Tag Archives: Arsenal

Arsenal’s Midfield and the Potential Case for a Diamond

Ramsey, Cazorla and Ozil

Arsenal put in a much improved display at the Champions Manchester City on Sunday to get their first win in the city for over four years and their first league win against a Champions League side since beating City 1-0 at home in 2012. The midfield was far tighter than in previous away games against the “big sides”, being happy enough to sit off the City centre backs and the defensive midfield paring of Fernando and Fernandinho, looking instead to close the space in front of the back four where David Silva is usually so dangerous. The central midfield three featured two aggressive ball winners in Coquelin and Ramsey and one fighting technician in the form of Cazorla. In a first half where City had almost 65% possession Silva made just 27 passes, few of which posed any real threat.

Silva first half

For many people it was the midfield balance Arsenal has been crying out for, finally being able to fight successfully for 50-50 challenges and not rolling over at the sight of opposition pressure and intensity. In truth though the performance was far from perfect. There are still debates about the best potential balance for the midfield and attack, and there is the case of trying to fit all the necessary components in to try and achieve that balance.

Arsene Wenger has often spoke about trying to get the balance right between attack and defence with the narrative usually being that he has swung too far in favour of the former over the latter and has been over reliant on technical players. In truth, this game was probably the opposite. While the added physicality and counter attacking approach suited this match, Arsenal didn’t actually create much, instead relying on opposition error and being clinical with their half chances to score twice. In games where there is more emphasis for Arsenal to win they’ll need to be better with their ball retention in the final third. Secondly, in the early stages of the second half the game became far too open from Arsenal’s perspective and the City midfielders were able to carry the ball at a far greater tempo with more purpose. None of this is to say Arsenal’s midfield were poor on Sunday, far from it, just that there are still improvements to be made and potential questions.

At defensive midfield Francis Coquelin has somewhat come out of nowhere to make the position his own with Arteta out for a prolonged period. He’s read the game well, shown good strength in tackles and has distributed possession at a decent standard. It would probably be naive to use his performances to justify inactivity in the transfer market when it comes to midfield additions, but he has shown he can do a good job, both as a box-to-box ball winner and the deepest midfielder. In the current squad, halfway through the January window, he is currently the standout choice for the base of the midfield for now.

In central midfield another lock is Santi Cazorla, who since moving to a more central, slightly deeper role, in Arsenal’s new 4-3-3, has risen to new heights and has arguably been Arsenal’s standout performer. On Sunday he was the best player on the pitch, showing aggression when without the ball and immense control with it, weaving in and out of players in deep positions without ever playing himself into danger and distributing it cleanly with both feet. He orchestrated things from deep and was the pinnacle reason Arsenal were able to form some kind of stranglehold on the game and get up field which was crucial as he was the only pure technical player in Arsenal’s midfield five.

Cazorla dribblesCazorla passing

Aaron Ramsey is the most obvious candidate to fill the 3rd central role. At his best he performers all the duties you want a central midfielder to. Defensively he adds help for a holding midfielder and is perhaps Arsenal’s best ball winner. On the ball he can add control from deep, incisive passing and regular goals plus an immense engine which sees him cover huge amounts of ground. He’s had a tendency to be slightly sluggish technically when coming back from injuries but he’s a player who can get on a role, and was doing just that before he frustratingly strained his hamstring in Istanbul a month ago.

In the front three Arsenal have recently favoured power and pace in the wide areas and a focal point in Giroud centrally to hold the ball up and act as someone to bounce the play off. This has bucked the trend of recent years, were wide playmakers in the form of Cazorla, Wilshere, Ramsey, Rosicky and Özil have regularly been deployed on at least one flank, usually with a more direct player on the opposite one. This has brought obvious benefits and obvious downsides. Arsenal are now a very fast side and dangerous on the counter, but they often lack the ability to retain possession as effectively in advanced areas. Regularly at the Eithad dangerous breaks broke down due to sloppiness in possession and Arsenal were left on the back foot again.

