The 31-year-old Spaniard came back into the side in midweek last week against West Brom in the League Cup after missing the start of the season with a hamstring injury.
In his absence, Gunners boss Arsene Wenger deployed the newly resigned Mathieu Flamini as the holding midfielder of his central trio, anchoring the play and protecting the backline as Arteta had been last term.
On Tuesday evening we got to see the pair start together and, as the scoreline suggests, they were hugely influential in the game and, crucially, successful as a partnership. They reminded me of Arsenal legends Patrick Vieira and Emmanuel Petit who combined to such powerful and dominant effect for the Gunners in the late 1990s.
Arteta and his French colleague Flamini are smaller in stature that their predecessors who, lining up in the tunnel, had the physiques to scare the living daylights out of their opponent even before the first whistle.
However, their slighter structures aside, the pair have the ability to function in a very similar way to Vieira and Petit – they both have exceptional technical ability, vision and passing, they have great stamina and durability to charge up and down the pitch for 90 minutes, they have the ability to get themselves forward and score goals either from distance or contribute to the build-up play and they both combine these attacking qualities with immense intelligence and reading of the game.
Their anticipation to intercept, cut balls out and diffuse dangerous situations when Arsenal are without the ball is something Arsene Wenger hasn’t really had in his sides midfield since Flamini left in 2008 – even the likes of Alex Song, Denilson, Aaron Ramsey and Jack Wilshere do not and have not had quite the supreme protective qualities, the experience and understanding of the game to take on those defensive responsibilities in the void left by the Gunners’ departed Frenchmen.
Here’s a statistical perspective on Tuesday’s game – between the pair of them, Flamini and Arteta accounted for 29 per cent of Arsenal’s attempted tackles, 38 per cent of Arsenal’s total interceptions, 13 per cent of the Gunners’ total clearances, and yet they contributed 22 per cent of Arsenal’s attempted passes.
Arteta was operating at 95 per cent pass completion rate and Flamini’s was a whopping 96 per cent – that’s almost complete accuracy on top of their defensive contributions.
Flamini’s tackle success rate was 75 per cent and Arteta’s a little behind at 33 per cent but when you consider their combined defensive contribution was 26.5 per cent of the team’s overall defensive work, you get the picture that these two are taking on more than a quarter of the collective responsibility for the clean sheet and just under a quarter of the collective retention of the ball.
I think a fully fit Mikel Arteta will see an improvement in his tackling but, other than that, he looked sharp and match-fit.
With Wenger’s wealth of options in midfield – the superb form of Ramsey, the leadership capabilities and passing quality of Jack Wilshere, the creativity of Tomas Rosicky and Mesut Ozil, the options once Santi Cazorla, Theo Walcott, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Lukas Podolski return will be almost outrageous. That’s without even taking into account the unknown quantity of youngster Serge Gnabry.
But, whoever Wenger opts to rotate in and out of his midfield over the course of the season, the pairing of vice-captain Arteta and the player one would have expected to be his competitor in that position, Flamini are actually a great partnership that I would expect, especially following a result and performance like that with them in together, Wenger will play them both when it comes to the big games.
They are the kind of players that will go head-to-head and put their bodies on the line in the big games – they can contribute in attack, keep the ball, pass creatively, and, crucially, protect the backline.
If you imagine Arsenal playing the likes of Manchester City with Yaya Toure or Manchester United with Wayne Rooney, that ability to read the game, anticipate the danger and then shut it down, eliminate it or, at the very least, put it off a bit, Mikel Arteta and Mathieu Flamini are worth their weight in gold to Arsenal this season, just like Patrick Vieira and Emmanuel Petit were when Arsenal won the league title for the first time under Arsene Wenger back in 1997/98.
image: © Ronnie Macdonald