In the yesteryear, Arsene Wenger lined up a formidable 4-4-2 formation that had the right balance in defense, midfield and attack.
Using the Invincibles of the 2003/04 season as a classic example, the defense had rock-solid personnel that instilled fear in opposition forwards, the midfield had a mix of doggedness, aggression, panache, flair and creativity and the attackers smashed in goals with ruthless and clinical efficiency.
As the years went by, Wenger changed his approach, fixing his focus on his team’s technical side, which involved passing the ball around intricately before unlocking defenses with that killer through ball for a teammate. With this approach, the manager sacrificed a striker to accommodate an extra midfielder, thus the 4-2-3-1 formation came into fruition.
Wenger used this formation to bring out the best in his prized asset, Cesc Fabregas, and his 19 goals as well as numerous assists in the 2009/10 season epitomized the fact that Arsenal had resolved its football around its Spanish creative hub in midfield. After his flirtations with Barcelona, El Capitan departed North London, but the formation remained intact.
Soldiers come and go but the barracks still remain intact, I presume.
Deploying Aaron Ramsey as the creative outlet in the 2011/12 season with Mikel Arteta and Alex Song providing the fulcrum was regarded as a failed experiment as the Welshman became a lightning rod for vitriol from the Arsenal faithful. Tomas Rosicky’s renaissance was a bright spark in a relatively dark campaign and a third place finish was meant to pave the way for good things to come.
This season, the Gunners acquired the services of Santi Cazorla and to everyone’s surprise, Arsenal made their second major sale, when Alex Song joined Barcelona for £15 million. Song’s shock departure caused a stir, but with Arsenal not bringing in any replacements, Arteta took one for the team, curbing his attacking instincts to become the team’s primary holding midfielder.
As the season progressed, Cazorla became the team’s creative lynchpin, while Abou Diaby and Arteta provided the pivot supporting defence and attack. Diaby had his trademark injury layoffs, but players like Aaron Ramsey, Tomas Rosicky and Francis Coquelin put in decent shifts while Jack Wilshere made his comeback from a lengthy injury.
This is the third installment of a four-post series focused on Arsenal’s performances in the 2012/13 season. I’ve already published my ratings on the performances of the goalkeepers and defenders ,but today’s post is focused on Arsenal’s fulcrum in the middle of the park.
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Another season plagued by injury
Abou Diaby’s career went downhill after that horrific tackle in 2006 when Arsenal visited the Stadium of Light. After seeing different specialists all over the globe, Diaby finally managed to get some preseason games under his belt and it was widely believed that he was going to realize his potential with a consistent run out this season.
He began the campaign in the curtain raiser against Sunderland (home) and his physicality was highly welcome when the Gunners visited that Rugby-playing lot in Stoke (away). After his Man of the Match performance against Liverpool (away), everyone ran out of superlatives for the midfielder and comparisons between him and Patrick Vieira came in faster than Usain Bolt’s 100m Olympic World Record.
He was largely disappointing in Arsenal’s away draw against Manchester City (away) but when we thought that Diaby was going to get an extended run of games, he suffered an injury and was sidelined for a considerable chunk of the season.
The lanky Frenchman finally made his return in the home fixture against Manchester City and his rustiness was glaring as he struggled in the game. His poor form continued in the Chelsea loss (away) and he was dropped from therein.
His hot-and-cold season continued when he followed up an outstanding performance against Stoke (home) with a rather disappointing outing in the nervy win over Sunderland. (away). His season came to an abrupt end when the club announced that he had ruptured his cruciate ligament on his knee and he’s to be out for nine months.
What’s the point of having a Lionel Messi in your team if he cannot play. In my honest opinion, I feel very sorry for Diaby but it's high time the club cuts its losses with the Frenchman, as he cannot be banked upon to stay fit when his services are needed.
Coquelin featured sparingly this season
After his stellar performances as a utility player last season, many had hoped that this would be the year of the Coq and with Song out of the equation, everything seemed to be in place for the young Frenchman to finally make his breakthrough.
The midfielder featured sparingly in the Premier League, but got run-outs in the domestic Cup competitions as well as some game time in the Champions League.