I think the potential addition of Mesut Özil to the front three could greatly help in that regard. Özil has received wide criticism for his performances wide in the last year, but he does a good job there and was improving with every game until he sustained his knee injury. He can help Arsenal assert more control and dominance on games. He is admittedly not as prolific as in his preferred number 10 role, but with the move away from 4-2-3-1 he doesn’t suit a role in the midfield three over any of the aforementioned players.

However, I think there is a slightly weird situation brewing because I don’t think Ramsey is actually as well suited to his role in this system as he could be. All of Ramsey’s best performances in an Arsenal shirt have come alongside a holding midfielder – primarily Mikel Arteta and occasionally Mathieu Flamini – but also with a number 10 ahead of him. With no number 10 Ramsey is often drawn to the great space in front of him which isn’t filled by a teammate, and while his forward runs can be of great benefit it can lead to him leaving sufficient space for opposition to get in behind. This was seen in the early parts of the second half when the game became more stretched and Ramsey was often seen filling the number 10 space despite being needed deeper. It is similar problem Pep Guardiola found with Thomas Müller in his 4-3-3/4-1-4-1 system, where again a player of immense work rate was causing havoc tactically due to his attacking instincts and Guardiola was forced to abandon the idea of using Müller in an interior midfield role.

Ramsey is drawn to the space between the city DMs which is left unoccupied due to Arsenal not having a number 10

Ramsey is drawn to the space between the city DMs which is left unoccupied due to Arsenal not having a number 10

A number 10 filling the space in front of him could help Ramsey stay more disciplined and improve team structure without the ball even further after the improvements seen on Sunday. Ramsey can still make the lung busting forward runs with a true 10 in front of him; they’ll just be less regular and potentially more effective. Instead of surging forward every attack, he can arrive later when Özil has dragged the opposition defensive midfielders out of position. This is something we saw a lot last year, one example being in the home victory against Liverpool in the league, as shown by @DezilDez in this video. A compact Liverpool midfield is covering the space in front of the box, only for Özil to drag them wide, Ramsey to run into the space and score brilliantly.

Ozil creating space 1 Ozil creating space 2

I believe returning to a number 10 in front of Ramsey could create duel benefits of Ramsey keeping shape more regularly, and potentially scoring from his ventures forward at a better rate. When you add in that Özil is far more comfortable in a free central role than a wide one, where his passing options are more limited and his responsibilities without the ball are greater, it seems something that Arsenal should be trying to get working. The issue is a return to 4-2-3-1 would see Cazorla shifted wide, where he’d struggled in large chunks last year and in the early stages of this season.

Ever since the early parts of the season where Özil being played in wide areas caused much frustration I’ve thought about the potential use of a diamond midfield. The midfield three from Sunday would remain with Özil ahead of them behind two strikers or wide forwards.

Alexis Sanchez and Olivier Giroud would be the obvious strike paring, offering diversity in their partnership. Alexis could help push the defensive line back while Giroud can also act as a focal point to the attack. The fullbacks can compensate for the lack of width, particularly Hector Bellerin, who after impressing in recent weeks will get a run in the side with Debuchy’s injury. The former Barca winger is a particularly attack minded fullback, not afraid to try and break beyond and behind a defensive line with his electrifying pace. It could effectively look something like this.

Potential diamond shape

My guess is that Özil will return in the current 4-3-3 in one of the wide areas, perhaps with additional license to roam, which realistically, isn’t particularly different to a diamond formation. In both situations Özil will likely present another horizontal line between the central midfielders and other forwards, regardless of where he is positioned vertically, with the aim of trying to meet an adequate balance between directness and ball retention. Moving to an untested diamond structure would represent a risk for a side who have won 10 out of their last 13 in all competitions, but I do think it’s a system to bear in mind, both for the immediate present and the long term as it may be able to get the best out of Arsenal’s most influential players.

