Friday, 8 May 2009

Midfield Dilemmas

Its far too early in the summer for any proper reflection on this season, and the wounds suffered during the three semi-finals are still too fresh, but I get the impression that many Arsenal fans are a little bewildered at the moment and some early stock taking might ease us through this. If nothing else, we need to avoid a massive knee jerk reaction.

The starting point is to look back to where we were in January. I think if we had been offered 4th place sewn up with games to spare, and a tilt against Chelsea and Manure in two semi-finals, then I would expect 99% of Arsenal fans would have taken it.

Liverpool, the eternal media-love-in English team, did not reach either semi-final. Yet I guarantee you that the press write ups over the summer will bathe Liverpool's achievements this season in a warm light and provide ambitious predictions that next year is the one for the Scousers. We will get the opposite treatment. Our squad is too thin, too young and too inexperienced. We will be told that Wenger must go out buy, and buy big over the summer, or we will not win anything next year.

My tuppence is that the truth lies somewhere in the middle. I think there is no escaping that Arsenal were caught short in the big semi-final games. We simply did not have the weapons to beat Chelsea and Manure when the going got tough. However, before I chuck some mud at a couple of players, its worth pointing a few things out:

Arshavin did not play in any of the semi-finals. At the moment, he is the star man in our squad. He will be available next year. I also cannot help feeling that Wenger was an idiot for not playing Arshavin against Chelsea.

I don't want to bleat, but our injury record is, yet again, appalling. We went into these big games without proven internationals like Gallas, Clichy, Eduardo (and Rosicky). RVP is also constantly plagued by niggling injuries. I have said before that there appears to be a sick-note culture at Arsenal, which I think reflects in the style of players we have.

That said, the mighty Arsenal teams of previous years only made the Champs League semi-finals once before. Vieira never played in one for us. It is a good achievement that our young kids have got this far and I have no doubt that many of them will pick up medals in the future. If we have patience, then it will be in an Arsenal shirt.

However, the conclusion that I have reached so far, and this echoes 1979's thoughts, is that our midfield lacks the right blend of players. Apart from Song, they are all ball-players. Gifted footballers, but very polite and sophisticated in their style of play.

Manure dominated the midfield in both games because Fergie deployed his workhorses of Fletcher and Andersen at home, and added Park away. Players who fight for every ball, every square inch of turf and who never give up. Perhaps Nasri does not deserve too much of a bollocking, but I was immensely disappointed with Cesc and Theo over the two legs.

Alex Song was almost certainly the best Arsenal player in both semi-finals. Nasri worked his socks off but had too much to cover. I don't recall Cesc doing a single thing in either game that made Arsenal fans shout his name in joy. He had a shocker. In fact, I think he has had a bad season overall.

But I am not condemning him. Cesc has had an amazing start to his career, took Vieira's shirt at Arsenal, played in the Champions League final in 2006, had a real shout at being the best midfielder in the Prem in 2007 and then played an instrumental role in Spain's winning team at the Euro's. That is the sort of stuff that dreams are made of. But for my money, its gone wrong a bit this season for him. Next season he could easily be back to his world beating best - I certainly hope so.

The balance of the midfield is wrong. I continue to think that Walcott is not a right midfielder. Theo is a real talent but the graft of midfield is not suited to him. Hleb was not everyone's cup of tea, but he knew how to play the wide midfield role. Its not Theo's fault that he is being played at right midfield, and he usually tries his very best, but we just don't see the best of him in that position. And this poses Wenger with a massive headache.

Manure came and thrashed us at the Emirates without a recognised centre-forward (Rooney plays in the hole), and with a work-horse midfield. Park gets forward a bit, but Ronaldo was their main outlet and generates space to move in because there are no other Manure players in his way. Thats only two, or maybe three, attacking players in the entire team.

Contrast Arsenal, who started both legs with a funny 4-5-1 formation, but with a plethora of attacking players. Apart from Song, I would put our entire midfield in the "attacking" bracket of style. I just don't see how we can blend Ade, RVP, Bendtner, Eduardo, Vela, Arshavin, Theo, Nasri and Cesc into a cohesive and powerful team. That's 9 good attacking players looking to get regular football - it just doesn't work. Wenger has amassed the Harlem Globetrotters of football.

We can have a long and healthy debate some other time about which of the 9 above players are worth keeping, but my point is that our so-called defensive or work-horse midfielders are Song, Denilson and Diaby. Maybe Ramsey as well. The truth, as we have all known all season, is that Wenger made a big mistake when he let Gilberto and Flamini go and didn't replace them. A good midfield works hard to break the opposition down and to create chances for our attacking players. We didn't create a single good chance against Manure.

In my book, the only solution is to push Theo forwards and free-up another space in midfield for a work horse. It would have to be a 4-3-3 system. You play a tight three in midfield of Song / Cesc and someone else (Denilson/Ramsey/Barry?), and leave space for an advanced three ahead and wide of them. Think how Mourinho used to play Drogba, Robben and Duff.

I just have no idea who our advanced three would be.


1979gooner said...


Maybe some players such as Diaby have run out of time to prove themselves, especially given injury records.

Denilson is certainly no defensive player and making him play a holding role is not ideal. Ramsey is pretty attacking too.

We clearly need at least on defensive player for the squad, as we can't just rely on Song.

As you also say Walcott is suited to a right midfield role, if we could find a Ray parlour type for that position then great, easier said than done.

It will be interesting to see which of the kids get near the squad in the next year, we have some talent in midfield in Coquelin, Emmanuel-Thomas and Frimpong.

K man said...

I like the idea of 4-3-3. RvP already knows how to play it as does Arshavin so it shouldn't be too hard.

How about this, assuming no signings:

Arshavin - Ade - RvP

Nasri - Song - Cesc

Clichy - Djourou - Kolo - Sagna

Anonymous said...

good article, especially about staying calm. they did have an alright season, its just the way the played against manure.

i like eboue at right midfield.