Given that the beginning of Arsenal‘s now eight-year trophy drought coincided with the loss of one of the finest, most domineering midfielders in Premier League history, it is perhaps easy to see why supporters have associated the absence of a player of Patrick Vieira’s ilk with the growing layer of dust in the Emirates trophy cabinet.
As Arsene Wenger continues to harbour something of a blind-spot with regard to finding a true heir to the Frenchman, and as the Gunners’ wait for silverware extends, the need for a defensive midfielder has been magnified.
But Arsenal do not need an atypical defensive midfielder. A specialist anchor, patrolling in front of the back four and biting at heels in the middle of the pitch is totally at odds with the fluid, interchanging system advocated by Wenger. Additionally, and perhaps somewhat surprisingly, the Gunners are already brimming with players capable of recovering possession.
Almost every team in the Premier League had some form of deeper-lying duo last season and of the most-used defensive pivots, the combination of Aaron Ramsey and Mikel Arteta was the third-best at winning back the ball in the entire division – something which certainly aided their mammoth, league-high average possession of 58.2 per cent.
The Arsenal pair recovered the ball 320 times, which was only bettered by Liverpool duo Steven Gerrard and Lucas Leiva (326) and, top of the pile, Southampton combo Morgan Schneiderlin and Jack Cork (422).
Arteta’s tally of 108 tackles was bettered by just five other midfielders last term, while the dominant Schneiderlin was the only midfielder to record more interceptions. With Arsenal’s deceptively defensive Spaniard sidelined at the start of the new season, the protective responsibility placed on Ramsey has increased.
And, in Arteta’s absence, the Wales international has shone. Of Premier League midfielders, only Lucas (29), Fabian Delph (25) and Mile Jedinak (20) have recorded more tackles and interceptions than Ramsey (19). Arsenal’s spine is far less brittle than it is often given credit for.
In the north London derby, against a hulking trio of physical enforcers that the Gunners might have been expected to struggle against, the 22-year-old came out on top; his eight tackles, by far the most of any player on the pitch, was more than Paulinho, Etienne Capoue and Mousa Dembele combined. Arsenal did not just come out on top through their brain, but also their brawn.
On that day, Arsenal’s supremacy over the middle third was, it should be noted, aided by Santi Cazorla. His role only nominally on the left wing – where he can expect to be spending a lot of time following the arrival of Mesut Ozil – saw him regularly foray into the centre of the pitch, creating an extra man advantage which outnumbered even Spurs’ monstrous midfield.
Ramsey, who has arguably been the club’s stand-out performer this season, manages to marry his defensive duties with an attacking exuberance and penetration that is far removed from the restraint and inflexibility shown by the out-and-out defensive midfielders Arsenal fans crave, such as Spurs’ clobberers. The same was true of Vieira too. Much of the Frenchman’s best work, lest it be forgot, was driving forward, attacking space and bursting towards goal. He was much, much more than just a defensive shield.
Recently, a fine understanding and balance has been born within the Jack Wilshere-Ramsey axis; when one moves forward and attacks, the other withdraws and protects. The latter has bagged three goals and an assist in his first five games this season as a result, while the responsibility of a more fixed role for the England national team had a contrasting and negative affect on Wilshere.
This absence of specialists means Arsenal have two players who can attack and defend, create and destroy, and that lends itself to more expansive play.
Meanwhile, the kind of ‘luxury’ players that would normally necessitate a destroyer are becoming less common as more teams defend from the front, a recent trend that owes a lot to the trophy-sweeping pressing football employed by Barcelona in the early years of Pep Guardiola’s tenure and which continues to have success, most notably the high-tempo style favoured by Jurgen Klopp at Borussia Dortmund.
That urgent pressing style, coupled with the fluidity and interchanging of positions employed by Arsenal, means crisp, quick-witted distributors are required, but there are few defensive players who fit that particular bill; often the players who exclusively win possession are the slowest to distribute it.
Even Arteta, possessed of the ‘La Masia‘-reared Catalan creative gene and who averaged more passes per game (80.9) than any other player in the Premier League last term, can have a tendency to dally and delay on the ball. But Arsenal cannot accommodate any hesitancy, especially as speed, predominantly on the counter, will become even more crucial with Ozil in the side.
If Arsenal can survive without a brutish counterbalance to the raw power of Tottenham’s destructive trio, then there are few teams against whom such mettle will be required. Their current dynamic allows for freer flowing football and, should ever more aggression be needed to close out games, Mathieu Flamini offers a suitably belligerent option off the bench.