How do you think Arsenal should setup? Feel free to comment or tweet me with your thoughts. 

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Lukas Podolski Represents a Period Arsenal are Trying to Move Beyond

The German international is one of the best strikers of a ball in the world, but he lacks the all-round skill set for a side looking to win Championships

Podolski

So long Lukas. It would be a lie to say we hardly knew ye. These last few restless months of frustration have felt like an eternity and your imminent departure feels somewhat overdue. But that doesn’t curb the feeling that getting rid of one of the more popular squad members and arguably the most skilled player at the club when it comes to the all important asset of striking a ball towards goal for next to nothing is a bit of a waste.

So it is, that a man with 121 international caps for Germany, the most prolific goal scorer at Arsenal in the previous two seasons in the Premier League and Champions League, a man blessed with immense shooting technique, power and precision is about to head off to Italy and struggling Inter Milan on loan for a small fee with an option to buy at £5 million.

There were a few jokes on social media before Arsenal’s trip to West Ham a few days ago that it would be a fitting swan song for the German. His record v the irons stands at an incredible 270 minutes played in four games, registering four goals and four assists in the process, meaning he directly contributed to a goal approximately every half an hour against them.

But in many ways that was his problem. In his two full seasons at Arsenal West Ham finished 10th and 13th, they were a lower mid table club, one which was responsible for nearly a quarter of the goals and assists Podolski provided in his Premier League career. Against sides Arsenal dominated Podoslki flourished because he put away the chances that were there, but against a higher calibre of opponent he wasn’t able to have the influence needed to have a real impact in front of goal.

That wouldn’t be a huge issue if he contributed to the team in other ways, but the truth is he lacked the all-round skill set for a modern wide man. He didn’t have the pace and off ball movement to create enough chances for himself and others, didn’t get involved in build up play as effectively as some of the creative 10s Arsenal used there and didn’t always track back to help his fullback sufficiently.

With Arsenal regularly struggling in the centre forward position last season, there were numerous calls for Podolski to be used as a striker, but a good shot and decent goal rate is far from all that is needed for a modern day centre forward. In truth, Podolski perhaps suffers from modern tactics shifting away from a strike paring more towards a sole front man, who needs to be able to hold the ball up and link up play with the midfielders more, something Podolski fails to do as effectively as someone like Olivier Giroud. When Arsenal have varied their striker approach from Giroud, Welbeck and Sanago they’ve preferred the pace and dribbling of Theo Walcott and Alexis Sanchez instead. There is a suspicion that Wenger signed Podolski as a striker, giving him the number 9, and playing him up top on his debut, only to quickly realise his shortcomings after watching him struggle in the role.

In a sense, Podolski represents what Arsenal became in the early parts of this decade. After the investment in youth that occurred in the Fabregas era failed to get the elusive trophy, players kept leaving and there was a more immediate threat to Arsenal’s standing in England’s top 4 and Europe’s top 16. Young prodigies were replaced as transfer targets with proven reliable performers in their peaks, such as Arteta, Mertesacker, Giroud, Podolski, Cazorla and Monreal. While all have been relatively successful they arrived when Arsenal were scraping the barrel of their resources to maintain their position in the Champions League. Arsenal are now trying to move beyond that and become a club that can compete for the highest honours, and there are signs with the arrival of Özil and Alexis, plus the high level improvements of players such as Aaron Ramsey and Laurent Koscielny, that they’re not that far away with a couple more signings, a reduction in injury issues and less tactical naivety. As such, Podolski has become a player below the calibre Arsenal are looking for.

Arsenal are now incredibly well stocked in wide areas. Recently Cazorla’s influence wide has deteriorated but Özil is still competent in the role and had a good World Cup playing as a left sided inside forward, when the likes of Podolski himself could’ve been used instead. Among the Arsenal forwards, all of Alexis, Walcott, Chamberlain, Welbeck and Campbell are good wide players who are younger than Podolski and offer a wider variety of skills.

