In order to succeed in football, you will always need some degree of luck. When August 31st 2011 arrived, Arsène Wenger was running low on it. He had been given the news that Jack Wilshere would be out for Arsenal until at least the start of 2012 and Abou Diaby out indefinitely; in searching for a replacement, he had offers for Yann M’Vila and Lucho Gonzalez rejected. In panic, he called Everton, enquiring about Marouane Fellaini. Bill Kenwright quoted £30 million, claiming that he would “be lynched” if he sold the Belgian. So Arsenal followed up by asking about Mikel Arteta and eventually, a £10 million deal was finalised.
Those who had watched Arteta knew that he would not take the place of the departed Cesc Fàbregas, but play deeper, with a more defensive mindset. And alongside Alex Song, defending would very much be the primary element of his game (as analysed in this), but his partnership with Song was an oddly imbalanced pivot, with Song’s indiscipline meaning that Arteta often remained deep to cover for him. After the Cameroonian’s sale, Arteta was entrusted by the manager to play as Arsenal’s primary holding midfielder.
This was seen by many as a risk. Arteta stands at 5’9″ and is not exactly a great physical presence; nor is he a Javier Mascherano-esque tenacious chaser. His holding qualities lie in his intelligence and his discipline. He is rarely, if ever, caught out of position. You will not see him throwing himself into tackles, charging around the field like Napoleon into Russia, purely because he has no need to. As Xabi Alonso once said on the English concept of tackling (specifically slide tackling) as a quality: “Tackling is not really a quality, it’s more something you are forced to resort to when you don’t have the ball. I can’t get it into my head that footballing development would educate tackling as a quality.”
Arteta has averaged 94.5 passes per game this season, with a success rate of 93.1%
This is a mere freckle on the face of English football’s ideological flaws – which is another issue for another time – but it illustrates that Arteta comes from a different school of thought, with regard to defending as a whole. Arteta has acted as an extremely secure defensive midfielder, partnered by Diaby for four of this season’s five games, as the foundations of a successful partnership looking as though they are being formed. With more definition in the midfield roles, the whole team looks to be stronger defensively; the shielding midfield pair are doing more shielding than they have done in years past and hence the back four are better protected look much stronger for it.
He has averaged 94.5 passes per game this season, with a success rate of 93.1%. His style has fitted perfectly with the club’s possession-based philosophy, and he has become one of the most important presences at the club. He provides stability in the most critical area of the pitch. His defensive ability has left many, myself included, very pleasantly surprised. Like his colleague Per Mertesacker, he does not get caught for pace because he knows where to stand.
He also gives Arsenal more tactical versatility. The reason many thought he was replacing Fàbregas when he arrived were his thus far minimally used creative abilities. When playing alongside Diaby, Aaron Ramsey and eventually Wilshere (when he returns), he will sit deeper but next to the more defensive figures Francis Coquelin and Emmanuel Frimpong, he has the chance to harness his creativity, while also aiding further back if needs be. This was seen in Arsenal’s 6-1 win over Southampton, wherein Coquelin played closer to the defence, while Arteta cut a more creatively influential figure. His adaptability and importance have seen him become one of the most vital players at the club.
Next to a disciplined holding player, Ramsey could be given the freedom to operate deeper with less defensive responsibility
Aaron Ramsey may turn out to be the player who benefits most from the Spaniard’s shift. He did well in patches last season when deployed in the ‘number 10′ role, behind the centre forward, but struggled greatly in a deeper position after Arteta’s injury towards the end of the season. This was not helped in the slightest by Song’s complete neglecting of his responsibilities, throwing Ramsey to the proverbial sharks, as he is by no means a holding player. He was lost in the role with no one to guide him through it.
Now Santi Cazorla has arrived and put the advanced midfield position in his inside coat pocket where no others can take it from him, the Wales captain will find opportunities there limited. He is physically very strong, he has a good range of passing, impressive dribbling and a tireless, dynamic element to his game – on paper, he fits the box-to-box position well. Next to a disciplined holding player, Ramsey could be given the freedom to operate deeper with less defensive responsibility.
Given Diaby’s time on the sidelines, it will be asking a lot of him to play two games a week. Chances will come for both Ramsey and Coquelin, but for games in which Wenger’s men will set up to attack – most games – Ramsey will probably be the preferred option. He was put under a huge amount of pressure last season and the strain began to show on him in the second half of the year. All going to plan he will not be needed nearly as much this season, so will have the energy to present his better qualities, in a role that suits him perfectly.
Not even the man who signed Arteta could have predicted what a success he would be, nor the change he would undergo. He is the centre of the team, the link between defence and attack. He was at least fourth on Arsenal’s list of options, but he has defied expectations. Luck was on Wenger’s side when Arteta’s lesser-known qualities showed themselves. If there is any success in Highbury this year, he will be at the centre of it. The greatest of all the panic buys.
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