18 March 2013

Stuck in the Middle

So much attention has been paid to our offense and defense that it seems we're simply assuming that the midfield will be fine--a middle-child syndrome if ever there was one. While we fret and moan about how we defend and score (or don't do enough of either), the midfielders just quietly go about their business (unless it's Cazorla or Wilshere making some noise) without drawing much attention. That's a shame, not just because of how important the midfield is in general, but to Arsenal's style in particular.

I confess to being partial to midfield. Having played there for most of my own career, I've come to look down a bit on the other positions. You can only cover half the field? Pfft. Even in a total football-esque approach such as Arsenal's, one in which all players are expected to cover more ground, defenders pressing forward on attack and forwards tracking back on defense, it's the midfielders who play endline to endline game in, game out. An energetic midfielder might run up to 10 miles in a game, or so it's been said. Whatever the true number is, our midfielders do a lot of work for precious little gratitude.

The real problem, though, is who we have and how they play. In the current formation, essentially a 4-2-3-1, there are five midfield positions to fill and nine players to fill them. This feels like a bit much, or at least a whole lot of quantity in place of quality:
  1. Arteta
  2. Cazorla
  3. Coquelin
  4. Diaby
  5. Podolski
  6. Oxlade-Chamberlain
  7. Ramsey
  8. Rosický
  9. Wilshere
What's more, I look at the list and, although I do like many of these players, I really only see two who are game-changers or could be game-changers: Cazorla and Wilshere. Cazorla's performance against Swansea, for example, was masterful. We so far have not missed Wilshere much, and although he has had fewer goals, his impact on matches has been invaluable. Beyond this, though, we have a longer list of players who are solid or decent or reliable at best. That might be good enough for a holding midfielder or defensive midfielder; Arteta, for example, excels in such a role. What seems to be lacking then, is the kind of electricity and transcendence we've come to expect from our midfielders. From this list, how many of them can generate that electricity or achieve something transcendent? 

I know that looking back at past players--Vieira, Pirès, Brady, Ljungberg, etc.--gives them an unfair advantage. Many of them played during some truly historic years (and those years are historic precisely because of how rare they are). In the time that has passed, the facts have evolved into legend, and current players like Cazorla or Wilshere have achieved moments that, as they marinate over time, will become similarly epic in our hearts and minds.

However, even they struggle to manufacture something out of thin air in ways that announce once and for all that opposing teams simply must plan around our players out of desperate fear for what could happen. In time, Wilshere can grow into that role. So too may Oxlade-Chamberlain or Diaby, for that matter. I'm not saying we should dump the rest and rebuild. Maybe I am. I don't know what I want. With time, the players we have just might grow into the kind of players we remember fondly a decade from now and memorialize with a statue or two. Heck, in the nine games we have left, maybe one of them will pull a goal out of thin-air, a game-changing and season-defining goal that elbows its way into a "Ten Best Arsenal Goals of All Time" list, and I will happily eat my words. In fact, I'm looking forward to having to do exactly that.