Podolski is something of a fan favourite for his character, social media skills and antics involving Tottenham, so many will be sad to see him go. But the truth is, as one of the higher earners in the squad, someone starting to move beyond his peak years, and a player Wenger clearly lacks an adequate level of belief in these days, it no longer makes sense for either club or player for him to remain at Arsenal, especially as his departure could help fund holes downfield.

So farewell Poldi. Thank you for your service. It’s a shame it never quite worked out. You’ll always have the highlight of a couple of thunderbastards, terrifying Manuel Neuer and pissing off Tottenham fans though.

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Arsenal, Man City and a word on squad depth

I guess it was predictable in the end. After dominating in the Autumn injuries, nerves and, ultimately, a lack of squad depth meant that in the late winter and early spring they crashed out of cup competitions and saw their title push breaking at the seams. This is a sentence one would usually associate with Arsenal, but has surprisingly become relevant to Manchester City after their draw at Sunderland left their league hopes in serious jepody. It followed what has been a disappointing two months for the club, where they’ve been knocked out of the Champions League, FA cup and gone from title favourites to outsiders.  A League Cup win featured in between, however, it’s fair to say at the start of February their ambitions were greater.
 
There’s been a lot of talk about squad depth this season.  With Arsenal’s season collapsing under the strain of injuries and fatigue and Liverpool arguably profiting from less games outside the league as the season has gone on, it’s become incredibly relevant towards who’s going to win the Premier League this season.  But the recent struggles of rich City, who’s depth has been praised all season, presents an interesting conclusion to the whole debate.  They’ve shown, that for all the theoretical depth in the world, competing on four fronts all year round is still incredibly tough and that injuries to star players will hinder everyone.  
 
Injuries to Sergio Aguero, Fernandinho and recently Yaya Toure have impacted heavily on City at different times this season and it may ultimately be the difference between success and failure.  Edin Dzeko and Javi Garcia are very good footballers, but Aguero and Toure are unique in their ability and style, and can’t be replaced.  Similarly, constant reshuffling, which City have had to do at the back this season, disrupts rhythm and stability.
 
Arsenal’s inability to keep up their form after the injuries to Aaron Ramsey, Theo Walcott and, to an extent, Mesut Özil, has been heavily criticised, but it shouldn’t be put down to a lack of squad depth.  Ramsey was the best midfielder in the league for the first half of the season, Walcott has been one of the most potent goal threats in the country in the last couple of seasons and Özil is one of the best number 10’s on the planet.  No team can account for that with the squad players at their disposal bar perhaps Bayern Munich.  Jack Wilshere, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Santi Cazorla are fine replacements for Arsenal’s injured trio, but they’re not as good and the team will inevitably not do as well without them.  It’s the same way Barcelona struggle without Messi, Liverpool would struggle without Gerrard, Sturridge and Sterling, Chelsea without Cahil, Oscar and Hazzard, etc.  
 
This isn’t to say certain sides should be exempt of criticism.  There’s a reason some sides are more injury prone than others and many such injuries are preventable.  But it’s far too simplistic to say an injury ravaged sides struggles are down to a lack of squad depth.  When any teams best players are out, they won’t do as well.  It’s simple and rarely to do with whether their bench was assembled with superstars or not.

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Chelsea match an opportunity for Arsenal success, not failure.

Rather than feel the weight of a title challenge on their shoulders tomorrow, Arsenal should see their game at Chelsea as a chance to close the gap, defy the odds and reignite their league hopes.

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All the odds are stacked against Arsene Wenger making his 1,000th Arsenal match a win.  Jose Mourinho has never lost at Stamford Bridge, Wenger has never beaten a Mourinho side.  Arsenal have struggled against the big teams in the last couple of seasons, Chelsea have flourished against them.  One could say it’s sad.

