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With the 2014/15 title race put to bed, Arsenal will be looking to set their sights on the Premier League trophy in the coming season. Andrew Thompson takes a statistical look at Arsenal’s midfield to provide a better judgement of whether their have good enough men in the middle of the park to propel them to the title they desperately desire.
Back in my playing days, many years ago, two of the best coaches I ever played under both subscribed to the following maxim:
“Offense scores goals, defense wins you titles…but you cannot have either without the midfield”
When you sit down and consider it, it’s difficult to argue, and Arsenal’s lack of a real title challenge in recent seasons is proof positive that a strong core is the key to success.
To be quite blunt, Arsenal has lagged behind the likes of Chelsea, Manchester City and Manchester United when it comes to the center of the park. We’ve had quality up front and we’ve had quality at the back, but our soft underbelly has always been the undersized midfield that lacked grit and steel.
Fortunes would finally swing in our direction this season, when injuries to the first team prompted Arsene Wenger to recall Francis Coquelin from his loan spell at Charlton to shore up the midfield. Fast-forward to the present, and the Frenchman has been the best holding midfielder in the Premier League since January.
Note: ALL Statistics in this piece are from a per 90min matrix via Squawka.com
Note: ADW = Aerials Duels Won
While Coquelin’s overall play has received rave reviews from every corner of the English footballing world, it’s always good to see numbers to support claims being made (something that will feature prominently in this piece on the whole). When compared to the holding midfielders from the other top clubs in the league, Coquelin takes three categories quite comfortably, while finishing second in the two categories led by Marouane Fellaini.
Despite being on the younger end of the spectrum, Coquelin has exhibited an amazing ability to shield the back four, something that Arsenal have missed since Gilberto Silva, if not Patrick Vieira. His ability to break up play, read the oppositions supply line and snuff them out, and even giving us some added aerial ability on the defensive side of the ball, has largely been agreed upon as the turning point of our season domestically.
From a statistical standpoint, it can be verified that, on the whole, he’s the best holding midfielder in the league at present. But what if you then added the traditional central partners to all of these players this season…where would Arsenal measure up?
Firstly, it’s worth comparing Santi Cazorla (now playing next to Coquelin in midfield) to the same midfield partners of Coquelin’s counterparts. After looking at the numbers from both the offensive and defensive side of the ball, the numbers were telling:
|Player||Pass Comp. %||Key Passes||Assists||Chances Cre.|
It’s always tricky to look at just numbers as the only indication of performance or value to the first-team, but bearing that in mind, from an offensive standpoint, the numbers back up the opinions of many that Cazorla has been brilliant for the Gunners since being pushed into the center of the park.
Barring the excellent season of Cesc Fabregas in his return season to the Premier League (and rightfully being voted into the Team of the Season), Cazorla has put up fantastic numbers that seem to justify his new area of deployment. On the other side of the ball however, Santi’s weaknesses are evident and glaring. While he does quite well to read the play and cut off passing lanes (his interception rate per 90minutes is indicative of this), he struggles in all other defensive areas.
To move further, I felt it best to then compare the central midfield pairings of each of the top clubs side by side to see how they truly measure up to one another:
After looking at the numbers above, it provides (at the very least) a better statistical understanding of where we stand in midfield. Coquelin has no other concerns than his defensive responsibilities, while Cazorla is truly only concerned with creating from deeper area, but neither one is capable of truly contributing in the other area.
While we are finally on par with our rivals in midfield, we there is still further room for improvement. It is perfectly clear that if we didn’t have Coquelin patrolling ahead of the back four, we would be even more worse for wear.
The question now becomes twofold: Do we truly have a midfield balance that we have been missing, and if we don’t, where do we go from here?
It was with the re-installation of Coquelin in the first-team in January that perhaps signaled Cazorla’s redeployment alongside the Frenchman. While the pairing does give us a heretofore sense of balance, on the whole, this balance only brings one source of creation and one source of protection.
Numerous times this season, we’ve been exposed in midfield and in the back because Cazorla is not a true central midfielder. Many times he wants to get forward but struggles to get back if possession is lost. In such an occurrence, Coquelin then remains the last defensive screen before the back four is reached, and then the awful scenario of Per Mertesacker coming too far up on an interdiction mission, which then leaves the rest of the back four completely exposed through the middle.
