The transfer rumour mill is in full cycle now the window is open and we have moved from M’Vila, to Javi Martinez to Lucas Biglia in the past few weeks, as our new ‘Defensive midfielder’ for next season. I happen to believe we will buy and I think the new arrival will be M’Vila, but I would like to explore the role we are seeking to fill and indeed whether the investment is actually necessary. There is a degree perhaps of me playing devil’s advocate but I wish to spend a bit of time considering the duties and rise to prominence of the role in 21st century football. Perhaps look at the qualities and skill set required to perform in this position in the EPL of 2012. I hope to impose some rational thinking and in the process maybe clear up what in my view are misconceptions.
My biggest issue with the whole debate is that it has become about Alex Song and his discipline or lack of discipline. Yes he could sit more and yes he could be the DM but I not only have an issue with the discussions on Song but guess what I even have an issue with the very term ‘defensive midfielder’ and what it means.
Now I could write a book on this subject but that is not for today. What is for today is to look at the role and the attributes required, and crucially to look at it in our formation, or perhaps a variation on it? To understand this we need to look at how the modern game had evolved this century, because the very term defensive suggests tough tackling and whilst that may have been the role in the past it is not now.
For me this role is better described as the ‘anchor’ role and of course many might call it the ‘Makelele’ role as the job became synonymous with French international Claude Makelele early this century. I would tend to agree with them as it is this role initially with Real Madrid and then at Chelsea that made both teams so successful, but was it a defensive role? Yes as the anchor midfield man there is a huge defensive responsibility but it the team that has an accomplished individual in the role that has the licence to attack with confidence and freedom. So for Makelele and those who have mastered the role since it is the first element of the offensive stage?
If you are not convinced by me perhaps you will take heed of one of the greatest talents the world of football has ever see, and Makelele’s team mate in the 2002 Champions league winning side. Zidane on his compatriot after he had left for Chelsea:
“I think Claude has this kind of gift – he’s been the best player in the team for years but people just don’t notice him, don’t notice what he does. But you ask anyone at Real Madrid during the years we were talking about and they will tell you he was the best player at Real. We all knew, the players all knew he was the most important. The loss of Makélelé was the beginning of the end for Los Galacticos… You can see that it was also the beginning of a new dawn for Chelsea. He was the base, the key and I think he is the same to Chelsea now.”
It does not sound as if Zidane is describing the loss if a defensive cog in the Galiticos machine does it?
The dual impact of Makelele and a manager in Mourinho who understood the role was breathtaking. Arsenal fans were still celebrating the unbeaten season before they realised that Chelsea had won back to back titles and the Makelele role was key. But why was this role for Makelele having more of an impact than perhaps the Gilberto or Flamini role at Arsenal? The reason lies in the development of tactics and the new formations being used and the move away perhaps from the traditional 442.
The new formations, 433, 451 or 4231 as we use now at Arsenal were a key factor in developing the ‘DM’ role as it is today, because they have lead to the decline in the use of traditional second forwards, the classic ‘Number 10.’ We’re seeing less of players in the Zinedine Zidane, Dennis Bergkamp mould, and more like Ronaldo or Messi, who have free roles but more often than not start from wide areas. This is critical when assessing the anchor midfield role because with the absence of a creator for the deep lying midfielder to stop, the emphasis on this player being a tough tackling destroyer is lessened.
The second fundamental change, for which Arsenal and Wenger can take huge credit, at least in this country is the style of attacking football. For us and more and more of the top sides it is about high tempo, short, quick passing and probing in the final third. So this has lead to a change in the dynamics and balance between the last ditch tackle and the interception. Now English fans, more than most love a strong challenge but these days it is far more often about reading the game or a passage of play and making an interception. If as a defender of a deep midfielder you can intercept the pass to the player you are marking rather than tackling him, you are not risking giving away a free-kick in a dangerous area and a booking. Of course the secondary benefit of the intelligent player making an interception instead of a tackle is that you have possession of the football and may be in a position to launch a swift counter attack. It was this that Claude Makelele did so much better than others at Madrid and then at Chelsea.
So in modern day Premiership the holding/anchor/defensive midfielder needs not necessarily to be a tough tackler but to be an intelligent reader of the game and the flow and passages of play. He needs to be in a position to closely observe not only the movement of the ball, but crucially also the movement of opposition players. It is this payer who Arsenal need as their deepest player and it is he who will make interceptions at not last gasp tackles. In the whole of the 2004/5 season in 36 EPL appearances as Chelsea’s DFM Makelele committed only 46 fouls. To me this is nothing short of incredible to be at only just over one foul per game, in the toughest league in Europe. It won’t surprise you to know that Alex Song averaged well over 2 per game this past season.
The next key attribute for the player in this deep role in the game today is that he MUST be a quality passer of the football, as giving away possession deep in your own half can be dangerous. The passing game therefore of this player needs to be bereft of error so short simple passes are often the order of the day. So this player will frequently be playing short innocuous balls and they will frequently be sideways of backwards and this is fine as long as his side retains the possession.