In a way, it’s also sad that Wenger’s 1,000th game will be against Mourinho, a man who, just a month ago, described Wenger as a specialist in failure.  It wouldn’t be that unlikely for a few of the tabloids to run with that narrative should Arsenal inevitably slip up against Chelsea.  Even if not directly quoiting there’ll certainly be a feeling that Arsenal will have failed if they lose.  In a sense, it will be partially right.  One could argue this is almost a must win for Arsenal, who are behind the front runners from down south.  If they lose it’s likely their title push will be pretty much over.

But from a different perspective they’ve got nothing to lose.  They’ve never been favourites for the league title, neither with the bookies or mainstream pundits.  Despite what Mourinho says, Chelsea most certainly have been at stages and have mostly been more likely than Arsenal in the opinions of those we hear about.  In a sense, the pressure is on them.  People aren’t expecting Arsenal to win, just like they don’t expect them to win the league.

For Arsenal the majority of their trophy hopes are in the FA Cup basket as recent results away at Southampton, Liverpool and Stoke have stalled their league challenge.  Contrary to some popular opinion it won’t be a disaster if Arsenal don’t win the league.  They’ve shown enough this season that winning them Premier League might not be that far away when just a year ago it looked a long way off.  No matter how you angle it this season has certainly seen improvements, and they’ve been slightly unlucky with the players they lost through injuries at certain times.  The season could very well finish with the same league position as last year, exiting the Champions League at the same stage and going trophyless again.  But even if it does the improvement has been there, and that’s the most important thing in the long run.  It’s not that unfeasible to think they can mount a stronger title challenge next year.  Bacary Sanga is the only player who may not be around next year – simply retaining most of their key players is a wonderful feeling for Arsenal in the last decade – and most of the squad will have the chance to improve.  They will likely come back a better side next season.

With that in mind, Arsenal would do well to go into tomorrow’s game with great optimism and hope.  If they lose, then it won’t be a major disaster; they can focus on the FA Cup and come back next season.  But if they win they’re right in it, and will be until the very end.  As they’re a side behind the pace setters, these games should be relished.  Simply winning every week against cannon fodder is useless if Chelsea and City do it too.  What Arsenal have is a chance to gain points on their rivals, and that should be seen as a positive.  Many will say Arsenal’s season hinges on a early kick off at Stamford Bridge.  It doesn’t, but Arsenal should be happy they have the chance to play there rather than a home game against Fulham.

Arsenal probably won’t beat Chelsea, in fact they’ll probably lose, but that doesn’t mean they’ve failed.  They just won’t have achieved an unlikely success that most of the media thought beyond them anyway.  Surely, given his comments about a little horse, even Mourinho can understand that logic.

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Arsenal Admirable, but Punished by Ruthless Bayern

Arsenal created excitement and showed resilience tonight, but mistakes proved costly.  

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Thomas Müller pounces on a late Arsenal lapse to all but seal the tie in its first leg. © Guardian

It may sound a weird time to say it – Arsenal lost a home game 2-0 and are on the brink of going out at the earliest knockout round in the Champions League for the fourth year in a row – but that was an Arsenal performance I could feel proud of as a fan.  Arsenal showed character, matched Bayern München at times and showed resolve in defence in what must have been an exhausting game both physically and mentally.  But they missed opportunities, made individual errors and against the best side in the world, you can rarely afford to do that and leave unscathed.

