Getting Hold Of The Midfield
Topping the table is not, it seems, a happy time for some. Being first now of course does not guarantee any silverware this season but the naysayers do not want to even have the glimmer of a smile, preferring instead to save all their enjoyment for May, which is fair enough I suppose. It does make for a long season though.
Arsene highlighted a perceived fault in the victory over Fulham. Talking of the lack of protection the back four received on Saturday, he said:
Teams close us down because they know we play through the middle, so I push my midfielders up a bit at the start to give us more room. Song is high up the pitch because we want him there.
I am comfortable with that, even though it sometimes leaves us open in the middle of the park. If we lose the ball in the build-up, we are in trouble.
But we want to play in the other half of the pitch and, therefore, we have to push our opponents back. My philosophy is not to be in trouble, but to fool the opponent into trouble. Sometimes it doesn’t do my heart-rate much good. But if you get the three points it’s OK.
There is a received wisdom that you do not win anything in football without a midfielder whose role is purely defensive. Yet, the most successful club and international side in recent years have done exactly that.
Neither Spain or Barcelona has enjoyed success by having a midfielder whose role is purely to sit in front of the back four. Instead they have two players in the centre who rotate their attacking. Given that their style of play is the closest to that of Arsenal, little surprise that Arsene has adopted a similar philosophy.
In Arsenal’s case, this has meant more licence for Alex Song to push forward. Saturday saw Fulham play with numbers in that area, smothering Arsenal for the last quarter of an hour in the first half. Prior to that and subsequently in the second half, Arsenal enjoyed considerable possession and created numerous chances. That is the upside.
As Wenger observed when it does not work, there are gaps in the midfield, leaving the defence exposed. The issue is not Song playing higher up the pitch, more that his central partner(s) are not understanding (or maintaining) the need for rotation in terms of attack and defence. Where Spain and Barcelona have succeeded is the movement of Xavi and his fellow midfielders, their ability to hold and attack with intelligence.
Wenger talks consistently of wanting intelligent players, those who understand and appreciate their own role along with that of their team-mates. In the case of Jack Wilshere, this lack of appreciation is understandable, his relative inexperience means that Song is the senior partner, requiring him to take more responsibility in directing others.
In Wilshere’s defence, he has played more – on merit – than possibly expected due to injuries suffered by others. It is not inconceivable that had Denilson, Fabregas and Diaby all been fit, Wilshere would probably have played around half the number of games that he has. This situation has meant that rather than learning slowly, Jack’s education has been in public.
Creatively, he has shown that he is ready for the top echelons of football. Defensively, he is a work in progress. This scenario places extra pressure on the team, sometimes curbing his natural tendencies is going to be difficult, cover for the back four is not provided when necessarily expected.
As the season evolves, so will the team. The style of play will become stronger and more cohesive as months pass. Crucially, last weekend saw a victory following consecutive home Premier League defeats. In that respect, the desire to win was over-riding, stretching the play perhaps more than a confident Arsenal side would necessarily do.
There is a need to rid ourselves of this belief that nothing can be won without a purely holding midfielder. That does not have to be the only way to win. Proof of that though will only come in May.