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Rethinking Midfield Strategies

"You have to analyse the way we play for the national team. At Arsenal there is only one channel between the defence and attack and that is me, so I'm involved in practically all of the attacks but here with Spain there are more variations, more ways of attacking."

Those words from Cesc during the Euros this summer may not have meant to portray a negative about Arsenals game but it does convey an air of predictability in our playing style. Maybe somewhere in there is a clue as to what reconstruction might be going on in our midfield.

The apocalyptic air which has followed the closure of the transfer window is rooted in our failure to secure a midfield defender or enforcer or other such noun intended to impart a positive to an essentially negative action. If, as Cesc says, he is the one channel between defence and attack is he helped by partnering him with someone who reinforces that reality? Wouldn`t he be more logically assisted by someone who can offer another channel between defence and attack? That would give him more time and space and make us less predictable in the process surely.

Looking at our games so far this season it is notable how often Denilson has sought to go past the forwards to make telling contributions with assists for Nasri and Adebayor while scoring himself. Denilson is a player Wenger described when he signed him as 'a little bit Rosicky and a little bit Gilberto`. If that`s true it offers a tantalising prospect of being able to meet our defensive obligations while lifting some of the creative burden from Fabregas.

But are our defensive obligations compromised by such a selection? Possibly but here we are talking about midfield balance. It is worth remembering that, as good as he is, Cesc is still someway from his peak. He is getting physically stronger as was evident playing for Spain and as Wenger said recently he is intelligent enough to make a good defender himself. This is an aspect of his game that will improve the overall defensive capability of midfield especially as Nasri shows a greater capacity and effectiveness to work back than Hleb, for all his other qualities, was able to do. Diaby, when fit, offers another midfield combination in which his height may give some defensive protection from long high balls. The option is there to match the combination with the tactical need and would even include everyone's favourite - Eboue.

The only 'confirmed,` if we can call it that, midfield target this summer was apparently Alonso. Not your archetypal midfield destroyer but a player whose passing range offers an attacking threat while the tempo and accuracy of his passing helps retain possession. The value of possession as a defensive strategy isn`t always appreciated. By contrast 'ball winners` imply risky tackles which can give away free kicks around the penalty area. It is from just such situations that less gifted teams can gain a scoring opportunity. It makes sense then to avoid, as much as we can, conceding free kicks in having to win the ball back in those areas. The ability to pass swiftly and accurately helps with that objective.

It`s easy to feel that there is a natural combination of attacking midfielder and defending midfielder but Senna , while the defending midfielder, still played a fairly attacking role for Spain while Xavi would also 'hold`, when needed in the way that Alonso does. Maybe instead of ruing the failure to acquire a midfield enforcer we should contemplate an interesting and less predictable rethinking of our midfield strategy using the resources we have.

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The Journalist

Writer: Amos Mail feedback, articles or suggestions

Date:Thursday September 4 2008

Time: 1:50PM

Your Comments (oldest first)

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Great article A-moose. Thats why Denilson will be a start this season!
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04/09/2008 14:03:00

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04/09/2008 14:04:00

But there's not enough meat in the sandwich. I accept that Denilson could replicate Flamini's energy, but could he become the physical presence that Flamini offered? It's all very well pontificating the possibility of possession as a method of defence, but the reality is, we won't always have possession and we don't we need somebody to get it back. The stategies as outlined above are all very well when Arsenal are at their flowing best, but there needs to be an alternative for when we are not. Look at Villa Park last season, we came under extensive pressure in the second half, a large part of the reason we were able to resit it and hang on was the ability of Diarra and Flamini to break up Villa's attacks. I don't see the midfielders in our current squad that would be able to replicate that.
Little Dutch
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04/09/2008 14:15:00

Agree Amos and a lot of people are totally missing this point in thinking there is only one way to play the game. If the midfield attacks when they have the ball and defends when they don't as we did against Milan, that will make the difference
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04/09/2008 14:20:00

IMO Denilsons passing hasnt bin up to scratch
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04/09/2008 14:38:00