Arsenal flew out of the box impressively early doors.  Arsenal would like to think they play a style which isn’t too dissimilar to a Pep Guardiola side; eager for possession and at times slow build up through a great number of short passes.  They themselves have fallen victim to early pressing by teams this season, mainly v Borruisa Dortmund at home, Southampton away and, most recently, Liverpool.  For sides which are so used to having the ball and the opposition defending deep against them that they can often be unsettled by a sudden lack of time on the ball.  Dortmund showed in the final last year and even in a league defeat against Bayern in November, that they can still be unsettled by such tactics, especially early on.  Ironically I predicted Bayern would be the side to fly out of the blocks and potentially catch Arsenal out, but it was the opposite and Arsenal attacked Bayern at pace and harassed them on the ball.  The rabbit out of the hat Yaya Sanago provided energy and pace upfront which Olivier Giourd hasn’t shown since the early months of the season and Arsenal should have had an early lead but not for Manuel Neuer saving Mesut Özil’s penalty.  Pretty much the whole mainstream media is waiting eagerly for any trip up Özil makes at the moment, but it’s worth remembering it was his wonderful turn which earned the penalty in the first place, so in that respect he did no harm, merely no good.

Maybe the failure to convert the penalty deflated the energy in the stadium a bit, but Arsenal’s early pressure gradually deflated and Bayern grew into the game.  The last year has shown, including the Champions League final, that despite sides occasionally being able to dominate Bayern through early pressing, it’s not sustainable over 90 minutes, and Bayern will inevitably get a stranglehold on the game.  Such is the physical effect such tactics have on sides, they duly tire and Bayern are too good on the ball for sides to be able to dominate them without full energy.

Then came the second mistake of the night.  Toni Kroos – who bossed the game all night – played a lovely chipped through ball through to Arjen Robben who was clobbered down by Wojciech Szczesny.  A straight red and Arsenal were down to ten men against the best side in the world who thrive on keeping the ball.  It was never going to be an even game after that.

To their credit, Arsenal fought hard.  Great sides have been humiliated by recent Bayern München teams, and with ten men Arsenal did well just to prevent a rout.  They kept their defensive shape, were resilient but they just couldn’t keep the ball on the rare times they got it, and with so much pressure from such high quality players goals were always going to come.  Arsenal’s left wing was a particular area of persistent threat from Bayern and Özil, who seemed to be occupying a deep left midfield role in the second half, looked exhausted after covering nearly 12km trying to keep up with Robben, Lahm and Rafinha.  Tomorrow morning he’ll be slated for being lazy.

If they’d managed to keep it to one-nil, they could have traveled to Munich with hope, knowing a 2-1 win would see them through to the next ground.  However, Laurent Koscielny – who, coincidently, was immense for 88 minutes – was drawn forward and upon returning Arsenal’s back line was disturbed and Thomas Müller, self proclaimed ruler of space, was there to pounce.  A clever run from the Bayern veteran Cladio Pizzaro drew Per Mertesacker away from the danger area, and Müller rarely misses out from inside the box.  For a player of his size and technical quality, he’s a stunningly good header of a football.

In the end it was a night of missed chances and costly lapses.  Even Kroos’ stunning opener, hit like a curved snipper bullet into the top corner, was notable for the amount of space he found himself in on the edge of the box.  For Kroos these are strange times.  Despite featuring in every Bayern game up until mid January rumours about his future persist, as contract talks have stalled.  Those in the know in German football reckon it’s purely political, Kroos wants to earn what the best senior players are earning.  After a performance like tonight, he might just get it.  Bayern showed they can be a remarkably ruthless team when they need to be and they were tonight.  For Arsenal a 2-0 loss was not the disaster some of the papers will make it out to be tomorrow morning, but there will be a sense of regret because of the chance there was to prevent it, or even pull of something special.

It’s not all doom and gloom though.  Arsenal put in an admirable performance – a few brief moments aside – and showed an improved display to what we’ve seen in the last month.  Besides, an early exit in the Champions League could, like it did last season, lead to stronger performances domestically.  Maybe this could be the catalyst to Arsenal going on to win their first domestic silverware in nine years.

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Do statistics have a role in football?

The growth of football statistics have revolutionised the way many people think about football, but not everyone is convinced.  

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Do stats like these help us derive who the better player is, or are they just meaningless numbers which show nothing watching them can’t?

