Arshavin’s worst categories. He rates lowest on the team in clearances.
Another area where Alex Song excelled last season was fouling. He did it a lot. In fact, he lead the team in fouls per game at 2.2. Denilson was the second most indiscreet player in the midfield with 1.1 fouls per game. While you could suggest that fouling is a sign of poor discipline and it hurts the team, I’d argue that some fouls are goal-savers. Fouling a player at the midfield stripe is brilliant when compared with allowing a counter-attack to develop. While I don’t have the statistics showing where Song committed his fouls, I think you need a player in midfield who is willing to do that dirty work. I think Song does foul too often and would like to see him eliminate some of the stupid fouling from his game, but I do think we can look at that statistic as marginal evidence of his commitment to the physical side of the game.
In fact, the only important defensive statistical category where Alex Song does not particularly excel is in aerial duels. Which may go some way to explaining why we struggle on set-pieces. But in every other statistical category relevant to defending that I was able to find, it seems clear to me that Alex Song is not only our best defensive midfielder, but that the gap between Song and the next suitable option is cavernous. I realize that some of these statistics have probably not been used according to the strictest guidelines for analysis, but I still believe they have bearing on the discussion.
Now consider Arsenal’s glory days under Wenger. Who did he have patrolling the midfield during the invincible season of 2003-2004? Gilberto Silva and Patrick Vieira. Silva was known as the “invisible wall” and Vieria combined his silky skills with power and aggression that intimidated opponents. Before Gilberto Silva arrived, Vieira was partnered with Emmanuel Petit. In the case of both midfield partnerships, their contributions made the defense look better. Arsenal had legendary defenders to be sure, but there’s no question that the defensive nous of the midfielders in front of them contributed to the team’s general stinginess.
One of the worst parts of Arsenal’s 2010-2011 season was the way the team threw away leads. But perhaps, if Wenger had a better defensive midfield option on the substitutes bench, that wouldn’t be a problem. Consider how nice it would be, when Arsenal are protecting a one-goal lead late in the match, to bring on another defensive midfielder of Alex Song’s quality, in place of an attacking option. At the moment, that option is Denilson or About Diaby. But I think very few Arsenal fans genuinely believe they really do the job.
And while it seems unfair to suggest the Denilson or Diaby should really be considered defensive midfielders, it’s hard to name another one in the first team. If Alex Song were to suffer an injury this season, the starting defensive midfielder would be either Denilson or Abou Diaby. However, most people believe Denilson will be sold. And About Diaby has undergone surgery that could keep him out for the start of the season. Moreover, with his injury track record, it’s really unreasonable to depend on him at all. So if Alex Song was out with an injury, it’s quite possible that the starting defensive midfielder would be…well…Johan Djourou.
That brings us to the next problem. Arsene Wenger might expect to use Djourou as a back-up to Alex Song, but that only serves to thin the ranks at center-back where we already believe we may be weak. Djourou is likely to be the first choice option to pair with Thomas Vermaelen in the center of defense this season. But wait, Vermaelen might have to deputize at left-back when Gibbs is out. So we move Vermaelen to left-back, and Djourou to midfield and then start Koscielny and Squillaci in the center of defense! I certainly hope not. Frankly, you can’t just start taking your best players from one position and using them to plug holes at other positions. It’s like taking a band-aid (plaster) off one wound, and using it to cover another wound. Something is always exposed.
So that leaves us with young Coquelin and Frimpong. Neither have played any real first team football for Arsenal and Frimpong is coming off a season long injury spell. At a time when many fans want to harangue Arsene Wenger for relying on youth, it seems silly to start pointing to completely untested youth as the solution to one of our most worrying positional deficiencies. We need a proper, quality, senior defensive midfielder. It’s really as as simple as that. And I think it’s very clear that Wenger doesn’t see it that way. At least not if his public statements are to be believed.
But with Denilson heading out, Diaby injured and Cameroon still having a slim chance of qualifying for the African Cup of Nations, it’s almost impossible to imagine who will line up at the defensive midfield position for Arsenal other than an untested youngster. Considering the vast improvement needed in Arsenal’s defensive record, it’s hard to imagine how an inexperienced holding midfielder will help. Unfortunately, that may be the only solution we get for a problem that could be the difference between a win percentage that can get us a league title, and one that sees us slip to mid-table.