The transfer window has shut, and as many suspected, we were largely inactive in the final few days, managing only to shift Bendtner and Park out on loan, trimming players from the wage bill who did not feature in our plans for the season ahead. Since then, there has been quite the reaction, with many dismayed at the lack of arrivals, particularly following the departure of Alex Song. I’ll address this in a moment, because I’ve suspected for a while that Song’s replacement is not who you would expect, but first I want to remove a misconception that I’ve seen floating around, repeated by many.
If you have been on Twitter over the last 24 hours, you may have seen the line ‘three in, thirteen out‘ bandied around. This is, no matter how you look at it, factually incorrect, indicating that we have ten less players than last season. The thirteen not only include players that were never going to make it at Arsenal, but players who were previously out on loan. For example, Bendtner was out last season as well as this – if you count loans in your ‘ins and outs’, then he is actually both. Alternatively, if you don’t, then he is neither. Similarly, Carlos Vela was out on loan last year and has now been sold. And if you are going to count the return of Benayoun to Chelsea, then you also have to include the return of Arshavin.
My point is simply that those 3-13 numbers are nothing more than a statistical lie. The reality is that we have lost two players who had anything to do with our first team squad, both of them key starters (Van Persie and Song), plus the bit-part loanee Benayoun. In return, we have gained three first team starters (Podolski, Giroud, Cazorla) and gained back a bit-part squad member in Arshavin. Whatever way you look at it, whether you include loans or not, we have a first team squad one member bigger than before.
Of course, the quality and the balance is the real question, and I will address that later in the week. Before then, I want to tackle the issue of Alex Song’s departure.
The midfield restructure
For a number of years, Wenger favoured a sole holding midfielder, tasked almost exclusively with shielding the back four and moving the ball forward to the playmakers in front of him. Gilberto is probably the most successful exponent of the role, with his ability to find the key destructive positions perfectly matched with his short passing accuracy, enabling him to locate the deadly talents that made up the forward line of the Invincibles.
When he made the switch to 4-3-3, he remained true to the concept of having a single ‘defensive’ midfielder, with the rest of the three man core being a two-pronged creative hub, sharing the responsibility of getting the wide men into dangerous positions and supporting the central striker on the goalscoring front. It would be fair to say that the new tactical layout has had mixed success, with us demonstrating a particular vulnerability to the counter attack, perhaps not surprising when five players (the front three plus the two creative central midfielders) do not have defensive responsibilities as a high priority.
Sometime in the last 18 months, Wenger decided to change approach. More and more we’ve seen the midfield triangle reversed – instead of one holder and two attacking players, two have sat with one further forward. This has two major effects:
a) It allows the two sitting midfielders to create more. While both still have defensive responsibilities, the sharing of these means that either or both can venture forward and look to add more to the creative side of the game. Alex Song has actually been one of the main beneficiaries here – with Arteta pairing him in the sitting role last season, he was allowed more creative freedom, leading to his impressive assists tally.
b) It adds more pressure to the man at the point of the midfield triangle. While the sitting pair gain support from their partner, the man further forward becomes the hub through which the team play and can become isolated if they aren’t up to it. This was a problem last season, with no-one able to dictate the play as we would want. Many were tried, but no-one really rose to the admittedly difficult task, which lead to the sitting two moving further forward to support their teammate, which in turn led to a big gap between defence and midfield, and to the overexposure of the back four. In my opinion, our defensive issues actually stemmed from a lot further up the field.
All change in the midfield
This season, I think Wenger found his man – the player able to control the match from the front of the triangle, and cope with the pressure and responsibility that comes with that. That man is Santi Cazorla. Many believe him to be Cesc’s replacement, and while I can see the reasoning behind this, I’m not sure it is all that simple. By deploying Cazorla in the key position behind the front three, we can play with two sitting midfielders without lacking in creativity.
In turn, having two sitting midfielders alleviates the need for either of them to be a ‘true’ defensive player. Instead, both have the remit of good positional play, shielding the back four where necessary, but also they need a creative side to their play, most importantly a quick creative ability. What I mean by that is that they need to be able to take the ball from the defence and move it quickly forward, able to feed Cazorla or the wide players with razor-sharp passing. And once you make that the definition of the role, is Song the right man?
I don’t want you to think that I am rewriting history – Alex Song is a very good player and is certainly capable of playing that role. But we have other players equally able to sit with discipline and create at speed – Arteta is the obvious one, but Wilshere is the man I believe the role suits best. Rosicky also turns and moves forward quickly, and it is also Diaby’s best position for as long as he remains fit.
My perfect midfield trio is Arteta and Wilshere sitting behind Cazorla, and I don’t think Song could displace any of them as first choice. I think Wenger has taken a look at the squad, at how many players can play in that pair (where Song would be deployed) and considered that a player who is causing a few problems is not worth keeping when a decent offer comes in.
I don’t actually think Song will be missed – as I said, I think we have plenty of players for the sitting pair positions. My concern is further forward – when Cazorla doesn’t play, we have the same options as last season in the more advanced role – Ramsey, Chamberlain and Arshavin, assuming he sticks around. It is a lot to ask of the former pair to take on the responsibility currently on Cazorla’s shoulders, and I wouldn’t want to push Wilshere into the role just yet either. It is why the pursuit of Sahin made sense – sharing the advanced role with Cazorla would mean we are well covered in all areas.
That, of course, didn’t happen, but I still think we’ve got more numbers in there than people realise. And with Cazorla the new jewel in our crown, our midfield finally has the shape that I believe Wenger has been seeking. Now we just need them to click.