As for his performances, the midfielder didn’t light up any fireworks and his sporadic amount of games didn’t help his cause either. Coquelin managed to play 90 minutes in only five games this season with his remaining appearances being bit-part roles as the season progressed.
Till this day, I’m still struggling to understand his introduction for Olivier Giroud when Arsenal needed a goal against Aston Villa (away).
With Schalke reportedly linked (via Tribal Football) with the midfielder, I’d be surprised if he doesn’t jump ship this season.
Ramsey's form in the tail end of the season was vital
If words could kill, Aaron Ramsey would have been in the other realm.
He battled hard to come back to playing football after he was Shawcrossed, but replacing the departed Cesc Fabregas in the attacking midfield role was a big burden for his shoulders as he struggled with form and fitness. With Santi Cazorla given the mantle of creativity, Ramsey had to make do with a place on the dugout as he appeared as a substitute in his first five games this season.
Like last season, there were games when Wenger tried to make Ramsey a jack-of-all-trades, but he still a master of none. However, he put up a very decent shift when he was deployed as a right winger in the 1-1 draw with Manchester City (away). Abou Diaby’s unfortunate and untimely injury in the game against Chelsea (home) afforded Ramsey a chance to get more games under his belt.
He marked his return with a delicious chip against Olympiakos, but thankfully no famous figurehead gave up the ghost.
Jack Wilshere’s long-awaited return to the team saw Ramsey spend some time on the bench, but the lad always put up good shifts when he was summoned. He supplied an inch-perfect assist to Theo Walcott in the 1-1 draw against Everton (away), and a neat assist to Gervinho in the win over Swansea (away).
Unlike last season where Ramsey tried to over-complicate things by being too stylish on the ball, he kept things simple this season and this improved his game.
According to WhoScored, Ramsey had a pass completion percentage of 88.3 percent in the Premier League, and he also created 44 chances for his teammates. His carefully-weighted pass against Everton (home) certainly caught the eye, but Olivier Giroud’s wayward finish couldn’t match the excellent buildup.
Since his return to the squad in the holding midfield position, Ramsey became a refined player and worked in tandem with Arteta, balancing defense and attack.
His performances were so good to the extent that he was voted as Arsenal’s Player of the Month for the month of April, which is a welcome return from the same fans that rained curses on him in the past.
Ramsey ended the season in full bloom, I certainly hope he builds on this.
Rosicky bloomed in the business end of the season
Tomas Rosicky was one of the best things that happened to Arsenal in the tail end of last season.
After suffering a niggling injury that halted his progress for his nation in Euro 2012, the Czech midfielder went under the knife and didn’t make any appearance for the Gunners until the winter, and to be honest, he wasn’t missed.
The fans had been wowed by the excellent Santi Cazorla, and with his age becoming a factor, a few felt it was high time for Little Mozart to call it quits.
In Rosicky’s first full game this season, he put up a Man of the Match performance in that dead-rubber game against Olympiakos (away) that ended in defeat. He featured sparsely after that game, but he came to life in spring when the Gunners visited Munich to rock the football world with that spirited victory over Bayern.
With Jack Wilshere out injured, and Santi Cazorla drifted to the left, Rosicky had more games under his belt and was instrumental in Arsenal’s win over West Brom as he scored a well-taken brace. He also supplied an assist to Theo Walcott in the league match against Manchester United.
With Wilshere failing to regain his form after his return from injury, Rosicky continued his extended run of games till the end of the season.
At the age of 32, Rosicky is living on borrowed time, but Arsenal fans can be thankful for Little Mozart as he delivered when he was summoned in the business end of the season.
14 months out of the beautiful game.
For a player like Jack Wilshere that’s known for his passion and zeal for the game, it must have felt like an eternity. With Robin van Persie leaving for Manchester United, the No. 10 shirt was vacated and it seemed as if Lukas Podolski was odds to take the jersey, but it was specially reserved for Wilshere and he expressed his delight in being bestowed with the honor.
When he made his long-awaited return against Queens Park Rangers (home), every touch was appreciated by the Emirates crowd as they saw their No. 10 strut his stuff for the first time in some time.
