Denilson’s performances in the centre of midfield have largely gone unnoticed with the stats showing the Brazilian as the Gunners’ top performer.
At 16th place, he’s Arsenal’s best player this season according to the Actim Index stats which ranks players according their contribution to the team’s success. The more direct forward play one is involved in, the higher he ranks. Not just that, he’s the best interceptor in the the Premier League, the most accurate passer, fifth best tackler and the fourth most fouled player (OPTA stats). But while he’s a great number cruncher, Denilson has yet to get the recognition he deserves because his style is less crowd pleasing than his other teammate in the same position, Alex Song.
The Actim Index and Opta stats only includes actions that can be measured objectively therefore positioning, marking and balance cannot be quantified. Which is just as well as Denilson would surely have been placed much higher. An invisible wall in every sense, the Brazilian combines sound positional play with efficiency, linking up play whether sideways, forwards or backwards and covers as high a distance as any other Arsenal player.
Of course his job was made more difficult after the Gunners made an inconsistent start to the season. It could be described as a season of two halves; the first of which saw Arsenal looking to strike the right balance in their play after key personnel went missing, primarily playing in a 4-4-2. As a result Denilson was often left exposed to do most of the sweeping up and as Arsenal were not as strong in possession as last season, the ball was likely to come back more.
The second half was played in a 4-2-3-1 as Arsene Wenger looked to make up for the deficiencies of the first half, now trying to get the balance between attack and defence and focusing on getting the ball forward quicker. Denilson’s stats were just as impressive and even with an extra midfielder still assumed the main holding role.
Overall, he has managed on average 59 accurate passes a game this season and Song just 38 while Flamini last year made 47. Interceptions are counted as 146 (on average 4 a game) for the full season, 51 for Song (average 2.5 a game) and just 57 for Flamini (average 2 a game). On average Song made more tackles than the other two and the Cameroon midfielder showed why Wenger prefers him in central defence. Song had performed better against the more direct clubs such as Wigan and Liverpool as he is a player who is more comfortable at reading the play in front of him rather than around. Against the ‘weaker’ clubs (those who Arsenal played during their unbeaten run), Song played just as decently but has always assumed a supporting role to Denilson and Fabregas/Nasri.
The two players can be used where the situation best suits them; Wenger deployed Song in the second leg against Villarreal as he wanted the side to pressure higher up the pitch and win the ball back quicker. At Chelsea however, Song failed to impress. Although the tracking back in front of him wasn’t great, Denilson made nearly as much passes as him and twice as many interceptions in the 25 minutes he was on the pitch. The Brazilian has excelled in more technical games, preferring to use his his intelligence to nip the ball away and ensure the ball is always moving.
Matthieu Flamini’s statistics paint a bigger picture of the differences between this season’s Arsenal and last season’s. That season the link up play, movement and balance was better with the ball likely to stay in the opposition’s half more. With Hleb and Rosicky available for much of the season Arsenal were able to play their passing game with greater effect. Also just by a bit, Fabregas’ discipline was better as he went about picking the ball up deeper while Flamini’s role was about keeping the shape if the Gunners did lose the ball. This season, Denilson has had to contend with an inconsistent side hampered by injuries, the lack of team cohesion in defending and without such creative midfielders who owe much to the Arsenal style.
Arsene Wenger’s main priority next season must be about getting his side to become the expansive, ball-hogging side they were in previous years and the role of the defensive midfielder cannot be crucial enough. Denilson has come on leaps and bounds and although he still has much to learn, has shown with his performances that the position is in safe hands.
2008/9 Denilson (3,074 minutes)
Tackles won (includes aerial): 148 (average 4 per game)
Tackles lost: 81 (average 2 per game)
Pass interceptions: 146 (average 4 per game)
Accurate passes: 2,009 (average 59 per game)
Bad passes: 238 (average 7 per game)
2008/9 Song (1,741 minutes in midfield)
Tackles won: 104 (average 5 per game)
Tackles lost: 50 (average 2.5 per game)
Pass interceptions: 51 (average 2.5 per game)
Accurate passes: 742 (average 38.4 per game)
Bad passes: 90 (average 5 per game)
2007/8 Flamini (2,665 minutes)
Tackles won: 102 (average 3.4 per game)
Tackles lost: 56 (average 1.9 per game)
Pass interceptions: 57 (average 1.9 per game)
Accurate passes: 1,321 (average 44.6 per game)
Bad passes: 100 (average 3.4 per game)