Despite the impressive start Arsenal have made, leaving them at the summit of the Premier League table, recent performances have highlighted to me that with their current injuries, the Arsenal squad is reliant on a particular midfield composition which will be key to consolidating their position as title contenders. Also, I must admit I started drafting this article before the victory over Liverpool, which although was an important victory, nevertheless confirmed certain players, or at least the roles they fulfil are vital to Arsenal’s pursuit of silverware this season.
Firstly, I’d like to focus on Arsenal’s wide areas. The match against Crystal Palace saw Arsenal limp over the line, with the potential of an embarrassing result only eliminated by an inspired Wojciech Szczesny performance in goal. Their performance, despite huge amounts of possession, in the first half especially; lacked the cutting edge that players such as Özil, Ramsey and Giroud have provided on numerous occasions this season. So, why weren’t the gunners firing on all cylinders?
My answer lies in the cliché which titles this article and is one that seems to be very appropriate in modern day football as I have even used it to describe the situation at Chelsea. Too many cooks spoil the broth. The difference between its meaning when applying it to each of the London clubs is that the players at Stamford Bridge are being subordinated, whilst at the Emirates all of these players are accommodated, the opposite end of the spectrum. Chelsea’s problems lie in the fact that within their three attacking midfield players, they have a plethora of options when it comes to Oscar’s role in the centre. Controversy has surrounded their team selection as in order to be faithful to the composition Mourinho prefers, he has left out their player of the season last year, Juan Mata. My point is this. Mata is not playing as Mourinho does not want to disturb the style of play, whilst at Arsenal, principally because of circumstances induced by injuries and suspensions, their midfield five has in recent games lacked a necessary mixture of creativity, pace and caution.
The thought of seeing Santi Cazorla, Mesut Özil, Aaron Ramsey and Jack Wilshere all in the same side is a prospect that many Arsenal fans drooled over at the start of the season, and with the start they made, they have continued to drool. However, as I mentioned, against an extremely inferior opponent in the form of Crystal Palace, and a meticulous and well drilled defensive unit in Chelsea, Arsenal failed to display the mesmerising attacking football we have become accustomed to already this season. This superfluity of technically flawless playmakers I have mentioned is by no means a burden but due to their collective desire to be on the ball at all times in conjunction with Giroud’s role as a target man nullifies their ability to find killer passes and unpick defences, simply because there is no one to find. The lack of runs made means the opposition defence only have to concern themselves with what is in front of them and whilst Jack Wilshere’s orgasmic goal against Norwich proved they still have the ability to create chances from this position, goals like this are few and far between and thus should not function as Arsenal’s primary strategy to score goals. Therefore, despite the thought of seeing all these players on the pitch together causing so much excitement, the reality of this situation is frustration amongst the fans, as well as the players themselves. So, what is the missing attacking ingredient?
Despite being one of his biggest critics at time, his pace and direct approach to the game, as previously highlighted, is lacking in Arsenal’s play. The most recent paradigm consists of a group of players, with extremely similar styles of play. The likes of Ozil, Wilshere and Cazorla all like to to receive the ball from deep and into feet which breeds a style of play with few, if any, runners in behind the opposition defence and a subsequent inability to pull defenders away from the congested centre of the park. The two games before their encounter with Liverpool epitomised Arsenal’s desperate need for pace and width, and through Gnabry in the Crystal Palace game, they looked so much more dangerous due to the extra option he provided, and the space indirectly created by his running. Gnabry’s efficiency confirmed that Arsenal’s system and style of play flourishes with the inclusion of a more direct and pacy winger, something Walcott’s presence always provided, and may have gone unappreciated in the past.
However, even by adding natural width and pace to this concoction of extremely talented midfielders, this still leaves 4 players of virtually the same nature vying for possession of the football. Even with Walcott’s inclusion, the presence of Cazorla, Ozil, Ramsey and Wilshere on the pitch at the same time is still very much a possibility. Yes, we have found the reason why Arsenal are perhaps lacking ideas further up the pitch, but why did a Crystal Palace team of virtually no Premier League credentials cause the Gunners so many problems? The answer again lies in having too many players of the same disposition, and more importantly, an extremely attacking one. Therefore, the next area which is so key in making this Arsenal midfield function properly, is the second of the two deeper lying midfielders.
Aaron Ramsey has put all doubters to shame this season with an incredible goal scoring tally and some equally impressive all-round play. However, one aspect that has been overshadowed by his efforts in the attacking third this season, and also differentiates him from the likes of Cazorla and Ozil, is his relentless engine and ‘box-to-box’ mentality that was perhaps more evident towards the end of last season. This approach adds some defensive mentality to an otherwise full-scale offensive midfield, however despite all his efforts to be an omnipresence on the pitch, he himself does not provide adequate protection for the back four. So therefore, although Ramsey’s position as one of the two ‘deep lying’ midfield players is justified, the problems arise when he finds himself alongside the likes of Jack Wilshere or even Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, who before his injury was attempting to replicate the style of play we now associate with Aaron Ramsey himself. This brings me onto (finally) the idea that just as Theo Walcott is essential in ensuring a multidimensional attack, the presence of Mikel Arteta or Matheiu Flamini is equally as necessary in terms of ensuring the Arsenal team does not become too top heavy.
I don’t feel I’m stating anything revolutionary when emphasising the importance of these two players, however I do feel it needs to be said. Mikel Arteta has undergone a complete transformation since arriving at Arsenal, and his function in the Arsenal side was epitomised by his faultless performance against Liverpool on Saturday evening. The Spaniard demonstrated his tactical awareness through breaking up numerous Liverpool attacks, especially when the other defensively responsible players had failed him. Arteta also demonstrated a new rugged approach to his game through his tenacious tackling and commanding presence on the pitch. His display as Arsenal’s ‘midfield enforcer’ was something that I initially doubted he could adapt to, yet against Liverpool he proved me wrong. Even against Crystal Palace, despite his sending off – or even because of it – he showed the role he is now looking to play in the Arsenal midfield. He was Arsenal’s last line of defence and given the responsibility to shut down opposition attacks, he obliged, whether illegally or not.
Mikel Arteta, or Flamini (a player that I could praise for pages and pages, but have not focussed on due to keeping the article readable) act as the iron curtain in front of the defence. Yet more importantly, by breaking up play more efficiently than Wilshere or Chamberlain would be able to ensures that not only do Arsenal’s best players receive the ball more often, but more significantly means they receive it in more dangerous positions, further up the pitch.
In conclusion, the point of this article is to highlight that just because there is an array of talent available to Arsene Wenger in a specific area, I am more supportive of Jose Mourinho’s approach in which unfortunately quality players are left out as a team of individuals cannot win you the league. Arsenal’s bottomless pool of technically superb playmakers will not be the reason they pick up some silverware this season (if they do), it will be down to their ability to maintain a delicate balance in their midfield, a balance that cannot be obtained by filling it with five players of the exact same mentality. By deploying the likes of Theo Walcott in the wide right position and strengthening the core with either Arteta or Flamini, Arsenal’s midfield will be one in which each players complements and is complemented by the other players around them, resulting in one superb tasting broth.