A well felt idea in football is that the defensive midfielder, or holding midfielder, however you want to term it, is a player who is often underrated, unappreciated and undervalued. This is certainly a reasonably valid perception in a lot of cases. Ramires has played every match this premier league season, and put in consistent performance after consistent performance but has barely earned a mention in the mainstream media. His goal today may change that. During their Champions League campaign Borussia Dortmund earned many a plaudit. Their feared front four correctly earned attention, the box to box performances of the complete midfielder which is Ilkay Gündoğan generated significant praise and even the back five were at times given credit. But the performances of the 11th man, Sven Bender, whose tireless covering of ground and defensive contribution were invaluable, were often not noted.
However, increasingly in modern football the defensive midfielder is becoming a more and more appreciated, and even glamorous, role. The sheer fact that the occupants of the position are widely considered to be unsung heroes shows that in reality everyone knows and appreciates them, they just don’t make highlights packages and match reports because the their positional security and key interceptions aren’t interesting to everyone. Certainly there are many cases of predominantly defensive midfield men earning high praise. Last year the Guardian considered Sergio Busquets to be the 14th best footballer in the world in their top 100, while this year `FourFourTwo went one better, placing him 11th in their annual list of the best 100 players on the planet. After Baryen Munich’s 7-0 demolition of Barcelona in last years Champions League semi finals many cited the role of Bastian Schweinsteiger and Javi Martinez as the crucial factor, despite Thomas Muller netting three goals against a side some consider to be the greatest club outfit of all time across the two legs. Claude Makélélé is often considered one of the best players of his time at Chelsea and Real Madrid, Gennaro Gattuso earned similar recognition and even Mathieu Flamini has been credited with helping turn Arsenal around this season.
These players, all have qualities and reasons for their prestige which aren’t associated with every holding midfielder, though. Two such factors initially spring to mind. The first mentioned examples are all different in style, but they share a common, and in the end crucial, denominator when it comes to evaluating them as players. They played/play for successful sides. These aren’t just good sides we’re talking about either. The Barcelona of the late noughties and early tens, and the Bayern Munich of last year and this one are two sides that will go down among the greatest ever. Treble winners, consistent Champions League finalists, you name it. That doesn’t mean these players are overhyped, they’re brilliant footballers, but it’s naive to think they’d be rated as highly without the trophies sketched in. These sides have people purring over them all day long, eventually they’ll have time to credit even the most distant of forgotten, unnoticed roles.
The second type are the defensive midfielders who force themselves upon you. The main reason the holding role can go unnoticed is the predominant work the incumbent does is early in the progression, and not the final act, in both defence and attack. They make tackles, but it’s often with cover behind them. They make useful forward passes, but rarely the decisive, defence splitting pass. They don’t end up with the last ditch tackles and goals and assists which boost a players highlight appeal and statistical quality. Certain types of defensive midfielders devise their whole agenda around eradicating this, however. Hard tacking, physically well equipped and not afraid to make use of it in their play, these deeper midfielders almost act as a third centre back, albeit further up the field and more aggressive. Gattuso was one to earn recognition for this style and Flamini, a once teammate of Gattuso, is similar. He’ll make highlights packages with aggressive slide tackles and can be seen barking orders during breaks in play. He earned the tag of unsung hero during his previous time with Arsenal and has since been coined a major player in Arsenal becoming title challengers again. He was brought back into the league starting XI today against Manchester City to try and contain their attacking prowess, as he’s often viewed as the best defensively of Arsenal’s midfielders.
Which brings us to the subject of this article, and ironically, a player who was left out of the mentioned game. The third type of defensive midfielder. The one less physical, more technically and mentally astute but without the Champions League medals on their neck and World Cup victories under their belt. Their defensive contribution isn’t as obvious to the naked eye, though it’s most certainly there, but instead they’re better on the ball and can distribute it just as well as they win it. In an era of possession based football, where traditional wingers are dying out and attacking midfielders are doing their best work keeping the ball rather than spreading it, it’s an essential role. These aren’t just you’re traditional unsung defensive midfielders either; they go further. Their lack of physical presence means they’re often unnoticeable and they share a similar trait to wicketkeepers in cricket – when you don’t notice them, they’re usually doing their job best. To manipulate a quote from the Spanish national coach Vicent del Bosque, used for the once maligned but increasingly rated Busquets; if you casually watch the game they’ll pass you by, if you watch them, you’ll watch the game.
Few meet the criteria quite like Mikel Arteta. You have to go back a decade to recall his last trophy, he’s astonishingly never earned an international cap and has never even played in a Champions League quarter final. The man who’s been a premier league performer nearly a decade, yet has never excelled quite to the level to reach the Busquets, Schwienstiger or Lahm level. Yet, in 2013 he has been the key cog in a resurgent Arsenal side who’ve accumulated more Premier League points than anyone else and have worked their way out of the toughest Champions League group in this seasons competition. And he’s done it with hardly any abnormal amounts of praise. When he signed for Arsenal in 2011 he had to fill the void of Arsenal’s best player and plenty of negativity around his transfer; and while he may not get the full credit he deserves, surely even his greatest doubters have since been silenced.
Arteta is everything a modern day top flight defensive midfielder should be. Lots of successful tackling and intercepting – he had the 13th highest tackles per game ratio in the PL last season and has the 11th highest this season – while still being able to play as a deep lying playmaker, distributing the ball to teammates with ease, and always there to receive a simple pass. As a once more offensive playmaker he has the tools needed when going forward. Terrific long range passing and vision and – something of a free kick specialist in his Everton days – he takes all the Arsenal pens when he’s on the pitch. What he lacks in vocal and physical presence he more than makes up for with apt positioning and a set of mature and experienced shoulders. He’s what makes defence to attack such an easy transition, he’s the man that occupies the space left vacant by the naive, he’s the middle cog that makes the Arsenal conveyor belt flow, the thing that makes them tick.
Since the third of March 2013, Arsenal have conceded more than once in a competitive game only once when Arteta has started, the home tie to Borussia Dortmund, proving Arteta’s defensive prowess. When Arsenal won at the fortress that is the Westfalenstadion only the respective centre halves and Kieran Gibbs had a deeper average position. In the meantime he’s still managed to maintain one of the highest pass rates in the league and is essential to Arsenal’s offensive play due to his skills on the ball and eye for a pass. His absence was strongly felt in the home loss against Aston Villa, where Arsenal conceded three. Flamini has somewhat filled the boots when needed, but overall he’s an inferior player to Arteta. Technically he’s not as good, and Arsenal lack the control on the ball when he’s playing instead. Defensively he makes less tackles and interceptions too. He’s what you’d expect from a traditional Premier League defensive midfielder; in your face and aggressive, and it’s why he’s rated higher among many. But in footballing terms he’s inferior.
Arteta is brilliant; the ultimate underrated one, the forgotten one, the unsung hero. Someone who would improve nearly every team in the world. It’s just a shame a lot don’t realise. All in all it’s not bad for someone who cost £10 million and was singed on what’s, for some unknown reason, gone down in history as a terrible day for the club which can never happen again. Maybe Arsene really does know.