Arsenal 2011-12 Season Review – Midfield
In possibly the most turbulent pre-season of Arsene Wenger’s reign at Arsenal, the summer of 2011 saw the departures of three midfielders who had played greater or lesser roles in the 2010-11 campaign.
While the Fabregas and Nasri moves hogged the headlines, Denilson was quietly shipped away on loan to São Paulo as well. Arsenal fans were still deliberating why matters were not resolved sooner when injury added to the inquest – Jack Wilshere was ruled out with a stress fracture and the ailing Abou Diaby was sidelined indefinitely. The deadline day parachuting of Mikel Arteta and Yossi Benayoun was welcomed but seemed too little too late.
After the initial havoc caused by the United loss and the result against Blackburn, our preferred midfield combination shaped up as two deep-lying players in Arteta and Song with either Ramsey or Rosicky in the attacking role in front of them. The Welshman was preferred in the first half of the season but Tomas’ sensational form since February meant it was the Czech who finished the season as first choice. Yossi Benayoun was sparsely used in 2011 but became a more integral part of the team since the new year.
Once Arteta and Song developed an understanding, Arsenal started grinding out results with a little help from Robin van Persie. Contrary to what most of expected, it was Arteta who assumed a deeper position while Song grew more attack minded.
As an attacking threat, the Cameroonian had a breakout season. His 11 assists are the fourth highest in the league while he tops the league in accurate through-balls per game (0.7). Even aesthetically, some of the pin-point dinked passes to RvP and Walcott were a joy to behold, as was this superb assist against Dortmund.
Song has been criticized for neglecting his defensive duties though, and his performances in the last few games were not the best. I feel one can attribute that to fatigue as well – Alex made the second most appearances (46) of all Arsenal outfield players and has played 26 consecutive games now since Christmas.
Mikel Arteta was arguably one of Arsenal’s best performers alongside Robin van Persie and Laurent Koscielny. The Spaniard tops the Premier League in passes per game (76.9) and boasts an impressive completion rate of over 90%. Besides his incredible ability to retain possession and supply the ball to players in attacking areas, Mikel also weighed in with 6 goals himself, one of them this crucial winner against City.
Arteta’s work rate and defensive contribution were also important. Mikel’s solid performances in covering Song allowed the Cameroonian to express himself with much more freedom. Besides his technical qualities, Mikel also brought experience and a calm presence to the team – an attribute that was required during difficult times when we were trying to get back into games or trying to close them out. The fact that the final game of the season at West Brom was the only one that Arsenal won without the Spaniard in the team is testament to his importance.
Aaron Ramsey endured a difficult first full season after returning from his leg break. He bore the brunt of criticism from supporters in the latter part of the campaign, as his dip in form coincided with the rise of Tomas Rosicky’s. However, the Welshman’s stats compare quite favorably to the Czech midfielder – in the league, Ramsey has a better pass completion percentage (86%/83%), less minutes per shot (52/88) and more goals scored (3/2) than Rosicky. He also scored an important goal against Marseille in injury time during the Champions League group stages.
Memories are short so many supporters have forgotten that during Arsenal’s 10-game unbeaten run from mid-October to late November, it was Ramsey who made the bigger contribution with seven starts as compared to Rosicky’s two. I think what affected our perception towards him was the lack of potency in his attacking intent combined with his poorer defensive capabilities.
Tomas Rosicky’s first half form was not special and he remained on the fringes of the starting eleven. Since February though, the Czech international has been in scintillating form. A fantastic performance against Spurs at the Emirates was capped off by this wonderfully poached goal, the crucial third which gave Arsenal the lead.
Still, the Czech tapered off in the last few games especially at West Brom where he was substituted at half time. It could have been a slight niggle or just tiredness, but it will be an area of concern for Arsene Wenger – will Tomas be able to produce a sustained spell of good form next season?
Yossi Benayoun stayed on the periphery of the starting eleven as well, mostly making substitute appearances from the bench. Arsene Wenger did not start the Israeli in back-to-back games until that Spurs game in Feb where he was very efficient, which earned him a start at Liverpool in the next match. An ordinary performance at Anfield saw him relegated to the bench again, but Benayoun assumed more importance in the closing stages with AW preferring his technical ability. His early goal against Norwich and the crucial opener at West Brom undoubtedly helped Arsenal’s cause in finishing third.
Frimpong and Diaby did not feature in enough games to form an opinion. Francis Coquelin was more involved, but most of his starts came as cover in the right-back slot. The Frenchman looked very good in all his outings and will definitely be worthy of more regular starts next season.
As a team, Arsenal top the league in terms of possession with 59.6% as compared to second placed City’s 57.7%. A major part of our play is structured around keeping the ball for long periods and building pressure on opponents. In that respect, the midfield did quite well once the personnel settled into the system after early debacles.
Of course, our problems have stemmed from conceding too many goals and in this, Arsenal’s midfield has been as culpable as the defense. There was a period of good solidity in October and November, but it has progressively worsened to the extent that in the last few games, it was being assumed that Arsenal were likely to ship at least as many as they would score.
Work needs to be done on the training ground to prepare the players to deal with various situations that may develop when we lose the ball. At the same time, the players themselves have to take onus in maintaining discipline when going forward and use a little more common sense when we need to see a game out. Too many times, we gave the ball away cheaply after taking the lead and exposed ourselves with some sloppy marking and tracking back.
In terms of personnel, it will be interesting to see how Arsene Wenger sees the line up in midfield next season. If Jack Wilshere is fit by the start of the season, AW will have to decide whether to play him a deeper role or as an attacking midfielder. I suspect the manager will play Wilshere behind the striker with Rosicky and Ramsey providing back up.
If a holding midfielder such as Yann M’Vila were to arrive, it would mean Song and Arteta would vie for a place as the more forward of the two deep-lying midfielders. Francis Coquelin will provide back up for the new defensive midfielder.
Which leaves Abou Diaby – I think he’ll get one more season to see if he can sustain an injury-free spell. If he can maintain a run of games without breaking down, it will give his manager a problem of plenty.
Back tomorrow. Enjoy your day.