Football

Dissecting Arsenal's defensive midfield crisis

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The defeat to Borussia Dortmund told us a lot of things about Arsenal, most of which we probably already knew.

First there was the scary lack of depth in defense as 19 year old right-back Hector Bellerin was forced into the lineup due to injuries to Mathieu Debuchy and Calum Chambers, who was sat on the bench after he was deemed not 100%.

Bellerin is talented and came in for Chambers - who's had to serve as the primary backup at right-back and center-back this season - and next up is Isaac Hayden, another youngster with a lot of promise (as I stated in a previous article), but to be thrown to the wolves away in the Champions League against a hungry Dortmund side hellbent on revenge after losing in the same fixture last season was a concerning.

Second was the decision to put Mesut Ozil out on the left hand side - it didn't work. It hasn't really worked since Wenger decided to put him out there. There's no doubt that Wenger saw the success that Germany had with Ozil out on the wing during the World Cup but the German national team consists of players that can provide cover at the back when he ventures out of position, the likes of Phillip Lahm, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Sami Khedira and Christoph Kramer.

Arsenal, don't have anyone with that kind of ability.

What's more is that Ozil is obviously lacking confidence right now, and Arsene Wenger only seems to be compounding his misery further by playing him in a position he's clearly not comfortable with and doesn't utilize his full skill-set. There are other players who are more adept at playing wide left, Alexis, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Santi Cazorla, Lukas 'where's my f***ing shin-pad' Podolski and the ghost of Joel Campbell, who has yet to see any significant action this season.

Playing wide, from a basic geographical perspective, means that he can't play through balls to his left and right sides, to the likes of Alexis, Oxlade-Chamberlain and Welbeck, it focuses his vision on one single area of the field, it forces him to cut inside and track back to defend.

He's a £42million number 10. You have to play him there to get the best out of him, and if he isn't performing, drop him. Wilshere, Cazorla and Rosicky are all capable alternatives.

But the biggest misstep last night was the defensive midfield position, a position that hasn't really been addressed since Alex Song left the club, you could go even further back to Gilberto Silva and Mathieu Flamini in his prime, the last players who truly took control of the space in front of the center-backs and said "if you want to score, you have to get past me first."

The position is currently manned by veterans Mikel Arteta and Flamini, both decent players, but neither resembles that of a "gatekeeper", a "protector of the realm" if you were. Neither really screams out "You shall not pass!" as the opposition breaks away. Both players are over 30 years old now and aren't intimidatory figures on the field, both are 5 ft 10, and you can see that. Perennial pessimist and former Arsenal player Paul Merson saw that last night.

“They’ve probably got about 11 midfield players at Arsenal and they’re all roughly about the same. There’s nothing really different. You can reel them off: Oxlade-Chamberlain, Walcott, Ramsey, Wilshere, Arteta, Rosicky, Cazorla, Ozil… they are all players that are exactly the same.”

Take for instance Chelsea's Nemanja Matic, a true defensive midfielder whom they bought back from Benfica last season after it was clear that they needed help in that position. Matic stands at a gaudy 6-ft 4. A converted center-back would fit into the defensive midfield slot at Arsenal and instantly improve the side.

The club supposedly had found its man during the summer transfer window in Sporting Lisbon's William Carvalho, a guy who ticks all the boxes in terms of a young, tall, muscular holding midfielder who at 22 years of age, is highly regarded by many as one of the best in the world at his position.

He could also cover at center-back. Versatile, good one the ball, and two positions for the price of one? Surely this was a deal Wenger couldn't turn down. But yes, negotiations faltered and Arsenal and their fans were left to rue what could have been a marquee signing in a position that has been a concern for years.

Arsenal will have to make do with the players that they have until the January transfer rolls around until they can re-negotiate with Carvalho and his representatives or any one of Lars Bender and Morgan Schneiderlin. There's always Kim Kallstrom - Wenger presumably has him on speed dial.

Realistically it's a hard one to figure out, Arteta and Flamini don't inspire much confidence to man the position, the same can be said of Jack Wilshere who's better suited as a box-to-box midfielder.

That leaves us to Abou Diaby. Yep, he's still alive and kicking. And while he's not match fit just yet, he may get a look-in sooner rather than later. Diaby whose once (and still?) promising career has been plagued by injures has been playing for the reserve side in order to gain fitness and he hasn't had any setbacks since his recovery began early this year.

The two other options are Calum Chambers - who Arsene Wenger sees as a possible candidate in the future to take over the defensive midfield role - and rookie Isaac Hayden.

"He can play a major role because in what I observe he has the qualities to impose himself in this part of the team. I believe he can play in defensive midfield and that's where I see him" - Wenger on Chambers.

The problem with playing Chambers, who has been one of the nicest surprises in the Premier League this season, is that he's currently the third choice center-back, which puts Wenger in a dilemma because he's currently relegated to 'emergency cover' which is highly unfair on the Southampton product because he's been one of Arsenal's brightest players this season, and he needs/deserves playing time. But he is limited due to the fact that the club failed to address depth in the transfer window. Unacceptable.

Wenger has kept a policy of "If you are good enough play, you are old enough to play". Chambers absolutely fits into both of those categories. 

Maybe sign free agent Diego Lugano and pray to the footballing Gods, sitting upon Mount Gazprom, that he never has to play?

Isaac Hayden might not be a bad option here, because by nature he's a center-back who also happens to be comfortable in midfield. Captain of the under-21 side, the 19 year old has looked poised in minimal time playing for the first team. The position is not as demanding as center-back, and he'd have the added advantage of having Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny behind him.

They're all options to be considered, because Lord knows right now, if Steve Bould had hair, he'd be pulling it out in the wake of what has been a torrid start to the season for Arsenal's defense.

Because the main aim of the defenders and Goalkeeper is 'don't concede at all costs' and I'm not sure that approach isn't necessarily a negative one if you're an Arsenal fan. Especially in the huge games vs the likes of Dortmund, Manchester City, Chelsea and Liverpool.

Why not focus on getting out of there with a scrappy nil-nil or a Mourinho-esque 1-0 victory? Playing badly and getting a result has for centuries been a staple of championship winning sides.

Arsenal have the attacking players to nab a late goal but the issue for what feels like the entirety of the infamous trophy drought was the inability to contain the opposition.

When you look back to the successful Arsenal sides, the double-winning sides of 97-98 and 01-02, the invincibles of 2004-05, it's not as if they got by playing in a manner that would make Tony Pulis wet himself a little.

Maybe it's time to go back to basics, and realign the parallax.

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Topics:
Arsenal
Mathieu Flamini
Jack Wilshere
Football
Mathieu Debuchy
Danny Welbeck
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain
Chelsea
Alexis Sanchez
Mikel Arteta
Borussia Dortmund
Arsene Wenger
Theo Walcott

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