The centre of the park is a fiercely-contested battlefield in any football match. Rival midfielders fight tooth and nail to achieve supremacy in the central third with the victor of this battle, more often than not, going on to claim the overall spoils. The midfield is a vital cog in any team and remains so for Arsenal despite moving towards a more wing-based strategy last term. The ideal midfield should provide a robust stability when out of possession, a wall ready and waiting to shield the defence from the advances of the enemy. When in possession it holds the key to unlocking opposition defences, circulating the ball with unerring precision, and waiting for the exact moment to inflict the killer blow.
Despite Arsenal’s altered tactic last season, the midfield wasn’t suddenly absolved from duty, far from it. When quick, vertical transitions weren’t possible, for whatever reason, central craft was required to provide the breakthrough. Currently talk is rife of how Arsène Wenger may replace Robin van Persie’s impact within the team, should he depart, and of course that will go some way to deciding how competitive Arsenal are this coming season. Arguably, however, he has an even greater task still to perform: filling the giant hole that Cesc Fàbregas used to fit so snugly into. Understandably, given Cesc’s quality and the apparent funds available, this is easier said than done.
Without wishing to go over too much old ground and bring up a plethora of forcibly-erased memories of the majority it can’t be disputed that Cesc was our go-to man on so many occasions. If we needed a goal, simply put, we’d pass to him and hope he’d conjure up either yet another magical assist or net-bulging shot. Wenger’s decision to thrust Fàbregas forward behind the main striker was a defining one; one that was questioned at first by some but a decision that, after a brief adaptation period, simply couldn’t be argued. His burgeoning goals and assists columns the perfect response to the naysayers. He was our talisman, our creator-in-chief now at his devastating best on the fringes of the opposition box. His ability to provide the key pass in the final third of the pitch was unmatched in our squad and even if one were to look worldwide he’s in a select group of very few in this regard.
However, with his quality came a curse of sorts. A pass to Cesc became the easy pass, almost the only pass at times. His presence, through no fault of his own, seemed to inhibit the creative instincts of those around him. Tactically, though, subtle changes were made to the overall shape of the midfield partly perhaps to diminish this phenomenon while still keeping Cesc at the centre, quite literally, of our game plan. Having moved from a 1-2 structure (with a deep-lying holding player behind two more attacking midfielders) to a 2-1 shape with Fàbregas moved into a more advanced role, Wenger has since further tinkered with that shape.
The beauty of the double-pivot is it allows for rotation in the middle third, a blurring of roles that can pose the opposition multiple questions. Depending on circumstance any member of the midfield trio can feature at the point, allowing for untracked runs and more havoc in enemy ranks. Sure, Cesc was still very much the fulcrum of the team, but with that came increased attention, so if space was at a premium further up the pitch the structure gave him the option to drop deeper, dictating with enhanced freedom while allowing a teammate to take up his original position. The midfield triangle can be tilted at will with the opposition being pulled this way and that. At its best it can be extremely effective as illustrated in @BackwardsGooner’s masterfully crafted video detailing Arsenal’s midfield shape throughout a match at home to West Ham United in October of 2010:
In addition to the fluid element the double-pivot brings it can allow for creativity from other sources, depending on the personnel within said pivot of course. One player who has benefitted from this freedom is Alex Song. As the video above shows, when the triangle tilts Song can often become the most advanced midfielder allowing him to prompt with increased regularity. Arsène himself alluded to this growing attacking influence after Song’s goal in that game with a classic ‘Wengerism’: “He has got the taste to go forward, even if I think [it’s] a little too much sometimes for a holding midfielder! But that is part of our game as well.”
This “taste” of the attacking side of the game has resulted in greater assists for Song, especially last season. There’s certainly an argument for stating that he’s venturing forward more due to the inadequate creativity levels of others further forward but what is surely indisputable is that of our current midfielders he has relished the shared creative burden the most since Cesc’s return to Cataluña. His delicately weighted passes and somewhat surprisingly proficient dribbling ability (see a fan’s excellent capture of Robin van Persie’s 1st goal at home to Dortmund) are arguably becoming too predictable at times but they were undoubtedly welcome contributions during key periods of last year’s campaign.
As Wenger mentioned, this attacking instinct is part of our game and is no doubt encouraged throughout the squad. He wants his midfield to be the complete midfield: Capable going forward and going the other way; possessing ability on the ball and intelligence off it. It’s a desirable quality he has described on many occasions including last season where he lauded Arteta’s goal and controlling performance at the heart of midfield against Manchester City:
“He first won the ball back through complete focus on what the opponent will do and where he could lose the ball. He then finished the action and scored the goal. That is what I call a real midfielder, a guy who is always in the game.”
The goal typified Wenger’s definition of a complete midfielder; “that means he can defend, give the final ball and score”. This often results in him either playing midfielders out of position in the first team on occasion or suggesting that should be the case for those in the Reserves. There’s a constant desire to improve the defective aspects of their game. Even regarding the early development of the aforementioned Fàbregas there was an ongoing aspiration to create an all-round midfield maestro. He demanded that Cesc should “improve on his defensive side because he is naturally an offensive player.” Playing on the right in his nascent career in the red and white, moving to a central role as Vieira departed, and then being thrust forward to take further control of our attacking potency all helped in creating the versatile, well-rounded talent he is today. Sadly, for Gooners, Barcelona are now the club profiting from such versatility and quality.
