This article was originally meant to be about midfielders Arsenal could sign in January, but to be honest, The Beatles are more likely to re-form and record an entire album of Justin Bieber covers on glockenspiels than Arsenal is to add to their already swollen midfield ranks.
Instead, this will focus on the midfielders who will become vital in January to Arsenal’s chances of getting their hands on some silverware this season; the players who we don’t necessarily think of as players because we so rarely get to see them, but who, remember, are just as much a part of Arsenal Football Club as Santi Cazorla and Thomas Vermaelen.
These are the squad players. Or, as many Arsenal fans seem partial to calling them, “The (Semi) Expendables.”
Now, so far this season one thing we have learned about Arsenal is that when they don’t dominate the midfield, they have trouble cracking opposition defenses: the Chelsea match—where Santi Cazorla’s brilliance and Mikel Arteta’s metronome were forced slightly out of sync by the Blues’ pressing defense—is an excellent example of this.
It isn’t that the front three can’t create; simply that they are more comfortable, assured and effective at finishing than they are at providing.
Thus it would be fair to say that the Gunners’ midfield is possibly the most important cog in the entire machine; a Spartan attack and a Gibraltarian defense are nigh-useless without those three little men in the middle.
However, recent history has proved that the thing that wins you titles—apart from defense—is depth, and it is therefore a comforting thought for Arsenal fans that this focal point of their squad is, if anything, overstaffed. However, to take a look at just how deep their midfield goes—and to what degree they will contribute to ending Arsenal’s drought—we must first take a look at the January fixture list and ascertain just how much football these lads are going to play.
Beginning on January 1 of this year, the following 31 days will probably—depending on results in the Capital One and FA Cups— see Arsenal play eight matches, or roughly one match every four days for a solid month.
Taking into account the fact that the Gunners also have matches on the December 22, 26 and 30, this means that Arsenal will be playing 11 matches in 40 days.
Seven of these 11 matches are in the Premier League, and thus definite. The 11 also includes the Third and Fourth Rounds of the FA Cup, and the semifinals of the Capital One Cup, which are both stages that would be considered par for the Arsenal squad this season.
The Premier League fixtures in this period include matches at home against Manchester City, away at Chelsea and at home against Liverpool. If this sounds familiar, they are the return fixtures of the month gone by, except they’re in January—a month where the going gets tough, and the tough start having to grind out results.
Given past history and the sneaking suspicion that a voodoo hex has been placed upon the Arsenal first team, we can also safely bet that at least one of our first-choice midfielders—and that group is referring here to Mikel Arteta, Santi Cazorla, Abou Diaby and Jack Wilshere—will sustain injuries which will preclude them from any participation at this point.
So, 11 matches in 40 days against at least three very strong teams, and probably more, given the presumed level of competition at this advanced stage of the Carling Cup and the unpredictable nature of the FA Cup. Who, exactly, can we expect to jump into the midfield at a moment’s notice and do the job for the team?
Well, to be honest...all of them. All four of them.
One of the beautiful things about this Arsenal midfield is that for every first-team player there is an almost like-for-like replacement waiting in the wings.
Obviously the replacements are not as good as the starting players—they’re replacements for a reason—but they are an intriguing mixture of old and young, consistent and mercurial, and importantly, they all have a point to prove.
Take the worst-case scenario, for example: in mid-December, Santi Cazorla flicks through a pass against Reading for Giroud to score—a pass of such staggering brilliance that a drunken Reading fan storms the pitch, and in attempting to calm the man down Santi happens to accidentally strain his hamstring, and is out for all of January.
Suddenly, Arsenal are without their most creative playmaker.
But then, from a bemused kaleidoscope of broken English and hopeful sign language, emerges Andrei Arshavin—a mercurial player if ever there was one, but an excellent replacement for the Spanish wizard with a very similar style; one whose strengths lie in technique, skill, close control and incisive passing, albeit at the expense of work ethic.
Another terrible incident: Mikel Arteta goes down with a broken toe. The holding midfield position, which is the foundation of Arsenal’s midfield, is suddenly in jeopardy. But in comes Francis Coquelin.
Now, I don’t think Coquelin is in a position to challenge Arteta for his position quite yet, but when Arsene Wenger spoke of the demise of the defensive midfielder, I could not help but think that he may have been referring at least in part to his newest French prodigy.
Coquelin’s game is very similar to Arteta’s; just watch this video.
He is technically sound; he is energetic; he is an excellent but realistic passer of the ball who is in no danger of suffering the delusions of grandeur which so diluted the effect of a certain ex-Arsenal Cameroonian.
