If we’re to go on the basis of recent years, then it wouldn’t be a proper summer without Arsenal being relentlessly and fruitlessly linked with each and every hulking, ground-covering holding midfielder on the market. And in that sense, this summer has been no summer at all. Where all the talk of previous close-seasons has linked everyone from Joey Barton to Yann M’Vila with switches to the Emirates, this time there have only been distant whispers.
The implication would seem to be that Arsenal’s midfield is currently in decent shape, and with Mikel Arteta, Jack Wilshere, Santi Cazorla, and the seemingly reinvigorated pair of Aaron Ramsey and Tomas Rosicky, there’s certainly no shortage of quality. Add into the mix the burgeoning Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, as well as Abou ‘like a new signing’ Diaby, and the club are hardly short of options there – and farily high-performing ones, too.
It doesn’t take a tactical mastermind, though, to see that none of these seven players are screening midfielders in the traditional mold. Granted, Arteta has performed defensive duties admirably in recent seasons, but it’s a lot owed more to necessity as it has natural instinct - as shown by his defensive actions languishing behind that of Sandro and Michael Carrick. Similarly, comparisons between Diaby and the battle-hungry footsoldier Patrick Vieira should never venture beyond appearance, and while Wilshere boasts undeniable tenacity, his basest inclinations are creative rather than destructive.
So, with little having changed in term of personnel, why so little apparent agitation this time around for Wenger to add a bruising brute to his engine room? One explanation could be the recent demise of such a player at the very top end of the game: Partly due to the ongoing crackdown on hard tackling, partly to the elite sides becoming ever-more obsessed with possession and control, many of Europe’s top clubs, while employing two deep-lying midfielders, tend not to use a pure defensive-minded screener. And so players like Sami Khedira, Javi Martinez, Claudio Marchisio and most typically Sergio Busquets are far more rounded footballers than the Makeleles and Gattusos of yesteryear, and far more likely to supplement their firefighting with probing passing or the odd lung-busting burst forward.
It could well be that Arsenal, with their recent reinvention of Arteta – formerly a drifting, crafty playmaker – into their most recognised defensive midfielder, are looking to follow this trend. If they are, then perhaps the first question to be asked is whether they’re good enough to do so. After all, the Barcelonas and Real Madrids of the world consistently dominate matches to the point where fielding a tackling player would be a waste of a shirt. Arsenal? Not so much. But we’ll leave that thought there.
The most glaring oversight, though, should Wenger neglect to add to his central options this window, is not so much the lack of a natural tackler but more the absence of any genuine physicality in the Gunners’ midfield. To illustrate, the average height of Arteta, Wilshere, Rosicky, Ramsey and Cazorla is 5 foot 9”; that of the four Europeans mentioned above is 6 foot 2”. (And to pre-empt the inevitable accusation, the average league starts from Diaby over the past three seasons is eight.) Manchester United last term negated their lack of midfield bite with height of Michael Carrick and at times the muscularity of Wayne Rooney. Gareth Barry, Jack Rodwell, Javi Garcia and Yaya Toure ensured that Manchester City’s midfield, for all its deficiencies, would not be bullied. Elsewhere, Sandro, Mousa Dembele and Marouane Fellaini all complemented their superior technique with brawn and aggression, and their respective teams were all the better for it.
Wenger, on the other hand, has waved goodbye to Alex Song, Gilberto Silva, Mathieu Flamini and Lassana Diarra in recent seasons without landing any proper replacements. There may or may not have been some combination of managerial idealism, snobbery, and financial constraint at work here, but the bottom line is that – with the exception of the ageing Gilberto – each of those players would have added a genuine extra dimension to their old side in the years since their departures.
It may sound simplistic in an age of inverted wingers and pass completion rates and heat mapping, but Arsenal’s midfield still seems to lack to muscle, height and bite to be a truly dominant side within the robust landscape of England’s top division. The recent reports linking the club with Bayern Munich’s leggy battler Luis Gustavo could well indicate Wenger’s realisation of this, or it could just be yet another case of various third parties speculating hopefully.
As Manchester United proved last term, a fully functional and supremely-balanced midfield may not be entirely necessary in order to do well in this league, but as their performances in Europe have shown, it’s not something that can be overlooked either. Conversely, Arsenal’s midfield is probably better equipped for continental pursuits than it is domestic ones, but it remains hugely lacking in steel.
Emirates regulars should hope that, despite this summer’s relative dearth of such links to defensive midfielders, their manager has not neglected to remedy this problem.