Anyway, I digress slightly. As with any system, there are drawbacks if the cogs aren’t completely aligned. As Wenger hinted at in his earlier quote of Song he perhaps ventures forward more frequently than is ideal, leaving the defence exposed as a result. Of course, he’s not the only member of the team that is at fault for the record-high tally of goals conceded under Arsène Wenger in the Premier League last season but, as part of the double-pivot, he must share some of that responsibility. Perhaps the system is partly to blame, though, allowing too much freedom so that specialization of roles is almost thrown out of the window at times. The ‘tilting triangle’ requires more intelligence and awareness of both the positions of your own teammates and the opposition than most midfield shapes.
André Villas-Boas, for one, believes such rotational freedom isn’t possible within the familiar high-octane tempo we enjoy so much on these shores leading to these words earlier this summer:
“We decided [rotational freedom] doesn’t work here, so that’s one of the things I have adapted. You lose a little bit of balance in the Premier League if you play that way. Transitions here are much more direct, making the importance of the number six [the holder] to stay in position more decisive.”
With that in mind, is it an option worth considering for Arsenal as well? Of course, Wenger has used a 1-2 shape in midfield before and it certainly has its merits. The most obvious aspect to note, as Villas-Boas mentions, is the presence of an outright defensive midfielder. Immediately, in theory at least, this gives more protection to the defence; previously unclear distinctions between roles instantly given clarity. More important, though, is the effect this has on the overall team shape and strategy.
A 2-1 midfield naturally leads to a 4-4-1-1 formation without the ball, with the no.10 assisting in the first wave of pressing. The midfield will subsequently follow and to remain compact, therefore neutralising space between stratas, the defence should also follow suit. This can result in a relatively high line which naturally leaves gaps in behind but the fact that the team is applying pressure on the ball should negate the ability of the opposition to exploit that space somewhat. Of course, teams can also practice a more reactive strategy with the defence and midfield dropping deeper without the ball, forming two banks of four. This is an attempt to reduce the space the trequartistas of this world thrive in but the best can still find room to operate effectively in this system.
Arguably, this isn’t so much the case with a 1-2 midfield. The no.6, operating deeper, can block some of the holes that emerge between the lines and keep a closer eye on wandering opposition 10’s. Furthermore, his presence can allow for further pressing higher up the pitch with greater numbers while still providing security on the counter. In extreme cases a 3-4-3 shape can be formed, with the holding midfielder dropping into defence, allowing the full backs to press on as the wide men have done ahead of them.
The altered positioning of the full backs within the 4-3-3/4-1-2-3 can take some time to adjust to, as Gael Clichy especially noted while we implemented that system, but in the long run it’s a shape that can pay off with the right personnel. It has its advantages when in possession as well as off-the-ball. Again depending on personnel, creative responsibility can be apportioned with the 2 more attacking midfielders sharing the load of a traditional no.10. Admittedly, that’s one less individual than in our current interpretation of the midfield shape (as at times all seem to wander forward!) but it still allows for a degree of freedom while keeping a firm eye on the defensive aspect of the game. Balance, as ever, is key to our fortunes.
We saw a brief look into the possible future of the Arsenal midfield at the back-end of the 10/11 season with Manchester United’s visit to the Emirates. Ramsey, Wilshere and Song formed the central trio that day and the presence of the former meant a change in our usual midfield shape. Whereas Fàbregas played as the clear no.10, Ramsey played a deeper role, taking it in turns with Wilshere to support the central striker, Robin van Persie. Alex Song’s role was more defined, and as our no.17 performed the role of a traditional no.6 in the system, he gave the stability and balance that Jack and Aaron required to exert their own creative influence on the game. It was fitting that Ramsey should score the winner; a triumph not only for his attacking thrusts but for the midfield shape.
We saw the Ramsey-Wilshere axis grow as a unit in the preseason of 11/12 but, unfortunately, that partnership would then be broken once again due to Wilshere’s injury, the ongoing nature of which is certainly a worry. Nevertheless, all being well, it’s clearly an option that Arsène sees prospering in the future. Of course, circumstances can change; the call of fans for signings to add that extra creative guile in the heart of midfield will seemingly never abate. One could certainly provide a strong case for such an investment but that argument will be left for another day, as will suggesting specific members of the current squad for certain roles any further than has been done already. The crux of this piece is shape and any alteration, albeit even a small one, could change things for the better.
Whether change is actually enacted is another matter. Realistically, the likelihood is that Arsène will stick with the rotational freedom that the double-pivot provides. That’s perfectly understandable and arguably the best option moving forward given its fundamental flexibility allowing for both defensive and offensive pivots. The question shouldn’t necessarily be “1-2 or 2-1?” but how best to marry the two. The missing ingredient at the moment is a complete understanding between teammates of their individual responsibilities as the shape continually shifts. If such understanding can be found it’ll be a joy to watch the triangle tilt in seasons to come.