Life was simple, back in the day. School was dull; parents were annoying; the Prodigy were ace; a can of “cola” from KwikSave was 18p; Kelly from across the road was fit; and football teams played 4-4-2.
If you had anything remotely like a functioning left foot, you played left wing. If you were the fat kid, you played at full back. If you had what is known in England as “technique” (a quality not necessarily required to play football) then you’d most likely be in centre midfield.
And the teams that the kids in the playground supported weren’t much different – Julian Dicks was the fat kid at full back, for example. Admittedly, the centre of midfield was a tad more complex at these professional sides. You had:
- Defensive midfielders
- Box-to-box midfielders
- Attacking midfielders (the ones called “AM C” on Champ Manager)
- Kind of regular midfielders
But that was about it, really. So you might have John Jensen (DM C) alongside Paul Davis (MC). Or, a few years later, you might have Roy Keane (who transformed from an MC to a DM C) alongside Paul Scholes (who changed from a CF to an AM C).
Your position basically demarked whether you were defensive, attacking, or one of those oddballs who wants to be both so spends the whole time chasing up and down the pitch like a deranged pet dog chasing a bouncing ball.
But then, somewhere along the line, everything changed. Paul Scholes is now a “distributor”, at least when he’s not maiming an opponent. What the hell is a distributor? Is that a “water-carrier”? Is this defensive or attacking? Do they run up and down? If not, why not? What caused the financial crisis? What’s a fixed income derivative operation? What the fuck is Libor? Is Kelly actually that fit or was I just a bit pissed last night? And who or what is Tulisa?
Life now is complicated, and no more so than in the centre of midfield.
There’s one man I blame for this – Rafa Benitez. When he arrived on these shores, midfields (at least in England) were still pretty straightforward. Arsenal tended to play a defensive player (Petit, Edu, Gilberto) alongside Vieira who, frankly, was a kind of everything-midfielder, the like of which I have never seen before or since. Man Utd still had Keane and Scholes, or were trying to replace Keane with a series of abject failures like Alan Smith or Eric Djemba-Djemba, both of whom were supposed to be traditional DM C or MC.
Yet at Liverpool it quickly became clear that Benitez preferred his own midfielders to have specific tasks, rather than broad roles. He seemed to want one expert tackler (who became Mascherano, although he also wanted Sissoko to be the tackler at one stage). Alongside, he liked having an expert passer (typically Alonso).
His reluctance to play Gerrard as one of a middle two provoked endless outrage among the British commentariat. Why wasn’t their all action hero allowed to feature in the middle of the action, they cried. But eventually it became clear when Gerrard linked excellently with Torres in an advanced midfield position, which was virtually right behind or even alongside the front man.
I’m not pretending for a second that Benitez was some kind of ahead-of-his-time revolutionary – aside from anything else, Mourinho and many other managers across Europe, and beyond, were deploying three man midfields with players having more specific, detailed roles. In sophisticated circles, this had been common for decades.
But this blog post isn’t supposed to be a history of tactical change. Rather, it’s a very long-winded way of examining Arsenal’s current midfield situation and the departure of Alex Song. So let’s return to the core subject – Arsenal.
The last remotely traditional two man midfield that Arsenal fielded was Flamini-Fabregas, a combination which was pretty damn effective in 2007/08. However, pushing aside the rights and wrongs of changing the system, the fact is that it did change. Soon Arsene Wenger succumbed to the modish option of having three central midfielders: either with one sitting deep and two with more freedom to get forward (a 4-3-3); or with a two sitting deep / taking turns to sit deep (a “double pivot”) and one playing almost like a Bergkamp-esque “trequartista”, ie. aiming to play in the space between the opposition’s defence and midfield (a 4-2-3-1).
Having originally thrived in England with fairly traditional two-man midfields such as Petit-Vieira, I believe that at some point Arsene decided to aim towards having midfielders with specific attributes. One of these is the “distributor”, or, similarly, a “hoarder”.
The role of these so called hoarders is simply to play at the base of midfield – accessible to the full backs, centre backs, and to safe back-passes from more advanced players – and to keep the ball moving. They err towards the ball like a magnet, finding space and then playing it off again. Quickly. This is what Denilson was supposed to be.
But England being England, sitting there and prancing around with little one touches isn’t always enough. Often that player will also have to fight – such as during those mythical rainy Wednesday nights in Stoke. And Arsenal being Arsenal, the opposition are often likely to hit on the break, so the deepest lying midfielder must also be able to defend from such counter attacks.
