Michael Cox recently argued that what we’re seeing early on in this year’s Premier League is a shift toward a more defensive brand of football caused by a mixture of new management and European heartache.
Jose Mourinho, David Moyes and Manuel Pellegrini have arrived at England’s three largest clubs and with them they’ve brought a more defensive, cautious approach to the game, as anyone who saw the 0-0 draw between United and Chelsea knows quite well. But it’s not just these top three sides that look more defensive this season.
Two years ago, Tottenham’s midfield featured Luka Modric pulling the strings from the back with Rafael van der Vaart roaming up top. This year’s squad includes four more traditional center mids who are best described as either a conventional destroyer (Etienne Capoue and Sandro) or a box-to-box runner (Mousa Dembele and Paulinho).
While it’s true that Lewis Holtby and Christian Eriksen offer some creative spark, both are new to the Premier League in 2013 and will take some time to acclimatise – although Eriksen’s debut against Norwich was quite promising for Spurs’ supporters.
Likewise, with a healthy Lucas back in the frame, a reinvigorated Kolo Toure at the back, and an in-form Simon Mignolet in goal, Liverpool likewise look primed to play a more defensively sound brand of football this year. The thrills should still be there with an attacking four that will likely feature Daniel Sturridge supported by Victor Moses, Philippe Coutinho, and Luis Suarez, but the attacking four will play in front of a sturdy, functional and largely unimaginative back six.
What this means is that it may fall to Arsenal to carry the torch as the Premier League’s fastest, most entertaining side–and with the acquisition of Mesut Ozil and the rise of Aaron Ramsey in midfield, the Gunners just might be up to the task.
The only way is Arsenal?
Arsenal have always been a fairly fluid team under Arsene Wenger, of course, sometimes dismissively referred to as “Barcelona Lite” but this year’s squad may be their most intriguing since their heyday in the early 2000s.
Those squads, of course, included Dennis Bergkamp, Thierry Henry, Freddie Ljungberg and Robert Pires and arguably pioneered the strikerless formation while, at times, playing a formation that almost looked like a 2-4-4.
Obviously the talent level with this Arsenal squad is not the same – Olivier Giroud is no Bergkamp, Theo Walcott is no Henry, Santi Cazorla is not on the level of their wide forwards, and so on.
But with capable players playing a coherent system and the finest number 10 in the world pulling the strings, this Arsenal side should exceed the performances of the teams of the late 2000s and early 2010s, teams that were routinely carried by a single iconic talent, first Cesc Fabregas and later Robin van Persie.
What makes this Arsenal side so intriguing is that when you look at their players likely to feature in the attacking four, only two play a single position. Ozil, Cazorla, Podolski, Walcott, and Oxlade-Chamberlain can all slot into multiple roles in the side.
Giroud, as the striker and Rosicky, as a no. 10, are the only ones limited to one primary position, and even Rosicky could, like Jack Wilshere, be deployed in a deeper central midfield role. In practice, Arsenal’s starting XI will likely look like this:
Off the bench, Rosicky can provide quality cover for Ozil, Arteta provides a steadying presence in midfield, Oxlade-Chamberlain can play across the attacking three, Mathieu Flamini provides cover in midfield and at fullback, and Lukas Podolski can play on the left or up top, allowing Cazorla to play more centrally or even on the right. The point here is that Arsenal has an enviable and intriguing number of potential attacking lineups up top.
No holding midfielder
To be sure, City, United, Chelsea, and Spurs can all play several very different groups up top as well. But what makes Arsenal unique, in comparison, is that midfield. With the exception of Flamini, who won’t be expected to start regularly, this squad doesn’t feature a conventional holding midfielder.
Rather, they feature Wilshere, a scrappy combative midfielder capable of controlling a game when on form, an ascendant Ramsey who has looked a top class player since the end of last season, and Mikel Arteta, the closest thing the Premier League has to a Nuri Sahin or Ilkay Gundogan type player, a midfielder who breaks up play with intelligence and interceptions rather than hard tackles and who sets the pace with steady passing. But even so, Arteta is not a conventional holding midfielder (nor is he on the level of Gundogan).
Arsenal, therefore, are alone amongst the big six in not having a top level defensive midfielder. For their gamble to pay off, Arsenal will need three things to happen:
1) They’ll need their back line to stay healthy. They have minimal depth behind Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny. If either of them go down, they’ll need to either hope for a resurgent Thomas Vermaelen to step in and recover his form or they’ll need to slide in Bacary Sagna at center half and hope that Carl Jenkinson is able to perform at right back.
2) They’ll need to be able to manage the pace of games. This does not necessarily mean posting high possession numbers, of course. Anyone who saw the North London Derby could tell you that Spurs’ 57% possession didn’t tell the story. Arsenal were well organised, compact, and didn’t give Spurs many places to go with the ball, so even though they were sitting back, they still managed to control the pace.
What allowed them to do that was the quick pressing of Rosicky, which saw him routinely take the ball off the slower Capoue or Paulinho, Santi Cazorla’s more central positioning, and the intelligent movement and positioning of Wilshere (then Flamini) and Ramsey in midfield.
3) Arsenal will need to score a higher number of goals. This isn’t a team designed to grind out 1-0 wins. While it’s true that Mertesacker and Koscielny have formed a sound partnership and Ramsey, Wilshere and Arteta are all surprisingly capable at the base of the midfield, it’s also true that high-flying teams tend to not be extremely well organised defensively. (Supporters of Arsenal’s north London rivals are nodding grimly at this point.)
So there will likely be gaffes as well as goals that are conceded simply as a consequence of the increased pace at which Arsenal is likely to play.
Additionally, there’s the matter of Wojciech Szczesny in goal. While Szczesny does occasionally make a spectacular save, no one is going to confuse him for Petr Cech or Gigi Buffon anytime soon. Plus Szczesny is one of the most howler-prone keepers in the Premier League, a fact which will almost certainly cost the Gunners points this year.
So, given those realities, this Arsenal side will need to score a lot. They will likely need 20 goals from Giroud and a combined 35-40 from Walcott, Cazorla, and Podolski. That would get them to 55-60 goals. And if Ozil, Ramsey, Sanogo, Rosicky, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Arteta, and the defenders can chip in another 10-15, that should be plenty.
But the reality for Arsenal is that Chelsea, United, City, Spurs, and Liverpool all look like holding their opponents to around one goal per match. So far United, Spurs, Chelsea, and Liverpool are at .5 goals per game conceded or fewer. Arsenal is already averaging 1.25. So this Gunners team is going to have to be able to win games when they concede 2-3 goals.
Are they capable of it?
Absolutely. But doing that consistently will require clinical finishing from Giroud and Walcott, two players who are rather notorious for wasting gilt-edged chances. Giroud may have turned a corner, but Walcott’s recent effort at Sunderland only underlined his struggles in this department. And it will also require a replication of last year’s performance from Cazorla and Podolski.
It’s all possible – especially with the improved service the players will get from Ozil. But it will be difficult. The good news for neutrals, however, is that even if they fail to reach those lofty numbers, it’s going to be fun watching them try.