Stoke City vs. Arsenal Reaction: Mikel Arteta Thrives in 'Andrea Pirlo' Role

Matthew Snyder@schnides14Analyst IIIAugust 27, 2012

STOKE ON TRENT, ENGLAND - AUGUST 26:  Mikel Arteta of Arsenal controls the ball during the Barclays Premier League match between Stoke City and Arsenal at the Britannia Stadium on August 26, 2012 in Stoke on Trent, England.  (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)
David Rogers/Getty Images

At their most frenzied moments, the peals for a defensive-minded midfielder to be added to Arsenal this summer grew to a deafening din.

At their lowest ebb? A shred of a whisper. The point is, they were always there, and in the wake of central midfielder Alex Song adding his name to the diaspora from north London to Catalunya, they have risen again with a flourish.

In some ways, the Nuri Sahin rumors marked a continuation of the trend. Sahin is anything but a defensive-minded player, but many felt the central area of the pitch needed strengthening at the Emirates.

So why not add Sahin, the thinking went. If Arsenal were to continue stroking passes around on that billiard green at the Emirates, after all, they'll need technicians up to the considerable task.

The move for the Turkish midfielder fell through last week, with Sahin opting instead to join Liverpool on a season-long loan. But where one door closes, the transfer rumor mill simply opens a dozen others.

The newest in the long-line of "replacements" became Newcastle stalwart Cheik Tiote.

While the Tiote rumors (as reported by The Daily Mirror) were an interesting development, the fact that Wenger has effectively nipped them in the bud—and this doesn't smell of his coy approach to the transfer window, meant to throw reporters off the scent, either—seems to effectively negate any potential move for the man currently plying his trade on Tyneside.

In fact, it doesn't seem that Wenger is particularly keen about signing any more midfielders, at least during this window. Partly because he feels he already has the parts at his disposal to weather the loss of Song.

Wenger has said he will only spring for a defensive midfielder if someone "top, top class...completely defensive," pops up. Given his high standards, and the high unlikelihood that one will drop onto his north London doorstep, a move for another mid doesn't seem likely.

But what is perhaps most interesting about many a rumor site's insistence about the need for another midfielder—particularly one of a defensive mentality—is that Wenger himself noted that Song was hardly a defensive midfielder last season, at least in the classic, enforcer-defender nature of the role.

"If you look at the numbers you will see that Song was more of an offensive player than a defensive midfielder (last season)," Wenger had told the club's official site ahead of the Stoke City match.

"(Mikel) Arteta can play deeper—the kind of Pirlo role—and we have (Abou) Diaby who is a very strong defensive player."

Ever one to mention stats—he famously insisted upon them during the most seemingly underwhelming of Andrei Arshavin's seasons—in Song's case the approach takes on a frankly fascinating veneer.

The Cameroonian midfielder led the team in league assists last season with 11—14 if you count all competitions—sending in many an inch-perfect lofted or slide-rule pass (his passes so often led to Robin van Persie's game-saving goals, and his assist for Thierry Henry against Leeds in the FA Cup was the stuff of legend) that effectively oiled the Arsenal engine.

While he seemed the more defensively inclined of Arsenal's midfield trio last season, usually consisting of Song, Arteta and either Tomas Rosicky or Aaron Ramsey, Song never missed an opportunity to launch forward, particularly when results hung in the balance.

In another interview with the club's official site back in April, center-back Thomas Vermaelen revealed that he had developed a sort of "slingshot-type understanding" with Song.

When one would head up to aid the attack, the other would cover and assume the defensive chores, and vice versa.

Song, however, is now gone. But one wonders whether Wenger even needs to add another midfielder during this window, given how good his current three have been to start the season, and the way the midfield is designed to function at present.

The return of Jack Wilshere, he of the fabled No. 10 shirt, to the fold in September or October will give Wenger yet another option, not to mention one that is particularly adept at playing either the holding or box-to-box role.

That Wilshere was one of the best players during Arsenal's 2010-11 season—his first of senior-level football—doesn't exactly hurt matters, either.

In the first two games of this Premier League season, Wenger has gone with Arteta, Diaby and Santi Cazorla in midfield.

None of those three is a classic "defensive midfielder," yet given Arsenal's possession game which, like that of Barcelona's, effectively "defends" through heavy doses of possession—if the other team doesn't have the ball, they can hardly threaten you, after all—and given the morphing nature of the midfield, it has worked very, very well.

Arsenal have yet to concede a goal this season, with their closest calls a couple of half-chances by Sunderland in the opener and a Jonathan Walters goal for Stoke that was called back for offside.

The threesome have already developed a good understanding—each can track back in defense when need be (obviously, Cazorla stays farther forward)—with Arteta and Diaby showing a terrific tackling proficiency.

So Is Another Mid Needed?

Which brings us back to the idea of Arteta occupying the 'Pirlo' role for Arsenal this season.

The Spaniard is a master technician—that much was proved last season, when he integrated himself almost seamlessly into the side after his deadline-day move from Everton—but he combines that alacrity toward distribution and possession with a rugged defensive output that, quite frankly, few midfielders can contend with.

Against Stoke on Sunday, Arteta was everywhere, occupying his defensive duties with zeal during a first half that saw Arsenal produce a markedly better performance against the Potters' attack than had been seen in recent seasons.

It was a mirror image of his tremendous performance against Sunderland the week before, and while fans voted Cazorla "Man of the Match" on the official website, it was telling that Arteta finished second in the polling, taking 16 percent of the vote.

Arteta's work rate, his tackling and his re-distribution were nearly impeccable, and while those contributions can go unnoticed in relation to Cazorla's attacking acumen, it can be argued that the former's performance was far more instrumental toward earning that point on Sunday.

I could count only one glaring passing mistake Arteta made all game, and it led to nothing particularly threatening from a Stoke perspective.

And considering that Arteta more than made up for it with a sublime bit of play in the 61st minute, when he gathered possession deep in the Arsenal third near the sideline, it became infinitely more difficult to hold him at fault.

Navigating away from two or three Stoke defenders, Arteta pirouetted impeccably before launching toward the Stoke goal and launching a move into space that ended in an Arsenal corner.

It was the sort of subtlety—no flash, just pure endeavor—for which Pirlo has become so well known in his own illustrious career.

The Italian maestro normally operates in a deep-lying central role in front of the central defense for both club and country, and while he is granted freedom to bomb forward into the attack—you're likely to see him foray into the wide regions and penalty area on occasion—his first duty is to spread play and stem attacking advances, something he does with near-impeccable ease.

It spoke to the trust now-banned Juventus manager Antonio Conte had in the Italian that he effectively gave him the keys to the Bianconeri midfield last season. So much responsibility befalls Pirlo, yet he shows nary a sign of suffering under that burden. Rather, he thrives amidst the responsibility.

With the arrival of Santi Cazorla to Arsenal, Arteta is relieved somewhat of seeing the "playmaker" tag fall squarely on his shoulders, but he still is called upon to distribute possession. Which, of course, he has done superbly since arriving himself early last season.

His play this campaign has seemed to convince Wenger that he doesn't really need another mid. Which is quite an achievement, if you think about it.


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