Arsenal have started this English Premier League season disappointingly with respect points, only grabbing 11 points from a possible 24. Given that Chelsea look like a 90 point team, dropping 13 points means that the Gunners have little chance at winning the title. Looking at their squad, the lack of a solution at holding midfielder appears to have played a significant role in Arsenal’s underwhelming performances.
Relying More on the Holder in a 4-1-4-1
Arsenal have played a 4-1-4-1 this season, in an effort to exert greater control over their matches. However, such a system demands quite a bit from the holding midfielder. Unlike the 4-2-3-1, where two players play at the base of midfield, the 4-1-4-1 relies on a lone holder. A team relies on their holding midfielder to operate as a key player defensively and in possession.
The holder probably has to be the most intelligent player on the pitch, as his positioning in both attack and defense is critical. In defense, he needs to understand how to position himself at any point in the match, so to maximize his ability to win the ball (ideally through an interception), while minimizing any increased risk associated with playing higher up the pitch (potentially conceding more space in front of the back line and/or conceding the space behind an advanced fullback). A holding midfielder that only sits deep fails to help his team outnumber the opponent in the center of the pitch in possession and limits their ability to win the ball, either with a high press or a counter-press (pressing immediately after possession is lost). A holding midfielder that operates too high up the pitch, looking to make those interceptions, tackles, and make himself a passing option for his teammates can leave too much behind him that the opponent can attack. Failure to read the game and anticipate the actions of the other players on the pitch can make the holder unable to make the interceptions, tackles, or be there for his teammates to help maintain and recycle possession.
Offensively, in addition to intelligence, the holding midfielder may have to represent the highest degree of technical excellence in the squad. While he may not score goals or tally many assists, his role proves crucial in the team’s ability to control possession and play penetrative football. Not only does his positioning allow him to maintain his availability to his teammates, allowing them a “safe” pass, but his technical ability allows him to quickly receive the pass and pass it on to another teammate, allowing his team to try another avenue towards the goal. Since, he plays as a lone holder, with plenty of options in front of him, the holder must have the intelligence, vision, and technical ability to understand, see, and execute the best pass to maximize his team’s abilities in attack. The holding midfielder must also have the close control and mobility to evade or avoid pressure without losing the ball. Not only does this allow the team to maintain possession and avoid getting countered on, but it can also be used to suck defenses towards the holding midfielder. By sucking in the defender and then evading pressure, either through a dribble or a pass-move-receive passage, the holding midfielder can eliminate a defender from the play. This makes it easier to advance the ball to his teammates and reduces the difficulty of his teammates trying to create a goal-scoring opportunity.
Arsenal’s Deficiency at Holding Midfield
Given those qualities necessary to playing the role of holding midfielder in a 4-1-4-1 expressed in the above paragraphs, Arsenal seem to lack a player who can properly operate in that role. Mikel Arteta can function in some of those roles. He seems to have an understanding of when to push up the pitch, to aid his team in controlling a match, both defensively and offensively. He has the technical ability to serve as a metronome in possession. However, his lack of mobility has hindered his ability to make the interceptions and tackles to win the ball high up the pitch, as often as he needs to, given how Arsenal push their fullbacks up the pitch. When a holding midfielder lack the ability to make these plays, he may tend to drop deeper, conceding more space in front of him. This gives teams plenty of time and space to launch counters against the back of the Arsenal defense. And, obviously, this lack of mobility prevents Arteta from successfully recovering if the ball gets behind him, and it prevents him from covering the space behind one of the fullbacks. So while Arteta has some of the characteristics to play the role of the lone holder, his decreased mobility (Arteta from 2011-12 or 2012-13 would have fit the role nicely) is too much of a hindrance.
While Mikel Arteta does not tick all the boxes of an ideal lone holder for Arsenal’s 4-1-4-1, Mathieu Flamini may not tick a single box. Once a fan favorite for his willingness to tackle and fiery spirit, Flamini has lost the mobility that allowed him to function as a footballer at this high of a level. Unlike Arteta, Flamini lacks the technical ability or intelligence to still function as an adequate footballer for Arsenal. In reality, Flamini relied on his athletic ability to allow him to cover a large amount of the field, helping to compensate for a lack of defensive intelligence. Therefore, it could very well be that an extended run with a match-fit Mikel Arteta could alleviate many of the woes from which Arsenal suffer.
Can Arsenal Fix Their Lone Holder Problem?
The problem with fixing Arsenal’s holding midfield position is that the number of players who can perform this role, at a high level, are few and far between. Players like Xabi Alonso, Frank Rijkaard, Fernando Redondo, or Sergio Busquets are not readily available to Arsenal. They lack a youth prospect who could operate in that role, such as Barcelona’s Sergi Samper. In reality, the potential solutions to Arsenal’s problem in holding midfield carry significant risk.
A player like Morgan Schneiderlin seems like a nice fit; however, he will need to transition from more of a box-to-box role to one of a holding midfielder. At the steep price Southampton would probably charge, due to his irreplaceability and the fact that Southampton may still find themselves with a chance to make the top 4 come January, the risk may prove large enough to make the purchase unattractive.
Someone like PSG’s Adrien Rabiot could represent a solution. He seems to have the characteristics to replace Mikel Arteta. Yet, with quite a bit of defensive development needed and questions about his ego, especially at such a young age, he does not represent the safest bet to become what Arsenal need. Combine this with the fact that Rabiot would have to transition from a slower-paced league in France to one of the Top 3 leagues in the world, Rabiot would have to come at a cost relatively cheap to his potential value to Arsenal, to make up for the riskiness of the investment.
Maybe the best option is FC Augsburg’s Daniel Baier. A central midfielder who moved into the holding role in Augsburg’s 4-3-3, Baier is one of the few players who has excelled in the exact role that Arsenal are looking to upgrade. Last season, in the holding role, Baier registered 3.5 tackles per 90 minutes and 3.5 interceptions per 90 minutes, according to Statsbomb.com. He has the technical ability and intelligence to perform the role Arsenal need in possession, particularly in executing the right pass in the transition the side from defense to attack. However, he is only 5’8”, which would limit his ability to increase the physicality or aerial prowess of the Arsenal XI (though what he brings to the table seems more than enough to offset that). Also, and this speaks to a bigger problem at Arsenal, FC Augsburg have a much more coherent system of pressing, allowing Baier to properly plan his actions to make the plays he does. While Arsenal have shown some willingness to press, they have been inconsistent with their pressing and often not the cohesive unit a pressing side needs to be. On a team like Arsenal, all the positives of a player like Baier may not come to the surface, as the uncertainty of the how the players defend in front of him prevent him from planning a proper course of action.
Without a new holding midfielder, it seems unlikely that Arsenal will enter that tier of the best clubs in Europe. With this insistence on the 4-1-4-1, the need to upgrade the position only increases. And even if they find the right man to upgrade that role, Arsenal may need to also fix their structural issues, particularly their lack of counter-pressing, to function properly in this new system. Without that, purchasing a player like Sergio Busquets would not prove sufficient for Arsenal to consistently compete for the highest honors.