The point about the away game at Villa is a good one LD. We came under great pressure in the second half because Hleb, he of the magnetic boots, went off early. We murdered them in the first half because they couldn't take the ball off him. We swopped him for Walcott whose boots are a shade less sticky. Then we came under pressure.
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04/09/2008 14:44:00

Amos, yes, that's true, Villa resorted to the only way opponents know how to defend against us and that is to target our toughest player to get the ball from and kick him off the park. That tactic won't change. I like the notion that AW may be trying to diversify our attack by having different options in midfield -- but for that to work we need better options there. For that strategy to work, we need a helluva of midfield. Denilson's passing is a bit wayward. However, in this month's opta stats, he's one of the league's top tacklers. I'm sure he can improve on his passing but is he tough enuf to face the kind of tactics Villa used against Hleb, consistently? The issue for me is that our midfield options--while each having a number of strengths--have yet to convince me that they can effectively handle a long league campaign against teams who will resort to what Villa did. Hell, they couldn't do it against Fulham!
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04/09/2008 15:52:00

I think that ideally Wenger would have wanted to ease Denilson in over this season. Maybe he is forced to use him earlier and more than he would wish hence the pitch for Alonso. But I don't see too many other options and more to the point neither it seems did Wenger. In all fairness they have yet to convince me that they can sustain a full campaign - but I still reckon we can compete. Once again though the real weakness against Fulham wasn't our central midfield.
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04/09/2008 16:00:00

Finally someone talks some sense, we actually are'nt that bad off in midfield and the combination of Denilson and Cesc looks promising and don't forget that Cesk can tackle and track back quite sucsessfully.
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04/09/2008 16:16:00

STOP WHINGEING!!!!! 10 months aint that long ! just cope with the jeers from spuds and citeh, and playing in uefa cup next season! but worry not, 2009/2010, well win a double, EPL + UCL, go ARSENAL!
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04/09/2008 16:18:00

Denilson is wayward in his passing becouse he is still finding his feet in a midfield composed of Cesc Nasri and Eboue/Walcott. That will come good in the next few games as the players come more familiar with a sligtly different system.
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04/09/2008 16:20:00

I'm a tactics dummy.. but this does make sense to me. I don't mean to compare our midfield to the good old days, but Vieira and Petit could also do both attack and defence. Maybe in Cesc and Denilson (not just yet) Arsene sees a bit of potential of forming an "all-round" midfield like that, coupled with 2 creative midfielders who'd come inside and 2 attack-minded full-backs running down the flanks? In theory it could make our attack more multi-dimensional and less predictable. But like you guys said, I'm also not sure if we can afford not to have a 100% dedicated guy to do the donkey work in front of the back 4. Ideally I'd really like someone who's primarily defensive but could support Cesc in attack by passing well (e.g. Yaya, sorry for repeating his name this whole summer). And ahem, this is my shortened name:
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04/09/2008 16:47:00

Was this season really the one for an experiment? After coming so close last year I feel the manager should have built on what we did and dealt with the problems we had. He said we had a problem dealing with the long ball, what has he done to rectify this except sell our best 2 long ball defenders in Senderos and Gilberto?! I will support Arsene as I always have but im baffled.
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04/09/2008 17:09:00

Good spot about the Opta stats listing Denilson among the top 5 PL tacklers last month Jaelle. The same stats have him as 3rd best midfield passer behind Deco and Lampard.
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04/09/2008 17:57:00

Oops, Amos -- that one passed me right by! Good catch. I do believe Denilson can become a superb, immense player in the future. I just doubt we have enuf time to see that bear fruit -- not if we want to win anything this season. iceman, that's exactly my point in recent discussions with fellow gooners. I genuinely believed AW would address the problems we had last season that prevented us from winning the title, thru his own words. He himself pointed to those problems and gave the impression that he would address them. The longball issue especially. He said that the most important thing was to keep the team together. He lost two first choice midfielders and let important back-up players go. (I don't think he had much choice re Gilberto--I think Gilberto was determined to leave and AW couldn't say no to him). Which meant that he had to do more than replace them--he had to replace them AND strengthen the squad. Let's say all those players had stayed, even Jens. We had them all last season yet still won nothing. Which means that AW's obligation in the summer was to make us stronger--and there really wasn't a lot he needed to do, we were very close last season. But not only did he not strengthen, he barely replaced what we've lost. Yes, I know there is the added experience the team now has and the potential for younger players to step up. That's what we have to bank on this season. That, and luck with injuries and referees. That's a lot of hope to hang a season on.
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04/09/2008 18:31:00