In the early parts of last spring, about a year ago, I came across a site named “Whoscored” via a forum discussion on just how good Gareth Bale was.  On Gillette Soccer Saturday, Jeff Stelling had claimed he was as good as Cristiano Ronaldo, which naturally led to discussions on the merits of the statement.  At this point one of the doubters brought up a diagram which showed a far less renowned player named Theo Walcott, playing in a similar wide offensive role to Bale, had a greater number of career goals and assists, despite playing a fewer amount of total games, showing that Bale perhaps wasn’t obviously much better than the top players in the league.  This naturally drew contempt from others, who laughed off the meaning of “stats” and the meaning they have in evaluating a players overall quality.

One person did, however, point out that Walcott wasn’t even statistically superior to Bale.  Obviously despite being similar positionally Bale and Walcott’s roles weren’t identical.  Walcott is a far more direct player and doesn’t get that involved in Arsenal build up play, being more the icing on the cake to a move.  Whereas Bale was the focal point at Spurs, where most moves came through him, and he also offered far more defensively.  The second poster pointed this out by claiming that in nearly all other areas Bale was statistically superior to Walcott, sighting whoscored.com as the source.

For those who don’t know, Whoscored is a football site centred around statistics.  They provide a great service for finding out results, fixtures and live scores all around the globe but their major quirk is the in-depth statistical analysis they provide for the major European leagues.  For each match everything a player does is recorded and at the end they’re given a statistical rating based on their performance.

Upon first looking at the site I was intrigued.  In-depth statistics had never really been covered in the mainstream media and I didn’t really know what to think of what I was looking at.  Due to being a major follower of cricket, where raw statistics play huge roles in how players are rated and matters of selection, I was well equipped with the idea of carefully using statistics to analyse a sport.  I also, however, new that such data could be misused by people in arguments and articles.  What I found most remarkable, however, was that despite following football for nearly a decade, most of the stats were like a different language to me.  I simply hadn’t been exposed to them before.

Arguably because of this, many football fans are incredibly skeptical of the role statistics can play in football.  They’re a relatively new innovation that reflect the technological age we live in and are something people from certain eras have never experienced.  Certainly the idea that a 17 year old kid in London could get a detailed statistical report of all games in leagues such as the Bundesliga or Ligue 1 moments after the full time whistle was blown would’ve seemed unthinkable not so long ago.  One would think that it’s something we should enjoy and encourage.  People can now look at football in greater depth and have another dimension to how they analyse and follow the game.  Since finding Whoscored last year my understanding of football statistics have skyrocketed and it’s completely changed my understanding of football and how I experience the game.  Not everyone sees it the same way, however.

For many people football isn’t something which can be read through a spreadsheet, graph or chart, it’s something that needs to be watched and experienced.  A great attacking player’s contribution can’t be quantified into a few dribbles, key passes and a shot from a prime area.  Pub debates about who the best midfielder in the country is aren’t about who can read the most impressive stats off their smartphone, it’s about forming your own opinions based on what you see with your own eyes.

They’re partly right of course.  Statistics used without the right context, or presented badly, are close to meaningless.  Using pass competition rates  on their own as the way to decide who the best passer in the Premier League is foolish.  Laurent Koscienly clearly isn’t the best passer in the premier league.  But as a part of a whole greater range of stats, such as key passes, successful long balls, successful through balls and where the passes are made can give you a great idea of whether or not a player is a top notch passer or not.  Furthermore, even the stat on its own isn’t useless.  The top four for pass completion rate for this season are all Arsenal players, all of whom play centrally and primarily defensively, which speaks volumes about how Arsenal like to control the ball on the edge of the opposition half, liking to distribute the ball carefully out wide and are willing to be patient before seeking the ambitious ball.

They’re not perfect, no, but neither are human judgements.  Humans can be swayed by personal preferences, stereotypes, conventional opinion and more which computers and databases are devoid of.  Most humans would probably tell you the growling in your face Mathieu Flamini makes more tackles than the graceful Spanish passer Mikel Arteta.  They’d be wrong (Arteta makes twice the tackles per game Flamini does).