Things turned sour for the Englishman when he received his marching orders against Manchester United (away), but he learned from those events and scored a goal against Montpellier after some good work from Olivier Giroud.
He continued to put up stellar performances and the assists were flowing in as well, with some defense-splitting passes against Newcastle (home), West Ham (home) and Liverpool (home). The English Press sang his songs in the wake of a high-profile friendly against Brazil in Wembley, and he didn’t disappoint with another magnificent outing for the Three Lions.
Amid all the justified hype around the midfield maestro, things turned very sour when he suffered a thigh strain against Sunderland. Arsenal had harbored hopes of the midfielder playing the home clash against Bayern, so the club doctors had to work their magic on Wilshere.
Wilshere played the game against Bayern and even supplied an assist on the night, but he and his teammates were powerless as the Bavarians outclassed Arsenal at the Emirates.
Wilshere missed the second leg through an injury and never rediscovered his form afterwards, with uncharacteristically appalling outings against Norwich and Everton.
He was replaced by Rosicky and made a couple of substitute appearances towards the end of the season. It’s believed that he requires a surgery this summer to fix up an injury, but it’s good to know that Wilshere’s performances weren’t unnoticed as he was nominated for the 2013 Young Player of the Year (via BBC Sport) award alongside Christian Benteke, Romelu Lukaku, Danny Welbeck, Eden Hazard and Gareth Bale.
Arsenal true skipper
With a pass completion percentage of 91.5 percent, Mikel Arteta ranks among the best passers in European football. With Thomas Vermaelen promoted to the rank of captain, Arteta assumed the mantle of the Verm’s second-in-command and he led the troops whenever the Verm wasn’t available.
With Alex Song leaving for the sunshine of Barcelona, Arsene Wenger tasked Arteta with an unfamiliar holding midfield role, and he excelled admirably in the role this season. In 34 Premier League games, Arteta made 108 tackles, 97 interceptions and 2,750 passes with 2,517 passes reaching their intended target.
Arteta also had the coolest of heads from the penalty spot, converting spot kicks against West Brom (home), Wigan (away), Norwich (home) and Reading (home). He will forever rue his late penalty miss against Fulham (home) that was the difference between three points and one.
His influence on the pitch was unrivaled, and I must confess that my heart skipped a beat when he was forced out of action with an injury in Arsenal’s game of the season against Newcastle.
Arsenal's undoubted player of the season
Arsene Wenger was puzzled to know that Santi Cazorla didn’t make the PFA Team of the Season (via Arsenal.com) and he’s not alone on that argument.
Arsenal fans have been blessed with the sheer brilliance of Santi Cazorla in his debut campaign with the club, and he’ll probably be rated their best signing of the 2012/2013 season.
The Spanish magician has been a model for consistency, and is the Gunner's only player that managed to play in all of Arsenal's 38 Premier League games.
The manager has also spoken about how Cazorla's surprising inaugural season, (via Arsenal.com) citing his consistency and amazing fitness levels in a physically demanding league like the Barclay’s Premier League.
In my honest opinion, he has been a joy to watch and despite how many Gooners have endeared Tomas Rosicky to their hearts, he has spent a considerable chunk of the campaign on the bench due to Cazorla’s imperious form. Cazorla’s versatility has also seen him displace Podolski with Jack Wilshere moved further up the pitch to hone his attacking prowess, which is still a work in progress.
His ambidexterity is a stuff of legends. Like the great Pavel Nedved in the yesteryear, Santi Cazorla can release a surface-to-goal missile from both feet with consummate ease.
12 goals and 12 assists in his debut Premier League campaign is no mean feat, and it’s fair to say that Cazorla has exceeded all expectations.
According to WhoScored, Cazorla fired 115 shots, created 96 chances, attempted 86 dribbles, was fouled 50 times, made 184 crosses and passed the ball 2,471 times with a pass completion percentage of 86.8 percent.
Even if he failed to be recognized by the FA for his amazing exploits this season, you don’t need any soothsayer to tell you who Arsenal’s best player was this season.
So there you have it, the penultimate article focused on different playing positions in the team. The final post on the attack comes up next.