Writer: Tim Stillman
Date:Monday June 8 2009
As suspected, the three characters taking positions five to three have generated a great deal of debate. (One of them even somehow generated a debate about the merits of socialism in the 21st century. Only Arsenal fans could do that!) As I said at the outset, in a campaign that has been plagued by inconsistency and plagued by injury, it is difficult to pinpoint players who have enjoyed a regular run and maintained any semblance of decent form. Fits and starts has been very much the order of the season, or unfits and starts if you will. However, the choice for second place is a player who has bucked the trend somewhat with a season of unalloyed consistency; he has stayed fit for the entire season, succumbing to a minor injury for one game in the entire campaign, an away match with West Ham in October. He has started 49 games this season and appeared twice as a substitute, he was only substituted himself on three occasions, racking up more minutes than any other Arsenal player. Yet you rarely read his name in any match report (except for mine!), seldom read his interviews and almost never hear of him singled out for praise. Interestingly, his name is often reeled out by Arsenal supporters as an example our mediocrity, yet you never hear his name openly berated on match days. Largely, because Denilson rarely puts a foot wrong.
There has been much speculation as to the merits of Wenger`s youth policy, the words on the street is that Arsenal has become a crèche, a pamperer of young egos at the expense of club welfare. However, if Arsene wanted to use an illustrative example of this policy at work, he could do worse than to highlight Denilson`s statistics this season. Season 2007-08 saw Mathieu Flamini enjoy the season of his career in the defensive nook of Arsenal`s midfield. Flamini, ever a player you can count on to sing for his supper and turn on some form only when contract renegotiation is on the horizon, swanned off to Milan on a Bosman last summer and Arsenal fans keenly anticipated a shiny replacement signing. Xabi Alonso, Yaya Toure and all manner of You Tube superstars were touted as replacements. Yet Arsene let his intentions slip in an interview with the Arsenal magazine last May when he hinted broadly at turning Denilson into a defensive midfield foil for Fabregas. Indeed, upon singing Denilson, Wenger described him as "part Gilberto, part Rosicky." (Hopefully, when the Boss labelled him "part Rosicky" he wasn`t thinking of the hamstring area). The transfer deadline passed and Arsenal fans were not happy with the organic replacement Wenger had found within his arsenal. From there on, it was always an impossible task for Denilson to win the supporters over, short of actually taking to the pitch wearing "16 FLAMINI" on his back; it was obvious that credit would be difficult for him to come by.
Much like someone jilted by an old flame, Flamini`s absence has allowed his reputation to become distorted and placed upon a plateau. That he had an astonishingly good season last year is beyond doubt, but something of a myth has been cultivated since his departure. Arsenal`s patchy form early in the season has seen parallels made and conclusions drawn. Yet few pointed to the fact that Rosicky`s virtual paralysis and the departure of Alex Hleb were also losses keenly felt by our midfield, that`s 75% of the component parts of the most important area of the pitch decimated, the symphonic understanding achieved between that quartet last season hit an absolute threshold. Subsequently, the size and shape of the midfield has shifted persistently, as new positions and formations have been experimented with at different stages. The only constant for me, has been Denilson. His role hasn`t changed a great deal within the framework of every midfield permutation, allowing him to find his feet, and found his feet he has.
Given the very minute role he played last season, Denilson has been asked to step up to the plate incredibly quickly and has not disappointed. One of the reasons he does not receive the credit he is due owes to his subtle style. Flamini had great energy, which he needed because his positional sense was not exemplary. Supporters and pundits are much more likely to notice a player haring around like a lunatic than they are a player like Denilson, who avoids such lung busting displays simply by being in his position. It is often said that part of what made David Seaman such a great goalkeeper was the fact that you hardly ever saw him fling himself full length into top corners because nine times out of ten, he had anticipated the flight of the ball and was in position to catch it. I would make a similar argument for Denilson who reads play exceptionally well for a man of his age and inexperience. Check the statistics, interceptions, tackles won, tackles lost, successful passes; Denilson leads the way at Arsenal in every category by a country mile and leads most midfielders in the Premiership (he also betters Flamini in most categories compared to last season), these sorts of jobs are the absolute staple of the defensive midfielder. Throw in seven assists and four goals too and you have a very impressive season`s work.
Denilson I feel is also hampered by his nationality when it comes to receiving acclaim. There is a very prominent stereotype on these shores that the Brazilian footballer is hell bent on offensive football and neglectful of defensive duty. The amount of times I`ve heard the phrase, "he`s a Brazilian, of course he can`t defend." But if you look past the shiny Nike branding of "joga Bonita" and ditch the conga and samba stereotypes, you`ll see that Brazil has a great history of producing world class defensive midfielders, anchors that have given the creative greats license to soar. Just look at the current Brazilian coach for an example. What most impresses me about Denilson is the simplicity of his game, his anticipation is second to none, every single time a ball breaks loose in midfield; take a look at the first Arsenal player to sweep up the scraps. Every time one of the full backs or wingers finds himself penned in and surrounded by bodies, take note of the first Arsenal player on the scene making himself available for the pass. Time and again Denilson facilitates for his colleagues by doing his job, winning the ball and recycling it economically. Arsenal`s deficiencies in the centre of the park have not been defensive, but predominantly in trying to accommodate Walcott and Nasri into the midfield and not lose our balance. When Arsenal shored up at the back and stop leaking goals quite so regularly, Denilson received almost no credit despite having played throughout that entire spell. Arshavin`s arrival shored up the creative imbalance and Arsenal`s midfield began to look mechanic again, but Arshavin`s prominence did not detract from our defensive stability until Denilson was displaced by Alex Song briefly, upon Denilson`s resumption we stopped conceding again. Coincidence?
Denilson`s place in the podium is a victory for consistency and industry, unspectacular reasons for being our second best performer this year, but in a season that has been utterly bereft of such qualities elsewhere in the squad; the young Brazilian has been a cool breeze running through some tempestuous conditions. To have been asked to adapt to a new position in a team competing at the very top echelons of the game is no small task for a 21 year old, Denilson`s form I feel was patchy in August and September, but since the autumn I scarcely remember a poor game from him. I suppose he has become the archetypal seven out of ten player; which Arsenal sorely needs in a team of players who flit between the brilliant and the abject on an almost weekly basis. (In the month of November, we beat Chelsea and Manchester United, but lost to Stoke, Manchester City and Aston Villa). He has also performed in big matches, which I have always judged to be something of a yardstick for any player, at Stamford Bridge he was a key to repelling Chelsea`s attacks which, under Scolari, came predominantly from their full backs. The home tie against Roma was one of the more immaculate performances from an Arsenal player this season, tasked with shackling de Rossi and Totti, Denilson outshone both easily- even to the point that the press and the supporters gave him credit for his display. It`s an old adage that a defensive midfield player is usually doing his job faultlessly if you haven`t noticed him. Denilson never draws howls of derision in the stadium and rarely receives acclaim or criticism in post match diagnoses. So here`s to Denilson, Arsenal`s invisible man. Tomorrow I will announce my player of the season.LD.
Date:Monday June 8 2009
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