26 September 2013

Thursday Throwdown: So what the hell should the midfield look like, anyway?

ANDREW: Well Jon, now that we've had a chance to see our German savior in action it seems a good time to discuss the state of the center of the pitch. If we entertain the wild fantasy that everyone will be in perfect health, what would our ideal midfield look like to you? I have turned this over in my head for a while now and always come back to the same lineup, so is it possible that we might actually agree, thus defeating the whole purpose of the Thursday Throwdown? I would put Arteta back in his role as holding midfielder, Ramsey as our box-to-box, Santi on the left (drifting into the center), Theo on the right, and Özil bossing the entire league at the CAM spot. Can it be that simple?"

JON: Those are the obvious picks, yes, but I don't know if they make for a terribly balanced midfield - particularly against tough opponents.

I think the problem here starts with Arteta - as good as he is as a "metronome," I've never been completely convinced that he provides much cover for the defense. He's a regulator, not an enforcer. With Arteta and Ramsey the central pairing, I worry that Arsenal will be a little light on graft and ball-winning ability against the most elite midfields in Europe, approximately all of whom are in the club's Champion's League group.

Arteta, irked.
wonker from London /CC License

ANDREW: I feel like Arteta does not quite get the credit that he deserves when he plays as the holding midfielder in Arsenal's system. He was 13th in tackles per game and 8th in interceptions per game in the Premier League last season (stats courtesy of www.whoscored.com), showing that he not only gets stuck in but also has solid positional awareness. He's not a huge, bull-you-over midfielder but he breaks up attacks, cuts out forward passes, and gets the ball moving quickly in the other direction.

That being said, I feel he is the best option available on this squad, not the best option Arsenal would have if they made a move to upgrade the position. Arteta has played very well for Arsenal during his time with the club, but he is 31 years old and playing a position that requires him to be physical and quick. There's no confusion over why the Gunners were linked with Lars Bender and Luis Gustavo during the summer transfer window (though there is some over why Wolfsburg were the ones to come away with Gustavo), but since those players aren't with the club, I believe Arteta is the man for the job. Do you think someone else in the squad fits the role better?

JON: I don't want to dwell unduly on Arteta, who I actually do think is a great midfielder and didn't do a terrible job playing in front of the defense, but there were times he looked out of his depth - he led the team in yellow cards and was fourth in the entire league in terms of fouls per game. (Thanks again, whoscored!)

The answer to your question, in any case, is Mathieu Flamini. While he is undoubtedly a less gifted footballer than Arteta, he's a tireless midfield harasser and ball-winner. Deployed in a strictly defensive role, he helps free up Ramsey, Özil and the wingers to concentrate more on creating chances than trying to win the ball back.

ANDREW: Curses, hoist by my own stats-centric petard! You are correct, Arteta is good for some fouls and even yellows when disrupting play as Arsenal's offense has to transition to defense. It is possible that other players would step in more cleanly and take the ball away without fouling, but any defensive midfielder has to use the foul as a tool in his belt so Arteta's numbers in that department don't bother me much. If Flamini sees as much time in the lineup this year as Arteta did last year then I have no doubt his numbers will get up there as well. I'm fairly certain blinding people is still considered an offense.

Either way though, I feel comfortable with the position. Not fantastic, but comfortable. Arteta and Flamini are different players whose strengths lie in opposing areas, but they both bring to the table a good balance of distribution, tackling, and positional play. Neither are the young up-and-coming star that I would love to have protecting the defense, but both do a job and are welcome in the squad.

I can't imagine that we'll debate much about Aaron Ramsey being first choice as the box-to-box midfielder (though feel free to correct me if I'm wrong), so let's move to the three of our 4-2-3-1. In an ideal world (an injury-free world where lanky French midfielders may gallop as they please), I have Santi on the left, Özil in the CAM role behind Giroud, and Theo on the right. I think this arrangement works perfectly because it plays to the strengths of each player. Özil loves to drift from side to side during play, both in order to find space vacated by other players and to make small runs that free up space for his teammates. He should have plenty of room to work with because Theo tests the opponent's back four with his pace and almost plays like a second forward at times. On the left, Santi likes to receive the ball in space and then drift into the middle of the field where he can link up with a variety of attackers to carve open defenses. Because neither of the outside players are strictly vertical wingers, Özil should be able to use his movement and trickery to great effect. Does this make sense as the normal midfield alignment going forward?
Ramsey, in search of victims.
Ronnie MacDonald /CC License

JON: It makes sense, but we still haven't addressed the chippy, English elephant in the room - what happens to Jack Wilshere now? Even when he's back to full fitness and not playing like George Weah's cousin, it's tricky to see where he fits into the starting 11.

You can't drop Ramsey on this form, you can't drop Özil because get real, and even when he's on his game, he's unsuited both tactically and temperamentally to lying deep. The only thing I can think of is sticking him back out on the left, but that's far from his best position. Plus, you'd have to either drop Cazorla outright or drop Walcott and stick Santi out on the right. Or maybe some kind of asymetric formation, which I hear the cool kids are all into these days.

ANDREW: Ah, yes, what is to be done with Jack? The reality is that he doesn't fit in the squad at the moment. Even if he was completely fit, the simple fact is that everyone else in the midfield is playing better. Santi and Özil need to be on the field for every big game and Theo's pace presents a huge problem for defenses that are already trying to deal with Giroud's physicality. Ramsey is MOTM more often than not and it would be death to play Jack at holding midfielder. Unfortunately he must be second choice at this point.

The good(?) news is that Arsenal have slight injury concerns that open up a little more space. Santi isn't back to full match fitness and Theo will be out roughly a month with an abdominal injury, so there are chances to fit Jack into the lineup. I could be oversimplifying but I think game time is really what our nominal number 10 needs at this point. He needs to play, he needs to develop connections with his teammates, and he needs to get back up to speed. We could see some strange combinations with Jack on the left and Özil on the right, Jack playing in the CAM spot, or even a change in formation (though I think the latter is very unlikely). It may be an awkward situation, trying to fit all of the midfield talent onto the pitch at the same time, but that is one of those good problems to have.

JON: Jack playing behind the striker? Come on. While I agree that it's his best position, who'd pick him over Mesut Özil? The only thing that stops this from actually being a pretty serious career problem for Wilshere is that he plays for Arsenal, so somebody's bound to get hurt or start playing like shit. You know how it is, scoring four goals against Liverpool one day, dog food the next. Maybe it'll be like one of those things where Le Boss pretends Theo Walcott's a striker for a couple months, then puts him right back out on the wing once he's signed a new deal.


  1. Good analysis by i disagree that jack is best behind the striker, Jack is best as a box to box midfielder or a deep-lying play maker where he wins the ball and runs at players in the middle of the pitch and opens up play not behind the striker like ozil and cazorla....

  2. I may have used poor wording but I was referring to the fact that Jack actually does wear the number 10, not that he is a Number 10 in terms of tactics. I agree that he's better receiving the ball deeper and as of now, he'd probably be best where Ramsey is playing. But Ramsey is playing where Ramsey is playing and that shouldn't change anytime soon.