Denilson, alas, ultimately failed in both those departments, with the infamous goal conceded to Man Utd in the European Cup coming to encapsulate the boy’s inability to do the dirtier side of his job.
Notably, however, by this stage Arsene had clearly decided that Alex Song was not suited the role of a deep-lying hoarder himself. Song’s career had turned for the better when Arsenal moved to a three man midfield; amid more packed conditions in the centre of the park, he became expert at tidying up messy situations, able to steal the ball off opponents and also to hold off their attempted tackles. With his physique he could survive the battle far more than Denilson could, yet also had the technique and composure to help Arsenal keep possession.
But the problem with Song was that he didn’t have the mindset of a hoarder. He thinks more creatively and is happier trying to pick out an ambitious pass than a quick, simple, ball-moving one. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t believe he’s ever dominated the passes-completed field of statistics in the way that hoarders usually do, despite playing so consistently in centre midfield.
Thus with Denilson’s part-departure, Arsene looked towards Mikel Arteta to come in and play the distributor role – which he did last year to widely-acknowledged success. The fact that Arsenal struggled to win a game without Arteta in the starting XI reflects that, simply, he is the only distributor in the squad.
For clarity, I’ll repeat the main two points here:
- Arsenal have an over-reliance on Arteta, as the squad’s only deep-lying hoarder
- The hoarder is often sitting in front of the defence, and ideally should also be able to battle, and defend against counter attacks
These two points, for me, explain the manager’s long-standing interest in Yann M’Vila. A quick disclaimer – I’ve never seen M’Vila play 90 minutes. But from highlights that I’ve watched, he appears to be a hoarder who’s also pretty strongly built and capable of sticking his foot in. There are no doubt other reservations about the player, but the point is that Arsene wants this type of player – a Denilson/Arteta style player but who is also what we still like to think as “defensive midfielder”.
As a quick aside, however, it is worth considering what a defensive midfielder actually is these days – particularly when observing the top teams, who typically dominate games and rarely have to sit deep under sustained pressure. The traditional view of a man sitting in front of the defence and helping shield it from deep lying forwards, trequartistas, attacking midfielders et cetera suddenly seems superfluous when a team rarely finds itself under that kind of threat.
How many times against Sunderland on Saturday, for example, did you see Arsenal’s back four sitting deep in a line, with Arteta and/or Diaby defending in front of them? Even once? Such deep defending mainly occurs when the opposition force their way to a set-piece high up the field. Other than that, it is typically counter attacks that offer the greatest threat. The Everton game against Man Utd provided another example – where exactly was United’s defensive midfielder? Arguably they don’t have one at all.
Does this mean that top clubs’ midfields don’t have to defend? Of course not. But it changes the emphasis on how they defend. Being able to storm around sticking your boot in is simply not a useful enough attribute to top sides anymore. Rather, midfielders need to be organised and positionally-clever. They still need to be able to pressure opponents when the time is right, and to tackle well. But they also need to know where to put themselves when faced with tactics such as counter-attacks or long balls. This is something that one “DM C” cannot do alone, and is thus a challenge for not only the whole midfield, but also the whole team.
Now, back to Song. As discussed, Song had not been the deepest lying midfielder at Arsenal for quite a while. I have sometimes read people saying that Song and Arteta took turns to sit deepest last season, as if they did so to an equal extent. They didn’t. While it is true that Arteta often drifts into more advanced pockets of space (and sometimes presses, by moving forwards), overall he was furthest back. This trend was continued when Diaby replaced Song against Sunderland, as this average position graphic shows:
Yet Song also completed lots of tackles – and while it may seem like an obvious thing to say, it’s worth noting that you don’t have to be furthest back in order to make tackles. In fact, it is debatable to what extent tackling is an indication of a midfielder being “defensive”.
Let me give you an extreme example: on Saturday, Santi Cazorla completed as many successful tackles as Lee Cattermole (both with three). Also, Arsenal players made as many interceptions (22) as Sunderland. Both tackles and interceptions are perceived as “defensive”, when in fact they are arguably either a neutral or even attacking consequence of a combative sport. The tika-taka-inspired technique of pressing high up the pitch shows how these aggressive qualities can be part of an attacking style.
