Arsenal’s indifferent form this season which has contributed to three loses already has been attributed to a lack of a defensive midfield enforcer; someone who looks to tackle the ball in restart play.
With Flamini and Gilberto gone, Denilson and Song occupy their places. However watching the Arsenal youngsters defeat Wigan in the Carling Cup without a recognised defensive midfielder, it raised the question once more; do Arsenal still require one and too what specification?
The typical defensive midfielder is required to protect the back four, by tackling and distribute the ball to start attacks and allow the attacking players to play with more freedom. The role has evolved a bit more as they must now have a low centre of gravity and must be able to pass the ball however the main evolution has been to the protect and cover for the counter; reading the game and getting to the ball first the most important part of the job. When they do get the ball be also adept at passing the ball out otherwise it can put the team in danger.
Manchester United last year won the league and the European Cup by not playing a midfield enforcer, utilising Scholes and Carrick in the middle. Carrick is definitely a defensive midfielder and has the creative talents to play higher but his defining attribute is the ability to read the game and tactically position himself to stop attacks. Scholes does less running now and prefers to dictate play from a deeper position.
In the first half of the Carling Cup Mark Randall played as the defensive midfielder albeit with a bit more creativity, looking to protect the defense and allow the midfield to attack with more freedom. However in the second half the Aaron Ramsey switched with the Englishman as the main defensive midfielder though when he attacked, Randall dropped back.
What two similarities the players have is that they don’t have a strong tackle but are intelligent and are two players who are committed. The discipline to stay back if one goes forward and a prepare themselves mentally to do the ‘dirty’ work. They are not defensive midfielders and tactically still off the pace but committed themselves to the cause nethertheless against a team which in the league, one would have argued playing a tackler to be paramount in beating the Latics. Also being small they may have lacked presence but compensated by being in the right place at the right time.
Denilson is currently the holder of the defensive midfield position and stated his role before the 3-1 win over Everton:
“Yes, this season, yes. I am playing the role that Flamini and Gilberto had last season. That`s very important for the team and the manager has said that I need to think about the opposition more, rather than just looking for the ball all the time” he says, adding “I need to improve marking and look at the man who is running”
“I think it is important to score goals if you play midfield” as he continues “I need to score goals or make the final pass for the strikers as often as I can. I don`t always play behind Cesc though, sometimes I can go forward, he can stay back. We swap and can change. I think it works well for us.”
Fabregas in fact in recent games has played higher than he has ever had for Arsenal. A reason being could be a source of frustration, trying too hard for the team or that Arsenal have lacked a bit of creativity and cutting edge up front as Hleb’s ability to take people out of the game because of his superior dribbling and make space for others, assisting the assister has been missing. Denilson in affect has been exposed and his tactical ability been taken advantage of at times.
Maybe they can both follow the example of Randall and Ramsey or Scholes and Carrick playing with more shared responsibilities and more commitment. They are both lacking the positional play but if they commit themselves and look to get to the ball first then all is possible. The Gerrard and Lampard combination defensively was one of England’s best because of Gerrard’s commitment and attitude though positionaly he was worse than Lampard.
If one predominantly defensive player is the way forward then Denilson may have to sacrifice his play more and become more focused, not just tackling wise but getting himself into position, putting his attacking instincts to the backburner.
What makes Lampard a great player is that people don’t recognise his positional play which makes the balance of the team stronger and harder to break down. Personally I feel Fabregas needs to defend more to get this balance. The goals conceded against Tottenham show this vulnerability and looking at the stats, Denilson has now also dropped out of the tackles success rate top 5 and below fabregas in the passing rate.
So what about Song? He is naturally a defensive midfielder but maybe lacks a bit of urgency and commitment. His defensive play is better and is adept at passing with a bigger presence but like Denilson needs to develop a team attitude and not be concerned with individual glory. Same could be said about Diaby. In fact Flamini ticked all the right boxes with his all action display and he was before that a central midfielder though worked on his game to become first choice.
We looked at United’s partnerships but what about the other big clubs? Liverpool can have Xabi Alonso and Mascherano in defensive midfield. Maschereano is the typical enforcer but his big draw to him is his reading of the game.
A tackler will be nothing if he can’t read the game and Denilson may never be a one but he will always need to read the game.
So what Arsenal really need is not an enforcer but a interceptor. What do you think? Do you agree or is a tackler a requirement in the modern game?