Mikel Arteta and Marouane Fellaini share the spoils in a fascinating midfield battle

arteta-fellaini

– Interesting battle between two key midfielders
– Ramsey’s role in 1-1 draw once again under-appreciated
– Wenger needs his side to find their fluency again if they are to push on

Marouane Fellaini’s stock has risen higher than even his prominent ‘fro. Last season, he was a good player for Everton playing in a box-to-box midfield role; this season, he’s become an important one mainly used as an advanced midfielder, linking up play, not with deft passes or dribbles past opponents – although he’s capable of that, as shown by his goal – but with his head: a half target-man, half midfield-pivot. It’s a strange role and one that Arsenal had to shackle if they were to stop an uncompromising Everton side. They nearly did; the match finished 1-1 and both sides had the potential to win it, if not for the special bit of quality to actually pull it off.

Everton’s play revolves around Fellaini. David Moyes creed is to create lots of 2 v 1 situations down the flanks and Fellaini is the reference point. If the ball is not played up to him, he can still act as the decoy which allows Everton to quickly ping the ball out wide, usually down the left hand-side with Leighton Baines and Steven Pienaar and work into the box from there. As such, stopping Fellaini would go a long way to stopping Everton (although a bigger case could be made for Baines being their most important player, as shown by the way his side’s game suffered when he picked up an injury with 15 minutes to go).

That job would primarily be Mikel Arteta’s (while if Everton went longer, he would pass Fellaini on to one of the centre-backs). It was to be Arteta’s greatest test since being converted into a deep-lying playmaker. However, there is a growing thought that moving Arteta deeper is detrimental to his wider skill-set, yet that notion couldn’t be more misguided. After all, it hasn’t worked too badly for Andrea Pirlo. There is an argument that this team needs his passing higher up the pitch yet last season, he wasn’t Arsenal’s most penetrative midfielder – that was the holding midfielder Alex Song. Rather, Arteta’s role was about giving the team continuity and stability in possession, exactly what he is doing this season. Even so, moving Arteta further forward is not really an option.

Arsène Wenger’s perplexing decision to build a squad this season, with crucial areas under-manned mean Arsenal don’t have another holding midfielder to call upon. “Sometimes you have no possibility because you might only have one player in one position,” said Wenger before the game on his lack of flexibility to rotate. Francis Coquelin is purely not disciplined enough to hold a midfield on his own while the rest of Arsenal’s midfield is more suited to the box-to-box positions: Jack Wilshere Aaron Ramsey and Abou Diaby. Unfortunately, even with that talent at their disposal, they still haven’t got enough from that position this season. Hopefully, Wilshere can push on from his promising performance last night.

Nevertheless, there’s a compelling case to make for Mikel Arteta being main reason for Arsenal’s defensive improvement this season. Because for all the expertise that Steve Bould brings, there needs to be someone who embodies that know-how on the pitch and Arteta has done that.His defensive statistics are some of the best in the Premier League: he’s the sixth-best defensive performer in the Premier League on average, winning nearly 60% of his duels, with 52 tackles and 40 interceptions.

Continuing that theme against Everton last night, Arteta won 4/5 tackles and made 6 interceptions, while also clearing the ball four times. His tussle with Fellaini was engrossing as it was watching two completely contrasting styles. They niggled, fouled each other, and tugged one another’s shirts in the effort to win some sort of space in the midfield battle. (Both players are among the most fouled in the league too not coincidently). Arteta was not scared to put his body in front of the considerable frame of Fellaini and their tussle encapsulated the frantic nature of the fixture. Arteta showed that he had the physicality to play in the position – his tactical nous is already one the best – but due to the attentions of the Belgian midfielder, couldn’t really influence the game enough with his passing.

Marouane Fellaini got his goal when Steven Pienaar won the ball off Arteta following a lax pass from Bacary Sagna (in that sequence leading up to the equaliser, Pienaar actually recovered possession of the ball twice, the first time robbing Aaron Ramsey). Arteta could only watch, dumped to the floor as Sagna’s challenge inadvertently saw the ball squeeze its way to Fellaini and he shot accurately into the bottom corner with his left-foot.

Before that, Arsenal started wondrously, scoring inside the first minute but due to Everton’s pressing, but mainly some poor passing and understanding on their part, Arsenal never really dominated for a discernable period. Indeed, Everton’s equaliser came from a spell in which Arsenal kept the ball for good two-minutes before a certain level of cautiousness to play the killer ball and cockiness from Ramsey, saw them lose it in a dangerous area. That would be the most galling thing for Arsène Wenger to come out of this impotent period; that Arsenal haven’t moved the ball around effectively in the last month-and-a-half.After the draw, he said that the team “missed a little bit of accuracy in our final ball” and while Everton are always difficult opponents, Wenger’s way is set up for the midfield to win the game and they are not doing that at the moment.

Lukas Podolski’s absence meant Arsenal started with Ramsey on the left, four central midfielders in the line-up. The idea was to start as they did last season, where they kept the ball brilliantly for half an hour before Everton eventually threatened. Ramsey was key then and he was again, in a slightly different way this time. He created Arsenal’s goal, a Cesc-y reverse pass to Theo Walcott and made two other chances in the game (both with through-passes, possibly the hardest art in the sport). Yet, in between he showed some parts of his game which make him the maligned figure that he regretfully is.

He was dispossessed before Everton’s goal and overall, was pick-pocketed off the ball six times – the most of any player on the pitch.However, there were other parts of his game that went unnoticed such as the defensive work he did on Baines and Pienaar to limit as much as possible, their threat down that flank. Indeed, and that may partly be down to Walcott’s injury, Wenger switched Ramsey to Arsenal’s left in the second-half, to act as a balancing winger and allow Walcott to play on the counter-attack, almost as the second-striker. Arsenal’s problem, though, was the failure to successfully combine midfield with attack in transitions, especially with Santi Cazorla having a tired game. Ramsey did his part though, and one would hope his stint wide will make him a better user of the ball once he moves back centrally. Wenger once said that by deploying a central player wide, it allows him to “get used to using the ball in a small space, as the touchline effectively divides the space that’s available to him by two; when you move the same player back to the middle, he breathes more easily and can exploit space better.” That’s the aim with Ramsey.

All in all, though, a point was a fair result. Arsenal have a period of kind fixtures coming up which they must perform better. Against Everton, they showed the spirit required against normally troublesome opponents. Now they must hope that they find their technical accuracy consistently again. It’s Arsenal’s one trick but success is making it their one very good trick.

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