Why Mikel Arteta Is the Unsung Hero for Arsenal
Mikel Arteta is giving Arsene Wenger quite a headache at the moment.
When the Spaniard succumbed to a calf injury on the eve of the season, Arsenal fans were understandably nervous. Arteta had been the team's Rock of Gibraltar throughout the preceding season, and there were really no players on the team who could compensate for the loss.
Yet much of this worrying was unfounded. Mathieu Flamini proved a credible replacement while Arteta rehabilitated, and it was easy to forget that such an important player was not eligible for selection.
But when Arteta returned, Wenger remembered.
The manager did not immediately thrust Arteta back into the team as he might have during seasons past—because of the fitness and form of key players like Flamini, Jack Wilshere, Aaron Ramsey and Mesut Ozil, Wenger had the luxury of softening Arteta's reintroduction to Premier League football.
Uefa stats give Arsenal 561 passes completed (Napoli, 336). Mikel Arteta with the best ratio: 99% completion rate on 76 attempted passes— Sam Wallace (@SamWallaceIndy) October 1, 2013
Now, Arteta is back to full fitness, or something approaching it, and it is evident that Wenger is willing to drop players in excellent form to fit his talisman into his midfield.
Arsenal fielded one of their more peculiar attacking lineups in recent memory against West Brom last weekend. Olivier Giroud served as the team's only striker, as is almost always the case, but he was not flanked by any specialized wingers.
Instead, Wenger played a 4-2-3-1 formation with five central midfielders—a move reminiscent of the 4-6-0 alignment Vicente del Bosque used during Euro 2012.
Theo Walcott, Santi Cazorla and Lukas Podolski are all injured. Serge Gnabry, who put on a scintillating show during his first Premier League start a week before, and Ryo Miyaichi were left on the bench.
Wilshere and Ramsey assumed their roles on the left and right wing, respectively. Wilshere was understandably underwhelming, and Ramsey endured his first mediocre game of the season.
But Arteta was included in the starting XI. Wenger evidently deemed that more important than moving Wilshere or Ramsey back to their natural positions and inserting a natural winger.
These are not two mutually exclusive choices, of course; Flamini could have been sacrificed instead. But the Frenchman's outstanding form since returning to Arsenal on a free transfer would have rendered such a decision foolish and detrimental to the completeness of the team. Wenger acknowledged (via Arsenal.com) that Flamini mitigates some of the Gunners' defensive frailty.
Arteta was reinserted into the team because he occupies a specific niche within the squad. Although Flamini comes close to replicating some of the attributes that make him so, Arteta is an indispensable starter.
No other player on Arsenal's payroll is capable of, or disciplined enough to, dictate the pace of a game like he can. The term is degenerating into a bit of a cliche, but Arteta really is Arsenal's metronome when on form—he can hold and protect the ball while under pressure and distribute it after he wriggles away.
The Gunners rely on their ability to retain the ball for significant stretches of time so that they are able to systematically maneuver their way through the opposition's defense. A tremendous amount of Arsene Wenger's footballing philosophy is therefore dependent on Arteta.
And while Flamini has added some critical defensive steel to Arsenal's midfield, Arteta is able to marry the aforementioned with the discipline to stay back and guard against threats.
Ramsey and Wilshere have capably filled this role in the past but not with the Spaniard's dynamism or, frankly, skill. Arteta allows Flamini to push forward when the latter sees the opportunity, and vice versa.
Arteta's ability to simultaneously juggle these normally highly specialized roles has made him one of, if not the foremost leader on the team.
Thomas Vermaelen is still the nominal captain of the side, but the fact that Arteta was awarded the vice-captaincy after spending only one season at Arsenal is remarkable. Moreover, Vermaelen has not regularly marshaled his teammates for months; a transfer of responsibility is natural.
Arteta has certainly not made an unsatisfactory captain when Wenger gives him the armband. He is constantly communicating with his teammates and leading by example. Though he is not a bombastic skipper, he clearly commands respect from those who train and play with him on a daily basis.
Mesut Ozil, Aaron Ramsey, Jack Wilshere and Olivier Giroud understandably receive much more, and more regular, attention for their performances. But Arsene Wenger still rightly regards Arteta as the linchpin of the team.
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