Sir Alex Ferguson summarised it rather well:
“The idea behind the 4-5-1 is that you can control the midfield and keep possession of the ball – that’s always your aim when you use that formation. I believe the team that has possession of the ball has more opportunities to win the match. As for the 4-4-2, there is more emphasis in that formation placed on playing the ball forward…playing 4-5-1 requires a lot of patience.”
Of course because this player has to play as I have described and he is sometimes under appreciated by fans of other teams but seldom by his own supporters. In United and Ferguson’s case the player in question who reads the game, smells the danger and keeps the ball moving swiftly simply in front of the back four is Michael Carrick. Now would you describe Carrick as a defensive midfielder because he is certainly not a tough tackler? Perhaps you would not but I would describe him as the anchor midfielder. Capable of a long searching pass, but more frequently giving it simple to Scholes or Giggs ahead or Nani, Young or Valencia wide , or even to an advancing full back. This is the modern day Makelele style individual and this is the type of player Arsenal are looking to potentially buy. Again if you won’t accept my take on this perhaps you might listen to the player who currently just might be the best exponent in Europe , when he talked about Carrick before the last World Cup:
“If they are on top of their game and if Carrick plays, because for me he is a top player, then England will have a chance. If Carrick plays for the national team the way that he does for Manchester United, then it would be very good news for England. I think that he could easily fit in the Spanish system because I really like the way he plays. He reads the game so well, he is always ahead of what is going to happen and he is always in the right position. When he gets the ball, he plays it easy and he is available to his team-mates all the time. For me, he has the profile to play for Barcelona or any of the Spanish teams. He would also be very complimentary to Stevie.”
This is Xabi Alonso suggesting Carrick would provide a perfect platform for his old team mate Stevie Gerrard. Capello ignored the advice and used Gareth Barry and it appears Hodgson has done the same. In the whole of 2011/12 Carrick in 27 Premier League starts only committed 20 fouls and this is due to his reading of the attacking play and his not needing to resort to difficult tackles.
Carrick better than Arteta?
So let’s pull this analysis together and bring it back to Arsenal. Carrick is already 30 and perfectly suited to this anchor role in the present game. A few years back had you asked him when at Spurs and first at Old Trafford I am fairly certain he would have described himself as a creative midfielder or box to box, but not now. The Premiership has thrown up many other examples of highly intelligent footballers adapting their game as they matured. Hoddle and Gullit at Chelsea, Robson and Keane at Manchester United. For me the best example of this in 2011/12 was Mikel Arteta and in the last few weeks with aplomb Frank Lampard in the Champions League Semi and Final
I would virtually guarantee that we all saw Arteta as a direct short-term replacement, with Premiership experience who could step into Cesc’s boots for a season or so, whilst Ramsey and Wilshere continued to mature. However with Jack’s long-term injury Mikel has found himself playing deeper than he ever did at Everton and I think he has quite enjoyed it? Certainly he has been the rock in our midfield and without him we have floundered. Why because he is the only one in the absence of Wilshere and a young Coquelin with the discipline for the role. Song has demonstrated he cannot sit and Ramsey simply does not have the maturity.
So think of the new DM role I have described. You need maturity, discipline, intelligence and a reading of the game that comes with years of top flight experience. The reading of the game which leads to the ability to make interceptions instead of tackles. This has to be combined with a precise passing game encompassing the short and simple and the longer out pass when required. The player I am describing is Mikel Arteta and in 2012/12 he finished the season with the highest pass completion of any player in the EPL at 91%. I am sure if I could pick up the phone to Xabi Alonzo and ask him his views on his friend who he grew up with he would agree with me. A question then for you Gooners. Is Mikel Arteta a better footballer than Michael Carrick? Hell yes.
In a whole season he has committed only 40 fouls and had 4 bookings whilst Song has 73 fouls and 10 bookings. Mikel Arteta is the player to sit deeper and allow Alex to play further up the pitch. If we do intend sign M’Vila he also can play there but let us not forget that Arteta is 29 and has 7 year in this league whereas the Frenchman is nearly 22 and has really on 3 years in Ligue 1. It will take him time to adapt if he does indeed arrive this summer.
To conclude I would suggest, assuming Wenger will not revert to 442 in the main, that we use a slight variation in our current formation and deploy as 4141 or 4132 depending on the opposition. This way Arteta or perhaps or M’Vila /Coquelin can genuinely sit in front of the defence as Busquets does for Barca. This will remove the need for the 2 deeper players, usually Song and Arteta deciding who should stay and who should go, because Alex has proven incapable on occasions of exercising the required discipline. Will the one player permanently sitting the 2 more advanced central roles to be occupied by Roscicky, Wilshere, Song, Ramsey or Diaby.
The line up and formation to vary our current set up and give sole anchoring midfield duties to Arteta or potentially M’Vila or Coquelin would look like this:
I look forward to hearing your views but just ask yourselves honestly, if you could trust any one player in our current squad to play the deep lying, holding, anchor, defensive midfield position as Makelele played it, would it be anyone other than Mikel Arteta? I suspect the answer is no so give him the pay rise he has earned.
Until next time thanks for reading.
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