In truth, though he’s done a cracking job, Cazorla truly does belong further up the pitch. But the question then hinges on whether or not we have someone who could do a good enough job along side Coquelin should Santi find himself back in a more advanced position next season. Many will back Aaron Ramsey or Jack Wilshere to re-establish themselves in that position, but are they truly of the quality necessary to help us really have a midfield worthy of lifting the title?
Ramsey, to his credit, does have some fight in him in regards to his work rate, but for the type of box-to-box player we need in that position, he truly does lack the creativity (at least for me) that we would need, while not being much better than Cazorla when it comes to being able to win possession back either on the ground or in the air. As for Wilshere, it’s much the same scenario, and when you add his abhorrent injury track record to the equation, surely there are much better options.
The question you have to ask yourself is, can you truly see Ramsey or Wilshere tracking back the length of the pitch for ninety minutes to help on the defensive end of things, while also being able to be a viable option going forward either picking out a pass or controlling possession?
It’s worth remembering that Jose Mourinho identified Chelsea’s weak link in the first team to be their midfield, went out and bought Cesc Fabregas and Nemanja Matic, and now the Blues have the title in their pockets.
While it will be easy to cite that Cazorla and Fabregas have been brilliant all season long, and Santi not being far off from Fabregas when it comes to the numbers on the offensive side of the ball, the former Arsenal midfielder is a far more reliable central player when you take defensive responsibilities into consideration – could this be the answer for Arsenal now that our finances allow us to spend to truly improve?
Given the interest we have expressed in the likes of Morgan Schneiderlin and Yohan Cabaye, a box-to-box midfielder who could give us more defensive stability in midfield while offering a bit of creativity from deeper areas is seemingly something the club are considering making a move for.
With those scenarios likely to play out again this summer, I took a look at quite a few midfielders who fit the bill and excel in that role, as to ask the question if the added defensive capabilities were worth sacrificing the creativity Cazorla provides from central midfield.
Note: Above chart is total season numbers, not per 90min matrix
Truthfully, many of the numbers are indicative of the different tactical approaches that these players are deployed in for their clubs, but it does give a bit of incite to what could be expected from other options.
Because I do not want this to divulge into an article about “who Arsenal should buy this summer”, I stress that the numbers given throughout this piece be used as benchmarks that are relevant to the question of whether or not we have achieved true balance in midfield, and if we haven’t, should we continue to search for it.
It’s also noteworthy to mention, that bringing in a box-to-box player to help achieve balance does not mean Cazorla no longer features for Arsenal regularly…quite the contrary. Such an option means that Cazorla would likely be apart of an attacking trio comprised of himself, Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez all slotted behind Olivier Giroud. However, a midfielder that is more defensively capable but meets the technical standards required by Arsene Wenger as well as being able to pull strings from the center of the park would not only give Arsenal additional balance on both sides of the ball, but it would make them far less susceptible to being hit on the counter.
If you look at some of the most noteworthy title winning sides at both club and international level, these were teams that were able to score goals as much as they were able to prevent them in midfield before a chance could ever materialize. Teams like France circa 1998-2000, Germany this past summer in Brazil, the current club juggernauts that are Bayern Munich, Barcelona and Real Madrid, even Atletico Madrid’s valiant charge to the La Liga title in the previous season – these were all sides that put real stock in having a dominant midfield, not just in regards to possession, but also the ability to break up play and win the ball back before their opponent could punish them. What is perhaps most important of all to note is that Arsenal have been there before and were very successful employing that very same strategy.
Once boasting the midfield pairing of Patrick Vieira and Emmanuel Petit (both of whom featured prominently for France during their World Cup triumph in ’98), Arsenal’s ability to keep shape, defend in numbers, protect the back four and quickly transition from defense to offense was brilliant.
With the clubs shift from relying on the counter attack to possession, a shift to more lightweight yet technical midfielders became the preferred medium, which explains why Cazorla has been so successful there this season. It is however, the main reason why we have failed to win the league for years – if your center is susceptible to collapse, then you have no chance at all in the long run. A strong core in the first team is a requirement, and now more than ever, with the emergence of Coquelin, it is imperative that the club bring in the type of midfielder who brings efficiency and ability on both sides of the ball.
We have always had creativity in abundance and we still maintain that trait, but with our lack of defensive capabilities finally being remedied, perhaps a return to our roots in midfield could push us on from a successful domestic season where a second place finish is a real possibility, to finally lifting the Premier League trophy once more. It may not be clad in gold, but it’s better than none at all.
Written by Andrew Thompson