Statistical ratings systems certainly create interesting results.  Whoscored ranked Santiago Cazorla as the 3rd best player in the premier league last season, ahead of the likes of Robin Van Persie, Juan Mata and Eden Hazzard.  Meanwhile, Michael Carrick a PFA player of the year nominee – Cazorla wasn’t – was ranked 62.  Stop, I hear you cry.  That’s a perfect example of statistics being flawed and not appreciating the role Carrick plays.  Well, it’s worth noting Mikel Arteta played a very similar role for Arsenal last year, and he was ranked 14th.  One could argue Carrick was the more impressive since he did it for a tittle winning side, but it’s also worth noting that players ratings for each match get a boost if the game is won; Arteta’s rating would’ve been even more superior to Carrick’s had the sides respective results been reversed.  I’m not trying to diminish the role Carrick played in United’s title win last season, but perhaps he wasn’t the best holding midfielder in the league and his nomination was simply a case of people only really noticing a good holding midfielder in a title wining side (I’ve previously written about this before).  That’s a basic human error and flaw which a statistical rating doesn’t have.

Another interesting result is just how far in front of everyone else Frank Ribery has been in the Bundesliga in the last season and a half.  His Ballon D’or case was a peculiar one, mostly because people were unsure how to really mount his case.  Most centred around the need for a Bayern player to be involved, although a large proportion felt that any of a large group of Bayern players had just as worthy a case.  Ribery certainly didn’t standout like Messi or Ronaldo and was neither as incredible on the eye or in basic statistics as his two rivals.  Yet for the period in question Whoscored had him as by far the standout for Bayern and not far behind Ronaldo and Messi.  Statsbomb, a site created by someone who has worked in football betting since 2006, also revealed interesting statistical results for the Ballon D’or nominees.  Messi and Ronaldo dominated goal scoring and shooting stats, but Ribery dominated nearly everything else; passing, dribbling, defensive contribution and was arguably more influential in the overall performance of Bayern Munich.  In a side which won everything, that’s no mean feat.  His Ballon D’or case was certainly a strong one, perhaps more so than most would’ve imagined.

There are still those who resist the influence of statistics like this.  I myself have little problem with that.  Football is not only a highly competitive game of which lots of statistical commodities can be derived from, it’s also an art and form of entertainment, arguably more importantly so. What of the negative narrative that many have towards the development of football statistics?  That I have a problem with.  Football statistics aren’t yet thrown at people.  If you want to seek them you can, if it’s not for you, you can easily avoid them without having to go out of your way.  I did it myself blissfully for years.

There’s also no reason why both can’t live in a happy harmony.  I love the things we can find through good use of statistics.  They not only provide a measure of quality, but also how players play and how certain people are unique.  We can look into three great Arsenal midfielders but see they’re all incredibly different.  We can look into the fascination of Frank Ribery’s role and how he and Cristiano Ronaldo, despite playing in the same position, have incredibly different roles and output.  That doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy Barney Ronay describing the phenomenon that is Thomas Müller, in a truly unique and vivid style that no array of graphs, charts and tables could ever do.  I rarely watch a football match without following it live on Whoscored, but conversely, I’d never follow a match online like that and not bother to watch it if I could.

Of course, like in most similar circumstances the best solution is an effective medium.  Analysis not simply being a few tables and numbers, but also not being as airy fairy as a few creative adjectives, metaphors and cliches – with perhaps more extreme versions of each for the hardcore fans.  Statistics have provided groundbreaking analysis of professional sport, and it’s a major shame that articles like this represent the views of so many.  It’s a fascinating football world we now live in and it should be nurtured and encouraged, not diminished and putdown.

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Mikel Arteta – The Ultimate Unsung One

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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.

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