Jaelle last season we got sc#@>ed by indjuries and the african cup(Toure was not the same player when he came back ). No african cup this season and with a bid of luck lot less indjuris, the young players have also a year more of experience. I do also belive the combination of two creative midfielders will make us a lot harder to predict, also when we look on denilson and Cesc's defending deep then they are not bad at all especially when Eboue is playing.
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04/09/2008 18:51:00

If the stats are to be believed (though it is very early days) then Denilson is bearing fruit already isn't he Jaelle?
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04/09/2008 18:58:00

Fair enuf, Amos. BTW, some Italian news sites are reporting we've got Appiah. And off-topic: Keegan resigned from Newcastle today. I've only been following the PL since the mid-90s. Has there ALWAYS been so much continual drama associated with Newcastle?
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04/09/2008 19:48:00

Thats interesting Jaelle. Can you please share some links of those Italian websites that are reporting the signing of Appiah?
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04/09/2008 19:59:00

Denilson is good enough; no doubt about it but we need a terrier in midfield. Denilson and Fabregas are too similar. It is fine if we have 2 physical and tough tackling CM (i.e Vieira, Petit, Edu, Parlour) playing together but 2 'hybrid' CM in the mould of Fabregas and Denilson will not work. Liverpool play better with Gerrard-Mascherano than Gerrard-Alonso, MU need Hargreaves, Chelsea need Essien and England never perform with Gerrard-Lampard (of course it had more to do with the overrated Lampard). Unless Denilson switch to DM full time like the Flamini (he used to be s*** in midfield before he focused solely on protecting the back 4) we will have tough time playing against teams whose main strategy is to distrupt our passing game. It is not about individual ability backed up by OPTA. It's about the overall strategy. I would very much prefer if we go back to the good old days where our DMs raked up 20 yellow cards and 7 red cards and also a couple of cups a season than now.
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04/09/2008 20:08:00

fabregas and denilson sounds alot healthier than carrick/scholes or lampard/ballack or even mascerano/alonso......why the panic guys? every one is banging on about a holding mf player to complement an attacking one why? petit and vieira worked very well as did vieira with gilberto. any player who partners fabs will be ok. have confidence. why spend millions on big names most of who rarely deliver.
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04/09/2008 20:50:00

gunnerkid, I wish I could, I was just lazily repeating what I read on an Italian blog I sometimes visit. Someone posted in passing that they'd just read on the gazzeta dello sport newswire that appiah was going to arsenal. I shouldn't have just posted a rumour like that without sourcing, my apologies. For an excellent article defending Wenger from current media criticism of Arsenal's recent performances (pre-Newcastle game), go here: . Believe it or not, it's written by a Spurs fan. Should be read by all gooners, whatever our views on the current squad and AW's decisions in the transfer market.
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04/09/2008 21:20:00

spot on Amos, couldn't agree with you more. But i still think if we can get Appiah on a free transfer, then it would really balance out or midfield while at the same time give it another dimension as your talking about..
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04/09/2008 21:24:00

Amos, stats can always be a bit misleading (we've had this discussion before ;). Even though Denilson is the 3rd best passer, he was still not very good with his accuracy from what I saw. Perhaps, he got all the really easy passes right (which may been numericaly significant), whilst screwing up the moderately tough ones. That may still lead to a healthy successful passing %.
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04/09/2008 21:40:00

However, the point you raise in the article is still an excellent one. As an alternative solution, perhaps we could use the wide players more in order to bypass Cesc as the creative genius. Perhaps, the defence can build up play on a more regular basis by passing the ball down the flanks, if Cesc feels he is the only link. As for the mid field enforcer, the tough tackler is somewhat over rated, as we saw with Gilberto 3 years back. We dont always need someone to put in the tough tackles if denilson can position himself as intelligently as Gilberto did, and with Wenger seeing 50% of Gilberto in Denilson, perhaps thats the way to go.
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04/09/2008 21:44:00