And most importantly, his defensive game is based on anticipation, as opposed to confrontation. The ball, we hear time and again, is much quicker than the man. If a player’s defensive game is fundamentally based around predicting and moving to where the ball will be, as opposed to lunging to where the ball is, he is of much greater use to his team—and particularly in the fabric of Arsenal.
Plus, he has a point to prove. Coquelin has said that he may be forced to move if he doesn’t get some game time this season, and presumably this game time will arrive during a month like January. Even if Arsenal manage to stay injury-free by some miracle, a month containing so many high-stakes matches will surely see many first-team players rested for the cup games, and it is here that Coquelin will have to stake his claim for first-team football.
On with the hypotheses! Let’s say Abou Diaby gets injured (just as surely as the Pope is a Catholic...). Jack Wilshere takes his place, naturally. But even so, as a potential replacement, and as cover for cup matches, Emmanuel Frimpong rises from the ashes.
With a player like Frimpong, Arsenal loses the technical nous of Diaby, admittedly; but they lose nothing in terms of physical presence, and perhaps more importantly, they gain a midfielder with a hunger to do well and show his ability—and the only way a player like Frimpong knows to impress is through working like a dog.
I expect Frimpong to get some significant game time in 2013; he has all the attributes to be a real institution in the Gunners midfield for years to come, and he appears to have an excellent chemistry with his young teammates.
Again, he is not at Diaby’s level yet, and he is a different sort of player to the Frenchman—he is more of a destroyer than a box-to-box.
But these are worst-case scenarios, remember. Let's say Diaby is long-term incapacitated, Wilshere and Arteta are exhausted and being saved for Man City on January 12 and Cazorla still has his pulled hamstring.
Is a midfield of Arshavin in the attack, Frimpong holding and Coquelin playing box-to-box really that morale-destroying? I think it’s pretty good, considering that these are technically the fifth-, sixth- and seventh-choice midfielders.
And that’s not even including the fourth. The Prodigal Son.
One day, Aaron Ramsey will dominate world football. He just needs to figure out where to play first.
But right now he is possibly the most tantalising of all Arsenal’s future prospects.
This is because right now, he is something of an enigma. Despite showing immense ability prior to his injury, Ramsey’s reintroduction into the first team has been rather hit-and-miss.
Despite showing the odd glimpse of his skill as a player, he is yet to settle into an established role in the team, and is instead currently used as a “utility midfielder”—someone who has the technical skill and understanding to play anywhere in the midfield, in an advanced position or on the flanks, but who only starts in situations where Arsenal needs to really dominate the passing of the match, and is otherwise mainly utilized as an amicable and well-disciplined late-game replacement.
Ramsey’s future could be in the box-to-box role, or it could be as the successor to Santi Cazorla in a more advanced position. It really is too early to tell, and he really does have the skill-set to master either of these advanced central midfield positions if he puts concerted and focussed effort into certain areas of his game.
Regardless, he will be an excellent player. That much is, if not certain, extremely likely—and I expect him to come to the absolute fore once Arsenal’s playing schedule condenses.
Ramsey has the ability to dominate quality opposition; in the event of an injury, he would be given a regular starting berth that could build up the kind of confidence that jump-starts players’ careers.
But that is speculation, and it is easy to be blindly optimistic when speculating. It is more likely that Ramsey will only start in cup matches, but even if he only starts in cup matches, Arsenal are losing almost no potency with Ramsey in the side. He has a passing range that closely resembles Wilshere’s in its scope and a quickness of feet that even Cazorla probably lacked at 21.
He would be most at home deputizing for Cazorla but should the box-to-box position become a problem, I don’t imagine Arsenal fans would consider this a drastic step down.
So, this has been long and convoluted, but the best way to sum it up would be to compare the depth of Arsenal’s midfield to that of Manchester United, and see what we find.
Mikel Arteta is injured, Arsenal can rotate Francis Coquelin, Emmanuel Frimpong, Abou Diaby and Jack Wilshere, all of whom I am certain could play the holding midfielder role admirably.
Abou Diaby gets injured. Jack Wilshere automatically takes his place with Ramsey, Coquelin and Arteta also more than capable of deputizing.
Michael Carrick is injured. In comes Tom Cleverley, Paul Scholes or Ryan Giggs.
Two of those players are older than my seventh-form music teacher. And she’s 36.
Attack, as they say, wins matches, and defense wins titles, but the success of the attack and the defense is dictated by the midfield.
And if Arsenal has something in the trophy cabinet by the season’s end, you can bet your bottom dollar it will be largely down to the depth of talent and proven quality that Arsenal have stacked their nucleus with.