Arsenal begin their pre-season tour to Asia as early as next week as they gear up for the new season. Transfer dealings haven’t gone as per plan thus far, despite being linked with a host of players ever since the end of last season. What remains interesting is that most of Arsenal’s rumoured targets are either strikers or defensive midfielders, as most those are the 2 positions Arsenal seem to be weak in and need immediate strengthening. We will leave the striker conundrum for now and concentrate on the midfield needs of the squad.
Arsenal, in the past couple of months, have been linked with Capoue, Kondogbia, Fellaini, Gonalons, Bender, Pogba and so many more that one wonders who is more desperate, the club or the media. Transfer stories sell like hot cakes but there is method to the madness as well. One glance at the Arsenal midfield and you would know the reason why. Through the course of the season Arsene Wenger tried out various combinations for his double pivot, starting with Diaby-Arteta then Coquelin-Arteta, Jack-Arteta and eventually Ramsey-Arteta. With Diaby’s injury about to keep him out for half the season and Coquelin being shelled out on loan to Freiburg, Arsenal are lacking in depth. However in all those midfield combinations there was one common factor- Mikel Arteta. Yet not everybody seems convinced, if Arsenal get hold of a combative midfielder, as to whether he should replace Arteta in the starting line up or play alongside him. The easy money would be on Arteta retaining his spot but would it be fair on a fit again Jack Wilshere or the ever improving Aaron Ramsey to drop out as a result? Or are we expecting Arsenal to spend big money for someone who would be a benchwarmer at best?
This raises the primary question again, do Arsenal even need a midfielder? The answer to that, as mentioned above, is a resounding yes. The players who can play in the pivot from the present squad are Arteta, Ramsey, Wilshere and probably no one else. Diaby’s prolonged injuries mean Wenger is not counting on him and despite Chamberlain having deputized on the final day of last season, he has much more to his game than playing a deeper held back midfield role. So in short a deep midfielder is a must. Now which kind of midfielders are Arsenal looking at? Preferably someone who can pass the ball and yet put in crunching tackles to put brakes on the opposition attack. Considering Arsenal recruit a player satisfying this criterion, the next question is who gives way?
Mikel Arteta has almost been indispensable since his move from Merseyside. Making crucial interceptions, breaking opponents’ momentum, putting in key challenges and making important passes, the Spaniard has been a heartbeat in the Arsenal team. So why would Wenger even consider dropping one of the best performers over the past 2 seasons? The most cited reason is physicality, probably one of the few or maybe the only weakness in his game. But that comes into the picture only when partnered with a similar non-physical player like Ramsey or Wilshere in a double pivot. If paired with a player like Capoue, one who can do the dirty work himself, it not only unburdens Arteta but also adds a much needed steel to the midfield. That solves only part of the problem however. The main concern for the Arsenal midfield is their speed and shape during the game. During the season, the 2 most functional midfield trios were Cazorla-Wilshere-Arteta in around November and Rosicky-Ramsey-Arteta towards the end of the season. In both of those formations, the midfield triangle was skewed so much that Arteta was often left as the lone midfielder in front of the defence. With teams bombing forward with pace on the counter, and an aging Arteta holding deepest, it isn’t rocket science to see why the Arsenal midfield got opened up far more easily and the defenders remained under the gun more often than not. Again this hasn’t got much to do with Arteta; it’s the positional sense of the players around him that’s an issue. Aaron Ramsey is a work horse undoubtedly and most heat maps would suggest he is “everywhere”, but when playing alongside a slow contained player in Arteta, that could leave huge holes. In short, Arteta isn’t at fault all that often, not on his own at least.
So Wilshere or Ramsey will get the chop then? Jack has anyway been touted as one of the few complete English midfielders and is expected to don on the advanced playmaker role and considering Cazorla has been played as a wide playmaker and Rosicky not ready to start as many matches, Jack seems the natural fit for the “hole”. That leaves the Welsh man Ramsey as the only possible candidate for
the axe from the starting lineup. Ramsey has enjoyed a second coming of sorts last season and has transformed himself into a much more mature player despite getting immense stick from fans. Arsenal’s season revival coincided with Ramsey’s brilliant form and that’s hardly any coincidence. Despite this, his positional sense and being involved in both attack and defence has put immense pressure on Arteta in the past and has often indirectly harmed the tactical discipline of the side. Arsenal in the past 5 seasons prefer playing a fluid game and hence field players who are comfortable on the ball. Ramsey more or less ticks all the boxes but the slight lack in defensive discipline might most probably lead to him losing his place to a new player. Ramsey will only improve and with someone like Arteta mentoring him, he could be the long term successor to Arteta in this Arsenal side.
But the question remains if at all Arsenal would sign someone, who can warrant a starting spot in midfield. The signs have been positive thus far, with the Gunners having had a bid rejected for Leverkusen star Lars Bender and been repeatedly linked with bids for Belgian stalwart Fellaini. Irrespective of who arrives in North London in the transfer window, one thing remains quite certain, that Arteta would be one of the key players in the side. Who partners him in the season opener against Aston Villa, remains to be seen.