I don't know anything more than what I read, but after reading Jaelle's comment I went and looked - Appiah's Wiki page has changed back again. It mentions his physical at Arsenal on 4 September. Could be comple BS, but I hope not.
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04/09/2008 21:44:00

Yes it could also be that he is being overly ambitious with some passes which is why he is not 1st! The stats are also based on the number of passes which is naturally related to the time you are on the pitch. Therefore ManU's midfielders will only have 2 games stats in the August figures. Stats can be misleading if you don't fully understand and consider their context - but they don't lie either. When you factor in 2 assists and 1 goal in 4 games you can say he is doing ok for the moment.
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04/09/2008 21:55:00

Attack is the best form of defence,is the saying.well i think that is AW philosiphy this term,we will always concead a goal everyone does,the simple maths,score more than you let in,witch for the last two seasons we have lacked at times due to the one dimentional attack we mainly played,or lack of varible options we had to choose from,this term however i see goals and assists all over the park,Clichy/Nasri from the left,Sagna/Eboue on the right,Cesc in the middle+whoever partners him.Theres Vela,Walcott,Eduardo,Rosicky even Wilshere to come on all with dynamic flair to change a game in an instant,not forgetting the main front two with Ade and Van the man persie to terrorise any defence in the world,with nick as back up.So to tell you the truth i dont give a monkeys arse what all these pesamists bark on about with the DM postion,i have complete faith in who we got to go there(Song being my first choice)and the defensive pairing of Gallas and Toure.that looks like they they`ve been told to attack more often(like when AW encouraged Tony Adams to once do)i feel optermistic,in fact i feel super optermistic,when we win the league this year not only will it be a great victory, it will be a for english football to know it can be won without spending excessive amounts dosh.That also,is what i think Wenger is trying to achive
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05/09/2008 03:31:00

i think its premature to say what our permanent midfield configuration will be, as the likes of rosicky, diaby and bischoff become available, strategies and options will undoubtedly change. in terms of the link between defence and attack as cesc is referring to, well we certainly have clichy and nasri, and if theo/eboue can hook up with sagna equally as well, then the dimension gets greater still.
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05/09/2008 04:15:00

It may well be right that AW has more than one midfield strategies up his sleeve. But even if we stick to the 1 DM complementing Cesc, (someone may think I'm crazy to suggest this) perhaps AW will also consider Toure as the alternate choice; perhaps AW feels he is equally comfortable with the Gallas-Song/Gallas-Silvestre combi and hence he is confident not to buy someone if he is unable to find that "someone" who is better than the options available at our current squad. Some of us are arguing that we are not demanding AW to splurge big $$$ but at least buy someone to fill the "vacancy" left by Flamini. I assumed we are also saying that "this player" must be able to walk into our first eleven right away (I don't think we will be satisfied if another Ramseys or Bischoffs is signed) But if we are not going to spend big and inflated $$$, which player(s) are we exactly talking about? Which player is a proven DM and better than our current players and yet not cost big $$$?? I'm sure AW wanted to sign an experienced and top-quality DM but could not find someone that fit the bills and yet at a fair value as assessed by himself. To some of us this may appear to be overly cautious. No one is perfect and I guess that applies to AW as well. But for me I think we are blessed to have a prudent manager who will not jeopardise the long-term financial viability and growth of Arsenal. Based on current situations, we are not gonna be able to compete financially with the 4-5 clubs that are spending freely even as they raked up huge debts. But does that necessary mean that we will not be able to compete for titles and honours? I'm an optimist and I have full confidence in AW that we will put up more than a decent fight.
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05/09/2008 11:10:00

From an outsiders point of view guys i gotta say that the squad is filled with class but i don't think that the likes of Denilson are gonna win you the league......i'm sure uv heard it all before but u don't have the depth of Chelsea or United and that will prob tell at the end of the season!! Ur first 11 is a teat for any team but the league is not won with the first 11 it is won with a squad!!! PS great move gettin rid of Senderos for Silvestre......Ya ya coulda been the final piece????
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07/09/2008 16:43:00

I think Arsenal's midfield is the best in the Premiership division.
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22/10/2008 11:51:00


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