Song’s ability to compete in the midfield was thus useful for an attacking Arsenal side. And last season, with Arteta pulling the strings so well, Song had the freedom to turn himself into a “deep-lying creator” (there’s another one for the glossary). He did exceptionally well at this, playing more accurate through balls than any other player in the English top flight (via @whoscored) and chipping in, often literally, with 14 assists.
His performances as a deep-lying creator were so good that I, like many Gooners, was very keen that he should stay at Arsenal. But without delving into the politics of the situation, it is clear that something went wrong between him and the club, and so he has departed. The important point to note is that he departed as a deep-lying creator who could also tackle and stuff – not as an old-fashioned “defensive midfielder”.
Nuri Sahin is also a deep-lying creator. While we know virtually nothing from his time at Real (I don’t think I watched him once for them), we know from his previous season at Dortmund that he loves what statisticians call a “key pass”. Like Song, who would instinctively look for Van Stapleton’s runs, Sahin sees his team’s forwards as moving dots that he can try and pick out with cunning through-balls. He is ambitious with his passes, and certainly no “water-carrier”. And like Song, his ideas often don’t come off.
If we assume that Sahin a) joins and b) is as creative as Song, the remaining issue is whether Arsenal will still have the requisite bite in midfield, having lost the Cameroonian. And another issue is whether they will improve at defending from counter attacks, something that Song was notably poor at doing. So often he would trip an opponent who was skipping past him, immediately earning a yellow card even if it was his first offence of the game. And so often last season we watched Arsenal’s entire team fail to organise itself sufficiently to defend being caught on the break.
[Update: Sahin actually averaged more tackles and more interceptions during his last "proper" season than Song did last season. He also conceded a lower rate of fouls. Click here for the full figures, via @jarzp. Also note the extremely low level of shots that Song blocked last season – a point that corroborates much of my argument here.]
[Another update: Song was booked 13 times last season, typically within the first hour of the game (average minute for his booking was the 58th – and three times he was booked within the opening half an hour of the game). Stats via @christowers_88]
[Final update: ok, so we didn't sign Sahin. Treat all those bits as theoretical.]
This is what midfields must do: they must be able to keep the ball moving quickly, and thus able to hoard possession; they must be able to press the opposition into losing the ball, in order to win back possession; they must have the tactical nous to protect their defence and reduce the chance of conceding goals; and they must have creative flair, being able to bring the ball forward and feed the attackers.
While the hoarding part is sometimes led by one player (eg. Arteta) and players can be labelled according to one specialist skill, a lot of the above is due to the collective effort of the three chosen midfielders. Jack Wilshere appears to be a “carrier” (get the glossary out again), the kind of player who looks to bring the ball forward and drive his team up the pitch. Yet he is also tenacious and has an exceptional range of passing and creativity. He embodies the argument that relying on a single “defensive midfielder”, or even a single “creative midfielder”, is no longer necessary or progressive.
And when judging prospective first team midfielders such as Coquelin, we need to ask not “is he defensive”, but rather how many of the above skills he can contribute to an acceptable standard. The same questions should be asked of Diaby, who has always appeared to be the polar opposite of a hoarder and certainly not a creator (how many killer through balls can you remember Diaby playing? Any?) Rather he appears, when fit, to be an over-sized carrier, and one who can shoot, intercept and tackle. Will this work alongside Arteta and in what kind of games? Again, this remains to be seen. The methods of a post-Song Arsenal initially raise many questions, but hopefully the upcoming months will provide many interesting answers.
As I warned at the start of this post, life’s not as simple as it used to be. Nowadays you have to go to dinner parties and get asked what you think of Julian Assange before the atmosphere goes all tense as someone becomes angry about there being “no grey areas with rape”. You try to find refuge in your drink only for a civil servant called Zoe to start telling you that she hates Chablis. You laugh that it all tastes the same and she just smiles awkwardly and you both sit there in silence eating organic home-made pea and mint soup.
When did this all change? What happened to Kelly?
The football we watch at the Arsenal is no longer as simple as suggested by games like Champ Manager (or whatever it’s called these days). But this need not be a bad thing. Would you rather the simplicity of watching John Jensen and David Hillier lurk around the midfield, or the complexity of observing the first game when Arteta, Wilshere and Cazorla all line up in the same starting XI? I know what I’d prefer, and when one thinks about it, it’s really not all that complex – it’s just watching footballers kick a ball around. Which, ultimately, is one of the few simple innocent pleasures remaining from most of our childhoods.