After my last piece on the confusion between our desire for a defensive midfielder and/or midfield enforcer, my friend and occasional contributor to 1ND2OU Jane Cavendish, left an extremely insightful comment. She augmented what I had been discussing which was the confusion and perhaps the distinction between a DM and a midfield enforcer. I have written frequently that with so few teams playing and old style 442 with a Bergkamp style 10 that the old school DM would ‘knobble,’ the role is far more about game reading and interception. The last piece was suggesting we needed a new DM who combined the best of the midfield physicality and game intelligence and we all know my choice for the role. Jane however set me thinking and here is what she said:
You’ve put your finger on an important but subtle distinction that many fans seem to ignore.
Being “physical” in midfield has a very specific meaning in this instance I think, and that is the ability to retain possession when being pressed. Increasingly in the modern game it is not the physicality of ball-winning that matters so much, as tackling decreases in importance and frequency, putting a premium instead on positional intelligence and the ability to “show” the ball carrier into safe areas and to make interception.
Lee Dixon said in an interview once that before Vieira arrived, whenever he had the ball his only option was usually to play it up the right flank, usually long and usually aerially. But with Paddy’s arrival, Dixon first option was now suddenly to look for Paddy immediately because he knew the French kid had both the strength and technique to hold the ball with back to goal when challenged by an aggressive press, turn and then play it forward, transitioning defence into attack. This new out-ball option from defence, said Dixon, transformed the way the team played more than any other single factor.
It is something this current team lacks. Arteta (when not injured), while having an excellent and underrated sense of defensive positioning, can be knocked off the ball too easily when he’s facing his own goal and is being pressed by two or more of the opposition midfield. Dortmund and Bayern are two of the sides who have had particular success with this tactic. Jack Wilshere struggles for a different reason as he’s so one-footed, he’s very easy to read. If the pressing player knows Jack can only turn one way or let the ball run across him, it’s much easier to close him down. Ramsey has never shown he can perform this function either, as he usually lets Arteta pick the ball up from defence, though it would be interesting to see if he could. It would mean sacrificing some of his freedom to charge into forward areas, but perhaps in the overall balance of the team it would be worth it.
Better still, would be to sign a player like Schneiderlin or Gundongen who have the strength and technique to do it too.
Now interestingly enough I had asked Jane if I could use the comment in a new piece and share what I felt were excellent observations, before Arsenal’s performance v City on Sunday. Now Jane and I don’t quite agree on what the formation was on Sunday. I feel it was a 4141 and Jane a 433 but we both intuitively spotted was what Santi Cazorla did in relation to the previous article and comment above.
Here was Jane’s observation:
“It’s an even more interesting subject for a blog after Sunday, given the way Cazorla fell into the role now that Wenger has finally decided to play a deeper 4-3-3. The key to Santi’s availability as an out ball was not only his physicality but that when City tried to press him he was able to turn away from them in both directions.”
Now whether you feel it was a 433, a 4231 or a 433 what was undeniable is that Santi Cazorla was playing a far deeper and more disciplined role than we are used to seeing him play. On the wing he lacked defensive discipline but as we saw versus City and indeed previously against Stoke the diminutive Spaniard he demonstrated it superbly. It was as fine a performance as I have witnessed from an Arsenal player in that role and certainly in the tougher away matches or against key rivals I would like to see it reprised.
Another advantage of Cazorla playing a deeper role is that it may allow Wenger to re-introduce Ozil in the more advanced central role he favours and we favour seeing him in. Certainly if Santi was to play further forward you would be hard pushed to make a case for Mesut to dislodge him at present. Playing Cazorla deeper alongside Coquelin would undoubtedly work although I am not sure Ramsey and Wilshere will be voting for it!!
Coquelin and Cazorla as a double act without a shiny new DM has huge merit from now until May. Coquelin has excelled in snuffing out the danger, covering the gaps and keeping it simple but Santi gives the keeper and the back four the out ball under pressure that Jane discussed earlier and the ability for Arsenal to transfer from defence to attack with ease.
It is his complete 2 footedness and low centre of gravity that allows him turn either way when being pressed facing his own goal that gives him a huge advantage over Ramsey or Wilshere. This realisation particularly excited me because it struck a chord with my recent book project. Yes the last player at Arsenal who was completely 2 footed was Geordie Armstrong, so similar in stature to Santi.
This is a direct quote in my book from multi-award winning Football journalist, Patrick Collins who offered some wonderful insight into how Geordie was the catalyst for the Arsenal side of 71 to turn defence to attack with speed.
“Geordie was Arsenal’s outlet when clearing their lines. He never failed to receive the ball, then skip the first challenge in his own half before setting off on the offensive – either alone or through and incisive pass to a team mate.”
Now if I substituted Santi for Geordie and dropped that quote into a match report for the City game it would have read perfectly would it not?
What is certain is the form of Coquelin and Cazorla has given Arsene Wenger a dilemma or two but I am sure he is delighted to have selection decisions for a change, at least in some areas. Sunday will give him a chance to rest a few and see a few of the returning stars in action but I cannot see Coquelin being rotated.
In all the euphoria and excitement this week what must not be overlooked is that we have only a few weeks left of the winter window and whilst we are spoilt for choice in midfield we are still in real need of either defensive cover or indeed a central defender to challenge or rotate. I have my own thoughts on who I would like to see but if you want to find out who the bookies are taking the money on then check bettingwebsites.org and the football section has the odds for all the potential movers this window including those linked to Arsenal or who are reported to be interesting Arsenal . I cannot see midfielder arriving this month now in addition to Beleik but I still think a certain Morgan Schneiderlin will be N5 bound this summer.
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To read about a true club legend, Geordie Armstrong click here or soon to be available from Arsenal Direct.