By Ewan Roberts
The January transfer window has been dominated by rumours linking Arsenal with strikers, with moves for David Villa, Edinson Cavani and Adrian Lopez all mooted, but the club could actually benefit most from the recruitment of a defensive midfielder.
Since the departure of Alex Song, and in the absence of the frequently injured Abou Diaby, Arsene Wenger has deployed Mikel Arteta as his ‘destroyer’, but the cultured Spaniard has little of the robustness, drive or energy needed to power a Premier League midfield.
Further to that, as counterintuitive as it seems, the addition of an energetic, dogged holding player could be the key to unlocking Arsenal’s offensive potential.
Arteta’s calmness and composure on the ball is undoubted – he has averaged more passes per game (85.1) than any other player, with a league high 92.6% success rate – but he provides little forward impetus to an Arsenal team brimming with ever-so-slightly superfluous playmakers who are more content to conserve possession than play a high-risk, potentially defence-unlocking pass.
Just 27% of Arteta’s passes have been forward, which is considerably lower than other volantes such as Mark Noble (40.6%), Gareth Barry (39.9%), Michael Carrick (35.7%) and Yaya Toure (30%).
“A player with the raw, visceral dynamism of Diame would bring another mode of penetration to Arsenal’s midfield”
Being deployed deeper does not have to mean a player is more restricted in his use of the ball (take Song last year for example, who played a massive 48% of his passes forward, and notched 11 assists), and Arteta’s metronomic ball retention comes at the expense of probing, penetrative passing.
The ex-Evertonian also lacks the tenacity and aggression Arsenal have been accustomed to in the past (the pinnacle being Patrick Vieira). Wenger himself has noted the importance of the player most like Vieira in his current squad.
“Diaby is an important part of the puzzle in our team because he adds qualities that we need in the middle of the park,” he said.
“He has power and long strides. Diaby is the closest to Patrick Vieira in his style that we have seen for a long time.”
Prior to the Gunners’ 10-man defeat against Manchester City, the north London club had conceded just once in Diaby’s 338 minutes on the pitch. With Arteta in a holding role, and Diaby absent, Arsenal have conceded a goal every 66.4 minutes (with Song last year, that figure was 78.9).
But Arsenal cannot rely on Diaby. The 26-year-old has completed 90 minutes in the league just six times since August 2010. Arsenal need a player with the qualities that the Frenchman possesses, but with more reliable fitness. Step forward Mohamed Diame.
Diame is an uber-physical, ground-gobbling whirlwind, far removed from the often passive Arteta. The Spaniard’s football ability resides in his head, not his body. He is a footballer first and an athlete second (and at 30 years old, he is no spring chicken) – the opposite is true of Diame, though the former Wigan player is deceptively elegant on the ball.
The Senegalese midfielder has engaged in ground duels almost twice as often as Arteta, and attempted a tackle every 19 minutes (compared to 25 minutes for the Spaniard). While Arteta has been dribbled past 22 times, Diame has only been beaten on seven occasions.
Additionally, 36% of Diame’s passes are forward, and he has completed 33 of 58 dribbles – a significant improvement on Arteta’s 12 attempted dribbles. Diame is a player who could provide more forward impetus, driving towards goal, breaching the midfield bank and removing them from the next stage of construction.
There is a sense that Arteta himself would benefit from being pushed forward into a more advanced role. Last year, devoid of defensive shackles thanks to the presence of Song, 43% of Arteta’s passes were forward (16% higher than this year) and he created a chance every 49 minutes (he has averaged a chance every 90 minutes this season).A more energetic, destructive central midfielder would allow Arsenal’s full-backs to get forward with greater adventure too. Take Barcelona, who can deploy any of Sergio Busquets, Javier Mascherano or Alex Song in a holding role, which grants enormous freedom to the team’s full-backs. As such, no player has notched more assists (81) in La Liga than Dani Alves in the last 10 seasons, while last year, 63.5% of the Brazilian’s touches were in the opposition’s half.
That is a far cry from the output of Bacary Sagna this season, whose contribution as an attacking outlet has declined since the departure of Song. Once considered the best right-back in the Premier League, it is a debate he rarely features in anymore.
Sagna has created fewer clear-cut chances (one every 990 minutes this year, one every 340 minutes last year,), averaged fewer accurate cross (one every 141 minutes compared to one every 85 minutes), and won possession less frequently in the attacking third – which suggests he was fielded higher up the pitch last year and allowed to play with greater abandon due to the cover and support offered by Song.
As a whole, Arsenal’s defensive unit have scored just twice this season, but that same collective bagged 12 goals last year (the majority from open play).
While the introduction of Diame will not turn Sagna into Dani Alves, it could afford the Gunners’ full-backs more license to join the attack, which would play to the strengths of Olivier Giroud.
Sagna and Kieran Gibbs have played, combined, just 19 accurate crosses. At Everton, where David Moyes instructs his full-backs to overlap (and with the security of a robust, protective midfield), Seamus Coleman and Leighton Baines have played a combined 46 accurate crosses from open play.
But Giroud, at 6ft 4in, thrives off aerial deliveries, which he has not received enough of. Only seven attackers (three of whom play for Stoke) have won more aerial duels per game than Giroud (3.1), and his aerial duel win rate of 54.87% betters the likes of Steven Fletcher, Jonathan Walters, Marouane Fellaini, Grant Holt and Demba Ba.
Headers have been 50% of the French striker’s league goals (just one of Robin van Persie’s 30 league goals last year was with his head), and if the presence of Diame could encourage greater productivity from Arsenal’s full-backs and the opportunity for more accurate delivery, then Giroud could benefit hugely.
A player with the raw, visceral dynamism of Diame would bring another mode of penetration to Arsenal’s midfield, offer more “in-your-face” pressing and tackling, allow the Gunners’ attackers and full-backs to get forward with greater abandon and even, perhaps, unlock the goalscoring potential of Giroud.
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